Monday, 26 March 2012

Who's escorting the escorts?

One of the knock ons of the great aircraft carrier saga, has been the decimation of the RN's surface fleet to pay for them.  A succession of First Sea Lords have been forced down the gruel today for jam tomorrow route, justifying ever greater cuts to capability on the basis that it will free up the funds to ensure that in the future we will have enormous great toys with nice planes to fly from them.

In the words of Blackadder, there was one small flaw with this plan.....

Let's consider the fleet as it was when I joined a decade ago:

3 x Invincible Class CVS

9 x T42 destroyers

4 x T22 frigates

and the finishing touches being put to 16 T23 frigates.  I'm pretty sure that there were actually a couple more T22s knocking around, although of the earlier Batch 2 so gunless (my guess would be SHEFFIELD and COVENTRY).  Regardless, this in itself was a massive drawdown from the fleet of 1992, and even more so from that of 1982 - and we should all be aware of what happened in 1982....

Now, it's more like:

1 x Invincible CVS in an LPH role

2 (as of Yesterday with the paying off of LIVERPOOL) Type 42 destroyers

2 (ish) Type 45 destroyers, with another 4 in various stages of completion

13 Type 23 frigates

The surface fleet has been pared to the bone.  Of course, there are bright spots amidst the gloom - for example, the arrival of Type 45.  However, even here, what was supposed to be an order for 12 ships has been reduced to 6.  The staff argument is of course that these new ships are so much more "capable" thn their predecessors that you don't need so many of them.  This is fine (and true, up to a point), but doesn't do much to challenge the fact that, unless DE&S has got some sort of multi-dimensional transporter in development, each one can only be in one place at a time....

However, whatever the shortcomings in terms of hull numbers, and weaponry (the hydra of fitted-for-but-not-with raises one of its many heads again - or rather it doesn't), the Type 45 does represent a quantum leap forward over the kit it replaces.

A certain hard core within the fleet will tell you that there is nothing to beat a batch 1 Type 42 to serve in, and in many ways I'd be minded to go along with that.  My first ship out of Dartmouth was a "stumpy," and frankly we had a whale of a time.  I'd happily go back tomorrow.  The advantage of the Type 42s were that they were pretty "agricultural," in that you could see a lot of what made them tick, and a lot of essential equipment could be maintained with the judicious application of a spanner.  However, there was no denying that by the first half of the last decade they were well and truly obsolescent.  It was just that they were forced to soldier on because MOD procurement was making its usual ham fisted job of getting their successor into service - notice a theme developing here?

Lewis Page would have us believe that there is no rationale for the RN's escorts.  They are expensive ways of showing the flag, and giving aspirant admirals nice shiny toys to play with.  In as much as fast attack craft seem to work well for the Germans and Swedes, I'd go along with us buying some; and there's something to be said for the sort of cheap and cheerful corvettes the French have forward based to protect their overseas territories; but the fact remains that places like the Falklands are a long way away from the home base.  I know the defensive posture down there is based on preventing an attack in the first place, rather than trying to retake them once an invasion has occured, but to properly defend them we do need organic air cover, so we need aircraft carriers.  If we're going to have carriers then they need to be escorted, so we need a good balanced force of frigates and destroyers that will allow us to do that while also maintaining our responsibilities elsewhere in the globe.

What we don't need, but what we could well be about to get, is the world's largest and most expensive LPH (QE), accompanied by a botched CVF (POW) with an airgroup of about 12, and enough escorts to be sure of nothing nasty happening to them while they're all in the Solent.  Which is certainly an interesting definition of "balanced and capable."

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