Rout Britannia?

Max Hastings, a military historian, journalist and former editor of the Daily Telegraph, has had some fairly sharp things to say recently about the Royal Navy. Back in June he called for the Government to rethink its policy on its ‘big acquisitions’ – the RAF Typhoon fighters, the Royal Navy’s carriers HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth (and their concomitant F-35 Lightning-II fighters), and the upgrading of the SSBN fleet, replacing the Vanguard-class bombers with three new boats and upgrading the current Trident II D-5 missile to extend its service life until the early 2040s. The funds saved by cancelling these programmes could, he says, be funnelled into the army and used for ground-level needs: increased training regimens; adequate equipment supply, particularly of consumables (a category into which body armour falls, as it is meant to be replaced, not repaired, as soon as it is damaged); and mobility support in terms of light armoured vehicles and, particularly, helicopters.

Two days ago he returned to this theme, questioning the bravery of the officers and crew of the Royal Navy, particularly with reference to the capture of a British couple by Somali pirates within sight of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker Wave Knight, and the 2007 capture of two RHIB full of sailors and Marines by the Iranian Border Patrol.

A few things need to be cleared up here. There are three things in particular I want to talk about: the 2007 incident, the Wave Knight incident, and the relevence of the carrier acquisition.

The question, always, is “who gets hurt when we fire the guns?” Take the 2007 incident. Here you have 15 Naval personnel of a boarding party (i.e. trained specifically in Maritime CQB, or ‘Close Quarters Battle’) captured, as the papers of the time so disgustedly crowed, ‘without a fight’. Well yes. Fighting, in those circumstances, would have been suicide, and would have been the most shameful display of military idiocy in recent times I can think of. Two RHIBs containing a boarding party equipped with sidearms and SA-80 assault rifles were surrounded by eventually eight patrol boats, the least of which was equipped with heavy machine guns. In those circumstances there was absolutely no fight that could have been offered. Co-operation with their captors and prayers for a diplomatic resolution were the most sensible things the sailors and Marines could have offered, and that is precisely what they did. They weren’t cowards, they just weren’t stupid.

So what of this more recent Wave Knight incident? Why didn’t they fire? Put simply, they couldn’t.

Examine the tactical scenario with me: Wave Knight herself is large enough to make a stable gun platform for someone lying on the deck with a rifle, but you’d need a phenomenal shot to be sure of killing the pirate targeted, and you would need a team of them to kill all the pirates simultaneously. Otherwise you run the risk either of accidentally shooting either or both of the captives yourself, or, if you fail to kill all the pirates, you can bet they will either execute the hostages as a liability or keep them belowdecks and control the ship from down there. I know that the pirates intercepted by the American destroyer USS Bainbridge were killed, but that is as extraordinary a feat of marksmanship as I’ve heard of: three US Navy SEALS, lying on the fantail, took headshots, at dusk, for simultaneous kills. That level of accuracy is almost superhuman, and there are very few teams within the British military that could manage it: SAS, SBS, FPG… So what about sending a boarding party? Well, if you want to send a team of personnel on an inflatable boat into automatic fire, be my guest. Just make sure you explain it in precisely those terms to any potential volunteers for the mission. And make sure that your volunteers are qualified: Wave Knight, as a fleet support vessel, wouldn’t normally have embarked personnel qualified in CQB. Her ‘ability to conduct antipiracy operations’ as her Captain put it, is limited to supporting the warships at the sharp end. She can refuel them, and her embarked helicopter can run observation/interference missions, and the ship itself can act as a ‘logistics facilitator’ – but that’s it, and expecting more is ludicrous.

If you want the Royal Navy to run operations of this type, they have to be given either the tools and training the job requires, or they have to have the ability to support those at the sharp end – and this is where Hastings’s comments about the two carriers come badly unstuck. He complains that the army needs practical, immediate equipment support – and that is what the carriers themselves can provide. The army will not always find itself fighting far from the sea, and the ability of two mobile airbases in constant radio contact with ground forces to deliver ground-support aircraft (because that is what the F-35 is), even over defended airspace (because the F-35 incorporates low-observable technology that enables it to operate where the Harrier would get shot out of the sky), is surely ultimately of greater use to the army. Besides, carriers may prevent conflicts involving the army: it is Rowland White’s contention, in his book ‘Phoenix Squadron’, that had Britain retained a proper carrier past the end of the 1970s, the Falklands War probably wouldn’t have happened. Even if the carrier didn’t have that effect, they were needed to protect the ships carrying troops to the conflict. The carrier is the ultimate sea-bourne weapons system, protecting the ships of the Navy: but the Navy itself exists to influence policy on land. If you want a strong army then inevitably you need a strong Navy to support it, and a strong Navy is one equipped to defend itself, and since 1942 the only realistic way to do that is to have a carrier fleet. Or, as Edward L. Beach put it, in his book Keepers of the Sea:

From time immemorial, the purpose of a navy has been to influence, and sometimes decide, issues on land. This was so with the Greeks of antiquity; the Romans, who created a navy to defeat Carthage; the Spanish, whose armada tried and failed to conquer England; and, most eminently, in the Atlantic and Pacific during two world wars. The sea has always given man inexpensive transport and ease of communication over long distances. It has also provided concealment, because being over the horizon meant being out of sight and effectively out of reach. The sea has supplied mobility, capability and support throughout Western history, and those failing in the sea-power test – notably Alexander, Napoleon and Hitler – also failed the longevity one.

Today’s zen:

N15 'Excalibur' crosses the Starlingford suspension bridge with a short stopping service, while beneath an empty Royal Navy barge enters the calm waters of the bay

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About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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2 Responses to Rout Britannia?

  1. the northern gentleman says:

    I very much agree in general terms but you miss out the even more important point that Britain is not now, and was not in 2007, at war with Iran. For every Yangtse Incident there must be a hundred other incidents where the APPROPRIATE response is ‘Sorry, we must have been lost.’

  2. louis says:

    A good post, Gavin. The recent award of a Military Cross to Kate Nesbitt, a medical assistant in the Royal Navy, shows that there is nothing at all wrong with the spirit and character of young people in the Senior Service today.

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