Almost every young child (usually male, and from 4/5 years old) has a real affinity for one part of the armed forces: Army, Navy, Air Force – some go down the coast guard or the police path, but they’re the idealists. Mine has always been with the defenders of shores and ruler of seas, the Royal Navy – the least republican sounding, but the avenue which offers the most freedom and individuality.
Growing up, my interest wasn’t passing; I built many naval ships (HMS Hood, HMS King George V, and I must confess some American super carriers, USS Forrestal, USS Kitty Hawk) and I read books and tomes on the history of the Royal Navy, educating me in its importance from the 17th century Anglo-Dutch Wars, which laid the foundations of a powerful British navy after having suffered humiliating defeats, to the 18th and 19th century monopoly of the waves.
…America has its contrived status as the world’s peacekeeper…
That being said, every book on the Royal Navy – that is dated post the 1950s – will talk of the decline. The First and Second World Wars undermined the effectiveness of incredibly expensive battleships and destroyers: why would you spend billions of pounds on a ship for 1,500 to 2,000 sailors when it could be sunk not by a similar vessel, but by a flight of inexpensive fighters? At the end of WW2, ships that could have easily been in service for 30-40 years more were callously broken up because aeroplanes became the tactical successor.
It was the correct assessment, as can be seen by the Royal Navy’s spiritual successor, the US Navy. It is not 11 US task forces commanded from battleships, but from aircraft carriers that now protect the world’s trade. America has its contrived status as the world’s peacekeeper more from this mobile projection of power – its combined fleet is larger than the next 16 navies’ – than from its airbases and army. In all modern warfare, it has been air, missile and artillery strikes from the US navy that have played the most essential part.
…juggernauts armed with incredibly sophisticated weaponry…
So, an aircraft carrier is comparatively inexpensive? Yes and no. Compared to running a battleship, a modern aircraft carrier is cheaper – excluding the massive nuclear power cost – but all battleships are more than 60 years old, so there’s no easy comparison. The USS Iowa was largely modernised in the 1980s as part of a programme to have a 600 ship strong US fleet to scare off the Russians (arguably effective), but some vital parts of it couldn’t be: now those modernisations are way out of date.
Truth be told, aircraft carriers are expensive; they are not just floating flight decks, but juggernauts armed with incredibly sophisticated weaponry and surveillance equipment. They have multiple roles. The UK has steered clear from building sizeable ships for the Royal Navy since the 1960s, abandoning its CVA-01 carrier and choosing smaller support carriers. This has been rectified recently with the mid-sized new carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, but now they are deemed too expensive – and so by extension not worth it?
…Air Chief Marshals emphasise the importance of the newest aircraft…
No, aircraft carriers – the symbol of power, protectors of trade, and, let us not forget, vital aid relief ships (there is no faster and more prepared vessel out there: they have a complement of over 5,000) – are more useful today than ever before, so why is the UK building only two (one of which may or may not ever be used)?
Well, money is an issue, but after that comes some darker problems. The Chief of the Defence Staff (the top political appointment for an officer in one of the armed forces who advises government on the whole military) quite naturally safeguards the assets of his/her military branch: Generals increase infantry budgets, Air Chief Marshals emphasise the importance of the newest aircraft and Admirals stress the importance of a larger fleet. The Royal Navy hasn’t had a person in that job for nearly ten years, however, (the role is supposed to be on rotation, but hasn’t been for some while), so the Royal Navy’s political clout has suffered.
…investing here will make us competitive with other successful major ship builders…
Another point is that the Royal Navy is wrongly seen as outmoded, a symbol of tradition and Empire, and a glorified transport fleet. Couple this with a presence only in three naval bases, all far away from London – the army and air force have far more bases and are much closer to London – and the smallest military employment of the main three, and you have an easy target for governments to pick on and butcher.
Built up by successive governments, there is no easy way of changing this attitude towards the Navy, but there is a potential solution that would only work with the Navy: invest more, employ more, build more. Investing more in the Royal Navy will bring about several goals for not only the Coalition, but for the UK in general. It will increase employment in the force which will mean a need for more ships, in turn increasing manufacturing (investing here will make us competitive with other successful major ship builders in Italy, Germany and South Korea, it won’t be just inward investment forever: you do not get this same heavy manufacturing producing aircraft or tanks) and it will be a way of physically helping developing nations: giving the Navy a real purpose in the 21st Century, balancing America and making right wingers less unhappy about an aid budget.
…to punch its way quickly and strongly to the top of the manufacturing…
But won’t building such sophisticated carriers and ships bankrupt the nation? Long term, manufacturing could pay for this investment, but in the short term, why not change ship design? Remove the advanced weaponry and systems from carriers, and make them landing strips at sea. Destroyers and frigates at half their modern size could be far more numerous, and far easier to modernise in dry docks than enormous carriers: furthermore if a US carrier went down today it would have an even more disastrous effect than the loss of a battleship sixty years ago.
Having vast landing strips at sea with an increased number of high speed, multi-role frigates would make deployment and piracy control a lot easier and far more cost effective. It would also allow the UK to punch its way quickly and strongly to the top of the manufacturing world. It would be a symbol that the UK is serious about its role as a developing world crafter: it would allow us as a nation to do rather than just to talk.