Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Notable Empty Seat at Sea

Last week Bryan highlighted a new article on NATO he has written for AEI. NATO at sea: Trends in allied naval power focuses on the trends in the force structures of European naval powers, noting the numerical decline and the quality improvements. As Bryan notes, these trends do not balance one another.

Below is the section Bryan notes on the Royal Navy.

United Kingdom

The Royal Navy has dramatically declined in size by a third since 2000, but retains the desire and plans to remain a “balanced force” capable of naval airpower projection, limited amphibious operations, strategic nuclear deterrence, and sea control (see figure 1). This goal remains even in view of the 2010 UK Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 8 percent defense budget reduction.[16]
A key question, however, is whether a balanced force is ultimately in the strategic interests of the United Kingdom, or whether such a force should be abandoned in favor of a “cruising” navy requiring a greater number of frigates and destroyers and providing more naval presence in a greater number of places than the current fleet plan can accomplish. The costs associated with fielding two aircraft carriers and the air assets necessary to equip them, in addition to the costs of replacing the current fleet of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) with four new boats, will strain resources required for building surface combatants and attack submarines.[17] Considering the United Kingdom’s global economic interests and its desire to remain closely aligned with the US Navy, a force of less than 20 combatants might not suffice.

Upgrades to the Royal Navy will include fielding two new aircraft carriers carrying the F-35 Lightning II and the ongoing operation of the new, technologically advanced Type 45 destroyers.[18] Other upgrades include the continuing introduction of the five nuclear-powered, Astute Class attack submarines and the construction of the Type 26 Global Combat Ships.[19] Here as else-where in major NATO navies, numbers are being traded for capability.

When assessed against the roles articulated in the NATO Alliance Maritime Strategy of 2011—which includes deterrence and defense, crisis management, cooperative security, and maritime security—the Royal Navy presents a mixed story.[20] Continuing to move forward with both an aircraft carrier development program and a ballistic missile submarine program demonstrates national resolve to contribute to collective conventional and nuclear deterrence. However, the resources necessary to achieve these goals are to some degree harvested from savings gained from a significantly smaller escort and combatant fleet.

And while the Type 45 destroyer is more capable than the Type 42s it replaces, there will be fewer of Type 45s, as there will be fewer Type 26 frigates to replace the Type 23s. This numerical decline creates presence deficits that impact the navy’s ability to perform crucial traditional naval missions such as antisubmarine warfare (ASW) and antisurface warfare (ASUW), which underpin both conventional deterrence and cooperative and maritime security. Adding to a decline in traditional sea-control capabilities was the 2010 SDSR decision to eliminate the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft from the inventory.

In summary, the Royal Navy continues to maintain a balanced fleet, one that looks strikingly like the US Navy, except a fraction of its size. Its contributions on the high end of the naval warfare operational spectrum (strategic deterrence, attack submarines, and antiaircraft warfare (AAW) destroyers) are notable, while a declining number of surface combatants will bedevil its ability to remain globally postured and will contribute to naval missions of a more constabulary nature.


16. Nicholas Watt “Next Generation of Nimrod ‘Spy In the Sky’ Surveillance Planes To Be Scrapped,” The Guardian, October 17, 2010, www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/oct/17/next-generation-nimrod-scrapped.

17. In response to questions about the costs associated with the SSBN programs, British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond insists that “The government remains 100% committed to maintaining and renewing the Trident system.” See “U.S. Defense Chief Bashes Idea of Reducing SSBN Fleet,” Global Security Newswire, July 15, 2103, www.nationaljournal.com/global-security-newswire/u-k-defense-
chief-bashes-idea-of-reducing-ssbn-fleet-20130715.

18. The Type 45 is built primarily as an anti-air warfare (AAW) combatant capable of local and area fleet defense. Capable of controlling fighter aircraft, it can coordinate fleet AAW operations and should be considered roughly comparable to a US-guided missile destroyer. It is equipped with long-range weapon systems to intercept increasingly sophisticated and maneuverable missiles. The Type 45 destroyer will be able to operate an embarked helicopter.

19. Due to begin joining the fleet in 2021, the Type 26 frigates will completely replace the Type 23 frigates. The Type 26 is planned in three variants: an ASW variant, an AAW variant, and a general purpose variant.

20. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Alliance Maritime Strategy,” March 18, 2011, www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_75615.htm.

There is no question the Type 45 is more capable of than the Type 42. The Type 26 looks promising, and should it ever be built I am sure it will be a great ship. But quantity only goes so far, and the reduction of sufficient quantity of surface combatants means a reduction in operations.

For example, the Royal Navy in 2013 does not have enough surface combatants to contribute to either of the Standing NATO Maritime Groups, and the quiet withdrawal by the Royal Navy from the Standing NATO Maritime Groups is a feature of the decisions, both military and political, regarding Royal Navy force structure that reduces surface combatants.

This comes on top of the decision in 2012 for the Royal Navy to stop contributing surface combatants to their Caribbean narcotics patrol.

If a nations Navy force structure design is completely focused on the carrier strike groups and amphibious groups, as the design of the Royal Navy of the future is, what can their naval forces do, and what do the nation give up in that process? Under such a model for naval operations, presence consists solely of the most expensive capabilities. The contingencies of both Libya and Syria have yet to demand the requirement for a US Navy aircraft carrier strike group, and yet under the future force structure of the Royal Navy, the carrier strike group is basically the minimum capability the Royal Navy can contribute to those type of naval response contingencies.

The present and future design of the Royal Navy is the ultimate test of competing theories of seapower. The prevailing theory today - even in the US Navy - is that high end capabilities are critical and therefore must be favored over lower end capabilities because warships of excess quality can meet lower end requirements. And yet, the expense of excess quality isn't simply in design and construction, but also in operations and maintenance. Will the UK choose to use the highly capable and very expensive naval vessels of the Royal Navy for naval missions that require far less capabilities, operations that can be successfully conducted at far lower cost with less capable warships the Royal Navy does not have? The Royal Navy isn't simply reducing global presence, but the high quality force design of the Royal Navy has raised the price of global presence. On one hand the future Royal Navy is built to fight in nearly any conventional war scenario, but is also designed to be excessively inefficient towards building partnerships and security cooperation in nearly all places in the world that struggle with challenges less than contested conventional war between military forces at sea.

Today there are no valid ways politically to measure the value of naval presence by a warship,and the absence of naval presence is not evaluated objectively because highlighting the absence of naval does little more than highlight the failure of politicians who ignored unmet requirements for presence.

For example, the tragedy that took place last year on 9/11/12 in Benghazi would have almost certainly unfolded differently if EUCOM had the amphibious ready group that has long been and remains today an unmet presence requirement in the Mediterranean Sea. A single amphibious ship could have potentially responded not only with helicopter gunships, but a Marine evacuation/reinforcement force, and as a warship present offshore the US would have been clued into events with the situational awareness that comes from forward deployed naval presence. The absence of that naval presence is rarely discussed in the context of Benghazi, so there has been no lesson learned, and the requirement for a Marine presence offshore goes unmet even to this day with a stop gap response force now based in Rota (a reactive contingency force vs a proactive contingency force).

What is the political value of a Navy without the ability to sustain strategic presence to places globally of national interest? What is the strategic value of a Navy designed for high end conventional and nuclear war, and little else? These and other similar questions are important questions for the US, because sequestration will require the US Navy to make difficult force structure changes of our own. Is it in our nations strategic interest to reduce capabilities in conventional and nuclear war in favor of strategic presence and operations that support irregular warfare threats to our nations interest globally? The most recent maritime strategy claimed that preventing wars is as important as winning wars. How do naval forces prevent war in the 21st century through presence, or does the 21st century geopolitical environment demand that naval power function as primarily a reaction force, rather than proactive force?

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