hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Hood’s Bell & SDSR 2015

“To make war all you need is intelligence. But to win war you need talent and material”.
“For Whom the Bell Tolls”
Ernest Hemingway

Alphen, Netherlands. 18 August. Last week the ship’s bell of HMS Hood was recovered from her 1941 wreck-site deep down in the dark, icy depths of the Denmark Strait. What lessons does the loss of HMS Hood have for the vitally important and critically ‘strategic’ Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which London is currently preparing?

She was “The Mighty Hood”. Between 1920 and 1938 this massive battlecruiser was the world’s largest warship. At 860 feet (262.3 m) in length, Hood was armed with a main armament of eight 15-inch (38cm) diameter guns that fired shells weighing 1350 kg. The ship herself weighed in at 47,430 tons whilst her sleek hull and elegant lines made her perhaps the most beautiful warship ever built. Sadly, on 24 May 1941 in the Denmark Strait in what is today called the High North an armour-piercing 15-inch shell from the German fast battleship KM Bismarck penetrated Hood’s aft 15-inch shell magazine and ignited an explosion so powerful that it broke the bow and stern away from the amidships section of the ship. Indeed, such was the force of the explosion that some 365 feet (115m) of Hood’s hull effectively disintegrated. Three members of her crew of 1418 were rescued.

The sinking of the Hood was an example of what happens when there is a mismatch between strategy, commitments and resources.  Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Royal Navy faced a series of massive cuts but no major commensurate reduction in responsibilities. During the 1920s the cuts were driven by a mix of pious hopes for disarmament and post-war economic pressures and persisted into the second half of the 1930s. However, the Mighty Hood sailed on, flying an increasingly-tattered flag for Britain.  Naval technology was moving on but not the Hood

By the late 1930s Hood was the flawed heir to a bygone Edwardian age – a vulnerable battlecruiser in an era when fast battleships were being built with superior protection and modern firepower that could also match her for speed. She was of course meant to be modernised but somehow it never quite happened and the myth of her ‘might’ became reality as both politicians and public slowly came to be believe that she too was a fast battleship. 

However, by 1941 Hood was a museum-piece and in no real state to fight the fast super-battleship Bismarck or indeed fight alongside the over-new and unworked-up HMS Prince of Wales. Indeed, the merest of comparisons of Hood and ‘PoW’ is enough to demonstrate how far warship design and technology travelled between 1916 and the late 1930s.

Fast forward to 2015. Hood blew-up because of repeated government failures to look at the long-term defence and strategic influence role of the British armed forces and properly invest. Having fought the war-to-end-all-wars London too often opted for short-term political and bureaucratic convenience rendering British ‘strategy’, power and influence more bluff than substance.  That same old habit is also apparent in the SDSR 2015 process as I warned it would be in my 2015 book Little Britain? Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power (

There is some good news. The new government agreed in July to commit to spending 2% GDP on defence to at least 2020 with a 1% year-on-year real-terms increase in defence expenditure. In principle such a release of funding over expectation should mean that the future force at the heart of SDSR 2015 could begin to be properly considered in light of strategic change and strategic requirement and some move made towards balancing ends, ways and means. Specifically, the growing tensions between capability and capacity, technology and manpower could begin to be met.

However, well-informed sources tell me that whilst the heads of the Navy, Army and Air Force are united in their efforts to ensure SDSR 2015 is a properly-balanced strategic review the bureaucrats charged with leading the effort are not. As one very senior colleague put it to me last week; “…we are chasing a powerful (and arguably irreducible) pre-SDSR position”. Either the political leadership has lost control of the process to bureaucrats who after years of cuts know only how to cut and not to think (and grow) strategically (possible but unlikely), the whole SDSR effort is an exercise in political sleight of hand and that in reality the ‘defence’ budget is about to be siphoned off to a whole raft of other areas, such as intelligence (quite possible) or SDSR 2015 is a Faustian combination of the two (most likely).

My suspicions were further roused when last week ‘experts’ were invited to submit their ideas but in no more than 300 words or 1500 characters. This is nonsense and demonstrates clearly that far from being an exercise in strategic defence SDSR 2015 is in fact yet another exercise in strategic pretence.  If that is so the ‘strategic’ implications will be profound.

Take the Royal Navy of which Hood was once flagship. The Navy is committed to fulfilling the roles the Government has established for it. These are the three so-called “twin strategic peaks” (don’t ask me) of a continually-at-sea-deterrent (CASD), Continuous Carrier Capability and Continuous Amphibious Readiness (perhaps the Navy is being asked to choose two of the three roles so as not to embarrass ministers).  To meet these national requirements the Royal Navy needs at least 2500 more personnel but there seems precious little evidence that the government is committed to funding the very roles it is calling on the Navy to perform.  Pretty much the same can be said for the other two Services.  

Let me be blunt; if indeed SDSR 2015 is yet another exercise in strategic pretence like that of its forebear SDSR 2010 there may well be young British men and women out there today who in future years will find themselves facing a similar fate to that of their grandfathers-in-arms in HMS Hood – be they in the Navy, Army of Air Force – under-equipped, under-gunned and over there.

My friend and colleague Professor Paul Cornish has argued that whilst Britain might not need grand strategy in the formal sense it needs to demonstrate that its leadership has the capacity to think grand strategically. SDSR 2015 is the chance to do just that but only if it is led from the top with vision and determination. Thankfully, there are signs that Britain’s current political leadership have realised that a narrow focus on the balance sheet enshrined in SDSR 2010 came close to breaking Britain’s military by destroying the all-important relationship between ends, ways and means. The mood music around SDSR 2015 is far more favourable than SDSR 2010. However, far more needs to be done.

SDSR 2015 must above all answer a critical question – what type of future force should Britain aspire to have given its power and responsibilities in the world? Sadly, I fear the review will again dodge rather than address that question. Therefore, today I call for a Shadow SDSR 2015 to be drawn up by a group of experts, retired officers and bureaucrats to hold the official SDSR 2015 to strategic account and stop the politics that is being played not just with Britain’s defence but that of our NATO and EU allies and partners.

My senior colleague also said last week that Britain’s armed forces “…are a measurable extension of the national character, a demonstrable reflection on industrial and economic authority, and a centre-piece of the visible face of a nation that still has the embers of global ambition”. Amen to that.

On 27 May 1941 three days after the Hood action and after an epic sea and air chase the Bismarck was cornered by the heavy battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney and sunk. Of the 2200 men aboard only 114 survived. In June I was privileged to be given a tour of Kiel Sound the home port of the Bismarck by the German Navy. This blog is written in honour of all the British and German sailors who perished in those freezing North Atlantic waters back in May 1941. Once enemies, now friends. It is also written in the hope that just for once those charged with SDSR 2015 will put strategy before politics and and principle before bureaucracy in the search for a proper and reasoned strategic balance between military capability, capacity and affordability.

In the late 1930s my grandfather served on Hood. However, he was a destroyer man at heart and soon transferred back to his beloved smaller ships, although he lost friends when Hood blew up. This week he and my great-uncle Walter, who was killed in action with the Royal Navy in 1943, will both be resting a little easier knowing that Hood’s bell, the soul of that great ship, will finally make it back to her home port some seventy-four years after she left. The bell will be given pride of place at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.

Thankfully, 2015 is not 1941 but nor is it 1990 (defence premiums) or even 2008 (imminent financial collapse). It is the dawn of a new contentious strategic age not entirely dissimilar to the strategic age which forged HMS Hood and the national interests she was designed to serve. HMS Hood’s motto was “Ventis Secundis” – “With favourable winds”. With ‘favourable winds’ SDSR 2015 can still live up to all it needs to be…but only with favourable political winds.

Julian Lindley-French     

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