hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Where to Sail the Mighty Queen

London, United Kingdom. 12 April. No, this is not a blog about a peripatetic, super-sized member of the gay community. In 2017 HMS Queen Elizabeth, ‘the mighty Queen’ will sail south from Rosyth in Scotland to HM Dockyard Portsmouth, the home of the fleet flagship, Nelson’s HMS Victory. At 72,500 ton (fully-loaded) and with her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales this ‘super’ aircraft carrier will be the largest ship ever commissioned into the Royal Navy. This past week saw the handover of command from First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas, who I have had the honour on occasions to support, to Admiral Sir Philip Jones. Therefore, it is a good moment to consider not just the military-operational role of these ships, but also the strategic–political role, which is at least as important.

The moment HMS Queen Elizabeth is commissioned she will have to play many roles. Her first strategic-political task will be to remind the British people that the UK remains a top five world power. As such both ships will rapidly become icons, part of Britain’s strategic influence brand, both abroad and to its own people.

She will also need to demonstrate Britain’s position at the heart of European defence, whatever the outcome of the June Brexit referendum. To that end, the ‘QE’ will need to be put front and centre of a coalition of allied and European navies. Whatever Europe’s institutional arrangements, and the obsession Germans and some smaller European powers have with institutions, it is still power which is the driving factor in influence. For Britain the ‘QE’ will be testament to that reality.

However, the first mission of the ship must be to go west. Together with Type 45 destroyers and new Astute-class nuclear-attack submarines as soon as the ‘QE’ takes on her first F35B fast jets she must sail to Norfolk, Virginia, the east coast home of the United States Navy and thence to Halifax, in Canada.

The greatest threat to NATO is the coming reckoning with American politicians over burden—sharing. Yes, I know, the burden-sharing row has been going on for many years. However, in the past America could afford to pay for Europe’s defence. No longer. First, there will also soon be a reckoning for America’s enormous deficit that will impact on public services, including the US military. Second, the United States is now facing a zweifrontenskrieg, a two front war, of global proportions. Americans will simply not put up with a bunch of free-riding Europeans anymore. And, it is not just the strategically-illiterate Donald Trump who is saying that.

It is therefore vital that Britain sails the Mighty Queen into Norfolk as soon as possible together with a full British carrier strike group even if that stretches the Royal Navy to its operational limit. She should then conduct several days of ship visits for senior American politicians, commentators and military commanders. The message, apart from sticking two fingers up to John Paul Jones in his own backyard? There is at least one European ally willing to invest in the kind of high-end military kit that NATO desperately needs and that the United Kingdom will again be willing and able to ease the burden on the United States.

Having performed her first act of strategic diplomacy with Britain’s American ally the ‘QE’ should then sail north to Halifax. At some point on that voyage the United States Navy would hand over escort of the British carrier strike group to the Royal Canadian Navy. First, the appearance on the horizon of the strike group flying the White Ensign rather than the US Ensign will remind Canadians of the enduring link between Britain and Canada. Second, it will show Canadians that Britain is still a power to be reckoned with and that the Anglosphere floats and fires. Third, as the Canadian Government considers further cuts to its defence budget and another shift from hard to soft power the Mighty Queen will send an important message. That a Canada with three contested oceans to its east, north and west needs a powerful, modern navy, able to operate alongside powerful allies, such as America and Britain.

A century ago next month Britain’s mighty Grand Fleet engaged and defeated the German High Seas Fleet at the Battle of Jutland. In fact, the Germans sank more British ships than the Royal Navy sank German. However, such was the might of the Royal Navy and the enormous steel trap the Germans sailed into that the defeat was crushing. The defeat was not the result of inferior German materiel, far from it. It was primarily because the German commanders already suffered from an inferiority complex about the Royal Navy.

A century on the United States Navy still enjoys the mantle of absolute superiority it inherited from the Royal Navy. Today, American military superiority is frayed around the edges. For Britain and the Royal Navy to demonstrate now both the capability and will to help keep America strong will go a very long way to spiking the coming burden-sharing row. It will also demonstrate determination to maintain what is after all the key factor in deterrence; power.

Julian Lindley-French               

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