Alphen, Netherlands. 3 May. Tough one this. I am a great fan of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales and have been since they were conceived in 1998. The two ships provide Britain with a command and power projection capability that will enable London to lead military coalitions of allies and partners for years to come. The two ships will also leverage Britain’s unique maritime-amphibious expertise and are a testament to those who say that Britain can no longer cut it at the cutting edge of military power. All well and good.
Captain Jerry Kyd and his mainly young crew are to be congratulated for their efforts to get HMS Queen Elizabeth commissioned and ready for front-line service. She has undergone a tough programme of sea trials during which she has not just been tested to breaking point she has also had to dodge all-too-predictable headlines about this or that bit of kit not working properly. The clue is in the name - sea trials.
Britain’s Greatest Warship?
And yet I am also deeply concerned. On Sunday evening I watched the third episode of a BBC documentary about ‘Big Lizzie’ entitled Britain’s Greatest Warship. Like all BBC documentaries, the ship was only of secondary importance and in the programme fast became a floating metaphor for contemporary multicultural, gender-equality Britain. Still, that is the Britain that the ship will help defend and as I have been a long-time supporter of women naval professionals on Royal Navy ships you will hear no complaints from me on that score. Indeed, I have seen at close quarters that these naval professionals are every bit as good as their male counterparts. The programme did at times come close to ‘tokenising’ these women and an American friend did ask me if the programme might be better entitled Britain’s Greatest Female Warship. The documentary spent far too much time on the ship’s advanced waste disposal system, which failed. Indeed, it spent more time discussing the waste disposal system than the F-35B Lightning II fast jets HMS Queen Elizabeth will carry, the first of which she is due to take on board later this year off Florida.
So, why am I concerned? HMS Queen Elizabeth is not only a metaphor for contemporary Britain she is also a metaphor for all that is wrong with British defence policy. UK National Security Adviser Sir Mark Sedwill has just told a parliamentary committee something I have been banging on about since I published my 2015 book Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power (which is, of course, brilliant and very reasonably-priced). Sedwill noted that there are weaknesses across the entire British national security system and that Russia poses the greatest direct military threat. I am tempted to say halle-bloody-lula that a senior government official has finally come clean about this dangerous reality, although he failed to warn about that that other great threat to the British armed forces, HM Treasury. Indeed, I very much doubt if aforesaid HM Treasury will accept the consequences of the logic of Sedwill’s statement – that Britain must spend more, more intelligently and quickly on a strengthened defence. This is because Britain’s defences are in a mess precisely because of the Government’s own short-termism and the 2010 and 2015 Strategic Security and Defence Reviews which reflected a London that only wanted to recognise as much threat as it thought could afford.
Big Lizzie in a Crisis
HMS Queen Elizabeth is like a marathon runner who having run 35km of a 42km race declares that he has finished. In terms of the threats HMS Queen Elizabeth could face in the front-line she is by no means finished. So much so that last year I made a short but very well-informed film in which I sank her simply to demonstrate precisely the danger of failing to fully equip and protect her. Now, some apologists for government policy suggest that whatever the weaknesses in the Royal Navy’s surface and sub-surface capabilities she will always be surrounded by very capable allies. This is nonsense. Let’s suppose, in 2025 say, the Americans are busy with a major crisis in Asia-Pacific and Russia uses that crisis opportunistically to cause trouble in Europe. In such circumstances, it could well be that Britain and its European allies would be called upon to act as first responders.
HMS Queen Elizabeth would then need to rely on European allies to form the backbone of a task group of which she would be the command core. Only the French Navy comes close to the required offensive and defensive capabilities such a deployed task group would need facing a hostile Russian Northern Fleet. The Royal Netherlands Navy, the Royal Danish Navy, the Royal Norwegian Navy all face critical weaknesses, whilst the Belgian, Italian and the once-mighty Germany Navy are mired in full-blown cost-capability crises.
Russia is also deploying a range of new submarines and anti-ship systems. Let me highlight one such system – the 3M22 Zircon. Zircon is a carrier-sinking manoeuvrable hyper-sonic cruise missile capable of a range of 1000 kilometres at a speed of 9800 kilometres per hour. The system was successfully tested in June 2017 and will be deployed to the Russian Navy in 2020 with an export variant being prepared. The Royal Navy’s supersonic Sea Ceptor missile, which equips some of the Duke-class Type 23s and is scheduled for deployment on the future Type 26 frigates, can only intercept airborne threats up to Mach 3. Zircon is capable of speeds up to Mach 6.
Two things are likely to happen. London is aware that without the Americans present in some strength HMS Queen Elizabeth is extremely vulnerable to an attack from the state just identified as the main military threat. In such circumstances, London would do all it could to avoid deploying her undermining not only Britain faced with a crisis but NATO too. Consequently, she would become an ‘anything-but-war’ ship. This raises a fundamental question: given pressures on British defence budgets have always suffered a certain tightness due to the eternal gap between stated British intentions and actual British capabilities why on Earth did Britain build her if she could not be used for the very scenario that justified her expense. Her cost has undoubtedly warped both naval budgets and naval strategy and helped create the very unbalanced and under-hulled Royal Navy of today.
There is a second possible course of action, which really concerns me. In 1919 Britain launched HMS Hood. She looked fantastic and soon a myth emerged around ‘the mighty Hood’. That did not matter so much in the early 1920s and enabled the then British Government to mask the necessary but swingeing cuts to the enormous Grand Fleet wielded by the Geddes Axe in the immediate aftermath of World War One. However, the myth of the Hood persisted and even the Navy began to believe it. She underwent a partial modernisation in the 1930s but defence cuts meant they were never completed. In truth, far from being the fast battleship, some claimed her to be, she was the same old flawed battlecruiser design that had seen three of her forebears explode at the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. Ships that sacrificed vital protection in the mistaken belief that increased speed afforded the best protection. On 24 May, 1941, in company (and not without irony) with the then brand new battleship HMS Prince of Wales, HMS Hood engaged the new German fast battleship, KM Bismarck. Shortly into the battle, a shell from Bismarck’s fifth salvo penetrated the aft main armament magazine and HMS Hood exploded and sank with the loss of all but three of her complement of 1418 men.
A Pain in the Rollocks
I have been accused of late of being a negative pain in the rollocks over HMS Queen Elizabeth. This is not because I am against either the Navy or HMS Queen Elizabeth. My grandfather served and was sunk (more than once) in the Royal Navy, I believe in the Royal Navy and I believe that Britain should have strategic assets such as start-of-the-art aircraft carriers if it is to play its rightful role in the deterrence afforded by NATO. No, my concerns are for the young men and women on board that ship if Britain’s leaders do not move quickly to close the gaping hole between identified threat, defence policy and the resourcing thereof. At the very least the crew of HMS Queen Elizabeth should be afforded every capability that would enable the ship to do what it was designed to do at great cost if needed – fight, survive and prevail!
One of the few things I can claim some expertise in is the changing character and future of war. Indeed, my latest book will be on this very issue with two distinguished American generals. Make no mistake, future war, if and when it happens, will be astonishingly fast and devastatingly destructive – even before nuclear weapons are used. For Britain to play at such power will simply transfer risk from politicians to service personnel. For that reason, I will continue to be a pain in the rollocks however inconvenient my concerns are for the upper echelons of Britain’s armed forces or the bureaucracy of government.
Quelling a Myth Before it Starts
There is already a myth developing around HMS Queen Elizabeth that was implicit in the title of the BBC documentary. HMS Queen Elizabeth might be Britain’s biggest ever warship but she by no means the greatest, let alone the mightiest. Indeed, in relative terms, given the enemy she was designed to fight, her forebear, 1915 commissioned Super-Dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth was mightier yet, as the song goes.
London must complete the marathon and properly equip HMS Queen Elizabeth and the ships and submarines that will protect her from the dangers she could well face. Indeed, finishing the job that is HMS Queen Elizabeth will go a long way to preventing the very disaster I describe. It is called deterrence.