by DAVID AXE
Shrinking shipbuilding budgets and a growing tension between high-end air operations and maritime security patrols are driving deep changes in the world’s leading, English-speaking navies.
Nowhere is change more evident that in the U.K. A decade of budget cuts — as well as consolidation of combat power into fewer but more powerful vessels — will soon leave the Royal Navy, once the world’s biggest fleet, with what amounts to a single U.S.-style carrier group.
The steady decline of the Royal Navy’s escort force, plus the recently-begun construction of two super-carriers, underpin this change. In the early 1990s, the Senior Service maintained three small, 20,000-ton aircraft carriers and more than 30 frigates and destroyers. That force could generate two strike groups simultaneously.
Today, the escort forces numbers 22. With six new, large Type 45 destroyers under construction and 17 Type 26 frigates planned, that number might grow by one. Twenty-three escorts is just enough for standing patrols in the South Atlantic, Mediterranean and Caribbean, plus counter-piracy work and escort duty for the two 60,000-ton Queen Elizabeth-class carriers due to begin entering the fleet in 2016.
With one carrier normally in maintenance or training, just one will be available for combat. With her roughly six escorts, the available carrier will represent the sum total of the Royal Navy’s deployable striking power. By consolidating its ready naval power into a single entity, the U.K. has effectively answered the question facing many countries: should they field small but powerful navies for conventional operations, or large low-tech navies that can distribute vessels widely for security operations versus pirates, smugglers and other “irregular” enemies. The Royal Navy is preparing for singular, intensive combat rather than for the ongoing demands of long-term security patrols.
That’s also been the dominant attitude in the U.S. Navy since the end of the Cold War. The American fleet has shed hulls, to today’s 100-year low of just 280 vessels, while investing more and more firepower and tonnage in these few ships. Today, U.S. Navy escorts weigh in at nearly 10,000 tons displacement, compared to just 5,000 tons for most navies. America’s 20 carriers are split evenly between 100,000-ton super-carriers and 40,000-ton “Harrier carriers.” Even the smallest U.S. carriers outweigh most of the rest of the world’s flattops.
Leaving aside vessels in maintenance, the U.S. Navy can normally muster as many as a dozen strike groups, together representing a force equal to the next 12 largest navies, combined. All the same, such capability concentration comes at the cost of presence. No matter how big or powerful, a single ship can be in only one place at a time. Every time the Americans replace two 5,000-ton frigates with one 10,000-ton destroyer, more Somali pirates enjoy a horizon unfouled by the bulky silhouette of a watching U.S. warship.
Noting this, on May 3 U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called on the Navy to rethink its organization, in order to avoid become a larger version of the Royal Navy: adept at high-end warfare but too thinly spread to fight pirates and smugglers. “We simply cannot afford to perpetuate a status quo that heaps more and more expensive technologies onto fewer and fewer platforms,” Gates said in a controversial speech before the Navy League.
“Whether the mission is counterinsurgency, piracy, or security assistance, among others, new missions have required new ways of thinking about the portfolio of weapons we buy,” Gates continued. “In particular, the Navy will need numbers, speed and the ability to operate in shallow water, especially as the nature of war in the 21st century pushes us toward smaller, more diffuse weapons and units that increasingly rely on a series of networks to wage war.”
In the preceding year, one Navy strategist had called on the sea service to cut one carrier group and replace it with up to 100 small, cheap vessels suited for exactly the kinds of missions Gates referred to in his speech. Captain Jerry Hendrix advocated organizing these new small vessels into what he called “Influence Squadrons.” Such squadrons can be understood as the opposite of a carrier strike group. Where a carrier group emphasizes firepower, an Influence Squadron emphasizes presence.
It’s not clear whether the Navy will respond to Gates’ plea for more, cheaper vessels. Ten days after Gates’ speech, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead promised to focus on “affordability, common hulls, common components [and] open architecture,” but did not say that smaller vessels would figure in Navy planning.
America’s neighbor to the north very nearly had a major naval reorganization inflicted upon it by way of an unexpected cash crunch. Proposed cuts were quickly rejected by an incensed public, but that does not mean that the Canadian fleet is protected from change over the long term.
On May 12, Canadian Defense Minster Peter MacKay said the navy would temporarily idle three frigates and a destroyer out of a total escort force comprising just 15 vessels — in a bid to save money needed to fund the land campaign in Afghanistan. In addition, half of the navy’s 12-strong patrol boat flotilla would be mothballed and sonars and point defenses on other vessels would be switched off.
“The capability reductions are for the (current) fiscal year and are not a long-term decision,” MacKay stressed. But retired admiral Peter Cairns said he doubted that idled vessels would ever return to service. “Once you tie one up, some smart people in government say ‘you haven’t run with it for a year so why do you still need it?”
A massive backlash followed the Wednesday announcement. By Friday, the navy said it would not, in fact, idle any vessels. “After two days of tough questions from the opposition in the House of Commons, Chief of Defense Staff General Walter Natynczyk reversed McFadden’s decision, saying that the Canadian Forces will re-allocate some financial resources so that McFadden and the navy won’t have to tie up a substantial portion of the fleet.”
The proposed cuts would have resulted in an unbalanced Canadian fleet. Canada is blessed and cursed with one of the world’s longest coastlines. As a consequence, the Canadian navy is essentially a three-coast navy, with vessels divided between Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic squadrons. The cuts would have hit the Pacific squadron hardest, with British Columbia losing two frigates and six patrol boats. This at a time when the world’s strategic center of gravity has clearly shifted eastward toward Asia. The “new” Canadian navy would have surrendered its already-limited ability to maintain a wide presence.
For now, the Canadian navy will maintain its current structure, but the underlying fiscal problems that drove the proposed changes remain. Unless Canada is willing to spend more on its navy, a lasting re-organization — as is already happening in the U.K. and could occur in America — is inevitable.