Floating White Elephants

These are testing times for commentators like me who try, despite my own beliefs, to keep an open mind and (somewhat harder) make commentary that includes others’ points of view. And just to prove how wide I have been casting my nets, I was brought up short by a piece on the Scottish Labour website that went far in testing my resolve.

Thomas Docherty, MP for the corner of the Kingdom that includes Rosyth, has a piece claiming to have written to SNP Defence Spokesman Angus Robertson MSP challenging the party to state whether they will retain one of the two aircraft carriers to be assembled there in an independent Scotland. He states:

“”The commitment to carriers will be warmly welcomed at Rosyth Dockyard, as it secures the jobs of 1500 skilled workers, including 200 apprentices, and guarantees work at this site for more than five decades. There is no doubt that the loss of the carriers would have a devastating impact on the Fife and indeed the Scottish economy and the SNP has a responsibility to make people aware of the full consequences of separation.”

Some will see this as simply a conscientious MP arguing the case for their local constituents, as can be seen daily in Westminster. I see this as exactly the kind of grandstanding self-serving piffle that makes MPs like Mr Docherty the target of anger by the great bulk of Scottish voters who aren’t riding the Labour gravy train (currently stalled in a siding outside Crewe). Allow me to explain.

Labour has a long and evil history in Scotland of throwing money at industrial projects for short-term reasons that seldom account for the the wider world and economic reality. Their Willie Ross is regarded as a ‘great’ Scottish Secretary of State. Though I can’t gainsay him some achievements, it was he who blessed us with Linwood, Monktonhall, Ravenscraig and other ‘make-work’ fag-ends of the Wilson/Benn “white heat of technology” guff. Those same white elephants caused no end of grief to workers and their families when global economic reality pulled the wool from their eyes.

And here we are, forty years on. Another Labour government has hatched another series of white elephants for their own short-sighted purpose. Worst among them were two aircraft carriers. Nothing wrong with carriers if you are running a blue water navy and require global military reach. But even worse than its conversion to nuclear weapons has been Labour being infected by the Tory delusion that Britain is a global power and can afford such things. If the mighty US has just announced £290bn in CUTS to its defence budget and that is seven times the total UK defence budget, what more proof do you need that we can’t afford to play this silly global game any more?

And just look at the story so far of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth. These are not propitious names, even for Royalists: the previous owners were both sunk in 1941 (respectively) off Malaya by the Japanese 22nd Squadron and in Alexandria Harbour by some brave Italian frogmen. From a budget of under £4bn, these two huge ships have escalated to over £7bn—so much, in fact, that one is to be mothballed upon completion and neither will have a suitable aircraft deployed on their decks until five years after completion (sometime in the 2020s).

Far from Scotland being able to afford one of the carriers, Britain can’t afford to run even one of the carriers. The sooner this registers in Whitehall, the better for all. Docherty is typical of yer bog-standard MP who only sees jobs for his boys and apparently would not know a strategy or a global trend if one bit him in the arse. He thinks he’s clever, arguing that, with him, Labour and the Union, his “jobs of 1500 skilled workers, including 200 apprentices” are secure and taunts the SNP to put all that in jeopardy by going indy and scrapping any carriers. He is playing politics with the jobs of his voters.

Reality is that, after another year when Osborne misjudges things by £111bn, the carriers may be toast anyway, just like the Nimrod replacements. But if they’re not, and Britain really does want these things, an independent Scotland would happily build them (and by staying competitive, stand little risk of losing the contract).

But more likely—and where Mr Docherty and his ilk entirely misses the point—an independent Scotland would require an appropriate Navy. Carriers would be stupid in such a context. A balanced Scottish Navy would include not just a few ex-RN frigates but a series of fast patrol boats that would need to be built to protect North Sea infrastructure. This is a role in which the Royal Navy has been hopelessly inept for some years now and which the scrapping of Lossiemouth’s Nimrods has thrown into stark relief. See my earlier blog for details.

An independent Scotland would have plenty of work for both the Clyde and Rosyth yards. Since its defence budget would not include Trident or Challenger tanks or strategic lift/global deployment, it could afford the real workhorses of local defence that the Scandinavians have specialised in for years. Going after terrorists trying to smoke an oil platform from a RIB with an aircraft carrier (even if it was where it was needed) is like going after a wasp with a 12-gauge.

But a fast patrol craft like the Finnish Hamina—capable of 40 knots, stealth profile, water-jet-powered (for shallow waters) and armed to the teeth—would make short work of any naval El Quaeda. Does the RN have any? Well, er, actually, no. All the money’s gone to Trident, Afghanistan and a couple of carriers. But, building a squadron of, say, six for an independent Scotland would keep Mr Docherty’s constituents very busy for a number of years.

And—most important of all—there would be a use for them.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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2 Responses to Floating White Elephants

  1. Angus McLellan says:

    Yes, Scottish aircraft carriers are a nonsense. It would be cheaper to give the 1500 people whose jobs might depend on servicing HMS Nellie and HMS Dumbo at Rosyth a million pounds each to start their own businesses (or retire) than to run one of these white elephants and their aircraft – even Mr Docherty can’t think that an aircraft carrier without aircraft, even just helicopters, makes sense – for their 25+ year lifetime. Lunacy really.

    But it’s doubtful whether the sort of ships used by Finland or Sweden in the Baltic would be very well suited to the very different sea conditions found around Scotland. If we look to Norway, and especially the Coastguard which controls the majority of Norwegian military ships, we see many vessels which are derived from the sorts of offshore supply and support vessels that are seen every day in Aberdeen and elsewhere. While modestly armed and not especially fast these vessels are seaworthy, economical and extremely flexible. Modern design and developments in ROVs mean that such ships can be fitted out to undertake patrol, search and rescue and fisheries protection missions, hunt for and destroy mines, deal with oil spills and pollution, carry out hydrographic and other research, and acted as emergency towing vessels when required. If not today then in the near future they will no doubt be able to hunt for submarines too. The larger types – the Icelandic Coastguard’s “Thor” for example – can carry a helicopter aboard while most such ships can refuel helicopters on their flight deck, if they have one, or while hovering in flight if they don’t. And if it’s terrorists or ‘s “spetsnaz” that we’re concerned about, the ability to carry and launch helicopters and fast boats counts for a lot more than high speed, advanced stealth technology or guided missiles.

    I’d also like to quibble constructively – I hope – about your earlier post “Britannia Waives the Rules” and to take issue with whoever it is that thinks that buying second-hand P-3 Orions is a good idea.

    Some background first (and the map here may be useful). Scotland’s maritime search and rescue responsibilities would extend at least as far out into the North Atlantic as 15 degrees West (the western edge of the EEZ) and possibly as far as 30 degrees West (the edge of the current UK SAR zone). Taking Stornoway as the starting point even 15 degrees West represents a maximum radius of almost 400 nautical miles, right at the limits of the useful unrefueled endurance of even the longest-ranged helicopters available today. As for 30 degrees West – half way between Iceland and Greenland – that’s up to 750 nautical miles distant from Stornoway, far beyond the reach of any helicopter without multiple refuelings.

    Even for fixed wing aircraft in the 20- to 30-ton range like CASA 235 – as used by Ireland – which you mentioned in “Britannia Waives the Rules”, a 1500 nautical mile round-trip would leave little time on station for search and rescue efforts. In addition such aircraft are not very fast at cruising speeds – around 250 knots at best and less for maximum range – so that even getting on station could take around 4 hours from Kinloss/Lossiemouth. SAR at long ranges is really a job for either large turboprop aircraft, which boils down to either the P-3 Orion or versions of the Hercules, or for jets. Jets needn’t be large aircraft like Nimrods or the American P-8 Poseidon but more likely something the Dassault Falcons used by France, Gulfstreams used by Japan or the Bombardier Challengers used by Denmark.

    The Hercules, while perhaps not the obvious choice for a long range maritime patrol and search and rescue aircraft at first glance, can combine those tasks with aerial refuelling, including refuelling large helicopters in flight. And while it is slower than a business jet, the Hercules is around 100 knots faster than CASA so that it could cut an hour off the time needed to get to mid-Atlantic and it can stay on station far longer. The RAF have around 20 current model Hercules aircraft which the MoD plans to retire around 2020 or so. They’ve already seen better days but they can’t be half as clapped out as the average P-3 Orion left sitting wrapped in plastic in the Nevada desert. And unlike the Orion the Hercules remains in production today and probably for many years to come. Finally, since the Hercules is the almost inevitable choice for a transport aircraft, having some add-on kits for refuelling, SAR and patrol is not the same sort of maintenance and spare parts nightmare that having a supporting a small number of aging P-3 Orions would be. As for looking for submarines – whose submarines would these be? – almost anything that might be required can be carried in a Hercules and even at its most complex “systems integration” should only be a matter of adding a parachute so that whatever-it-is can be dropped off the back of the cargo ramp.

    Apologies for the length of the comment. I’d have made it shorter but I don’t have the time or energy.

    • davidsberry says:

      One of the more astute and informed comments I’ve seen, I’m happy to add this to the debate. I’m familiar with the Orions from thirty years ago when they were based at Moffat Field in California and I’m happy to accept your suggestion of the less clapped-out ex-MoD Hercules. The point I think we agree on is that long-range maritime recon (of which the UK now has none) would be far more use to a country the size and location of Scotland than any 40,000-ton, eggs-all-in-one-basket sub magnet of an aircraft carrier.

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