Disproving the First Law

After a career spent largely pushing paper around in pursuit of ever more complex computer electronics, I returned to Scotland twenty years ago, bringing back an MGB already twenty years old and engaged mechanic buddy Colin to help restore it. For the next year or so, we lay over and under the beast, seeing to various ailments, many of which were age-related and involved removing seized nuts & bolts. Colin’s approach to such problems was a brisk application of WD40 and his First Law of Engineering—When in Doubt, Use a Larger Hammer.

I was reminded First Law by Jim Murphy in the defence debate at the Festival of Politics (see previous blog). He echoed what I have heard from Alastair Darling, Brian Wilson and most other unionist spokespeople when it comes to discussing defence—that Scotland walks taller and ‘punches above its weight’ by being part of the UK. That’s because the UK has a seat on the UN security council, nuclear weapons and the third biggest defence budget on the planet. It strikes me that this is Colin’s First Law writ large on a global scale. And it has all the subtlety of an air raid.

There is, in my opinion, an entire debate to be had whether the UK is in a position to be (or even pretend to be) a global power. The absence of the British emperor’s clothes on the global stage started half a century ago with Suez, became apparent in the Falklands and is the subtext of each American-poodle role UK forces have played since Operation Desert Storm. For me, the jig is up as far as modern global gunboat diplomacy is concerned; the only reason the UK can pretend any global role is as sidekick validator that the US isn’t just a self-interested bully acting alone.

To shore up this role, the UK is spending £7bn to build two aircraft carriers, for which £5.5bn for F35B fighter aircraft cannot be provided at first (and hares have been set running that the UK can’t even afford to finish both ships). Put together with a support & escort force (but no Aegis cruiser because the RN has none), a finished carrier is indeed a potent global weapon—one standing off the Syrian coast (as France’s Charles de Gaulle is currently) may give Assad food for thought. But, given that each US aircraft carrier has three times the planes and three times the clout of any European carrier AND that the USN deploys a dozen of them, both France and the UK are global tiddlers.

And yet, the UK persists in this global role. The workhorse of the RN—the Type 23 frigate is to be replaced by the Global Combat Ship (aka GCS). Because the six larger Type 45 destroyers are costing a cool £500m+ each, at £350m each, the GCS is seen as the escort workhorse well into the 21st century. Indeed it will be a capable vessel, with flexible armament for anti-air, anti-submarine and GP roles. And, at 5,400 tons (25% larger than a frigate), it should have the seaworthiness and habitability for global deployment far from bases.

But, so what? Although both French and American air strikes have been launched into Afghanistan from off the Pakistani coast, it has had trivial effects on the main conflict and done more as an exercise and show of solidarity with the hard-pressed ground troops. To replace all 13 Type 23 frigates will cost £4.5bn and at least two will be committed as escorts for each carrier (along with a Type 45 destroyer), leaving a dozen major surface units for all other tasks. The upside of a ship like the GCS is discussed in a paper from RUSI. But, given Scotland’s geographic position and the rundown of the RAF in the country, what kind of defence are we going to have?

Because what Scotland needs is a regional defence. Leave aside that not being part of the UK would probably reduce any terrorist threat close to zero. In order of probability and priority, Scotland must be provided with defence against:

  1. Terrorist attack on North Sea facilities, especially oil platforms.
  2. Fisheries protection and sovereignty enforcement (incl. drug & contraband traffic)
  3. Long-range intrusion by global powers, whether on, over or under the sea
  4. Major disasters, whether major shipwreck, storm damage or humanitarian aid
  5. Local intrusion by hostile neighbours

The GCS is the optimal platform only for the latter two. Threat No 3 can best be dealt with by long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft (of which the UK now has none) and land-based air strikes. To best deal with Threats 1 & 2, many more smaller, faster ships would be far preferable to a half-dozen GCS (even if they were deployed in home waters).

Other countries have done the same analysis and come up with better solutions to this set of problems, especially those happy with a simply regional defence and no pretence at global deployment ability. These include:

  • USN Independence class Littoral Combat Ship —2,300 tons, 44 kts, $700m (£470m)—innovative, v. fast trimaran but expensive for what you get
  • German Braunschweig class Corvette—1,840 tons, 26 kts, $309m (£102m)—powerful for its size but teething problems with turbines
  • Spanish BAM (Buque de Acción Marítima) Offshore Patrol Vessel—2,500 tons, 20+kts $110m (£75m)—cheaper but with a high standard of automation and habitability
  • Finnish Hamina class Fast Attack Boat—250 tons, 30 kts, $100m (£68m)—innovative ‘stealth’ boat of shallow draft using water jet propulsion
  • RN River class Offshore Patrol Vessel—1,680 tons, 20 kts, $47m (£32m)—cheapest, with impressive endurance but lightly armed; until recently, leased from the builders

Given that any of the 19 RN ‘major’ ships have been notable by their absence from Scottish waters (there is usually a maximum of one anywhere in UK waters, based at Portsmouth), there is little likelihood that the UK ‘global’ posture will permit that to change. Were Scotland to acquire its ‘share’ of the RN, that would start with two frigates and one of the ‘River’ class patrol boats that are based on the Clyde. That, in itself would provide  better protection for Scottish waters, especially if a squadron of LRMR aircraft were added.

But an optimal protection would be to trade in the two 4,400-ton frigates for something more flexible. assuming that, in the RN each would be replaced by a GCS, the £700m involved could be far better spent. Such a sum (other than one US LCS) would get you:

  • a flotilla of four BAMs for sustained patrol requirements (see above)
  • a flotilla of four Hamina for rapid intercession action (e.g. guerrilla attack on a rig or chasing contraband)
  • two CN-235 turboprop LRMR aircraft to start providing recon support for such a naval

So, trading the single River for something more useful and having eight ships fit for purpose instead of three that are straight out of Engineering’s First Law seems like a deal.

Where such ships would be built is open to debate and there is some risk that they would not be built in Scottish yards. However, given the paucity of ship orders now coming from the MoD, any long term hope for those yards for a future from building RN warships is in jeopardy—whether the UK holds together or not.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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