Category Archives: defence

HMS Cumberland waiting off Libyan Coast

from http://www.dtic.mil/jointvision/graphics/...

HMS Cumberland (Image via Wikipedia)

According to news reports the Royal Navy Frigate HMS Cumberland has been ordered to halt her voyage home from the Gulf in order to standby off Libya. Regular readers will recall that Cumberland and her Type 22 sister ships are to be decommissioned later this year. A reminder, if any is needed, that British interests and the safety of British national is being imperilled by defence cuts.

I’m not entirely sure what use a Frigate would be for evacuating the 500-odd British nationals living in Libya. Unlike an aircraft carrier or an assault ship, a Frigate does not have large hangars or vehicle decks in which to accomodate people. And a ship the size of the Type 22 has a crew of around only 200 in the first place – how would such a ship cope with a few more hundreds mouths to feed, one wonders? And Libya is a lot further from the UK than the north Spanish coast was during the Volcanic Ash Cloud rescue effort last year, meaning a longer sea journey.

This is yet another hollow commitment from the Government. In order to be seen to be doing something, regardless of whethers its worthwhile or not, a soon-to-be-decommissioned Frigate is sent to await a task for which it is wholly unsuited. And its another indication of how short-sighted our defence planning is – politicians want warships off the balance sheet, but when the proverbial hits the fan they are only too happy to commit them to action.

I’m reminded of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict several years ago. The then Foreign Secretary eagerly promised a British Frigate to patrol off the coast for illegal arms shipments. Apparently it was quietly pointed out that no Frigates were available, and that if the Foreign Secretary wanted one, then he had better make one magically appear from nowhere.

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Filed under defence, Navy, News, politics

Recent Naval News

Heres a few recent news stories from naval circles that probably don’t warrant a post on their own, but I think some of you might find interesting. They all, in one way or another, chronicle the sad demise of the Royal Navy.

Carribean to go without a Royal Navy Guardship

The Ministry of Defence has announced that there will be no Royal Navy Destroyer or Frigate in the Carribean. The Royal Navy has for a long time stationed an escort vessel in the region to combat drug runners, and also to provide disaster relief to Commonwealth territories in the hurricane season. The fleet of escort ships has been slashed to just 19 by the recent Defence Review, leaving too few to carry out deployments. Instead a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel will patrol the area. Ships routinely seize millions of pounds worth of drugs in the region, and an RFA vessel is simply not up to the job.

Penny Mordaunt, MP for Portsmouth North and defence select committee member, had the temerity to tell the Portsmouth Evening News: ‘It’s a very worrying announcement. If we’re supposed to be tackling the drugs problem on our streets we need to be dealing with supply and that’s something we should want our armed forces to do.’ For the record, her party forced through the ill-thought out Defence Review which decimated the Royal Navy’s surface fleet.

HMS Invincible sold to Turkish Scrap dealers

The decomissioned Aircraft Carrier HMS Invincible has been sold to a Turkish Scrapyard for an undisclosed sum. The buyers, Leyal Ship Recycling, are based in Izmir and specialise in recycling ships. She is expected to leave Portsmouth around the end of March, arrive in Turkey four weeks later and to take eight months to dismantle. She has been sat in 3 Basin of Portsmouth Dockyard since she was decomissioned in 2005. Supposedly she has been in ‘extended readiness’, but has been so stripped of parts to keep her sister ships running that it would take years and millions of pounds to make her operational again. Expect the bandwagon-jumpers who made much of the demise of Ark Royal to not even notice the end of this Falklands veteran.

Amphibious Exercise cancelled due to weather

An amphibious exercise scheduled to take place in the Solent last weekend was cancelled due to adverse weather conditions. The Fleet Flagship HMS Albion and several other vessels were due to land troops on beaches near Browndown Point in Gosport. It was very wet and windy, but one wonders if it was any worse that the weather experienced in June 1944 when Eisenhower, Monty and Group Captain James Stagg had decide whether to invade occupied Europe or not. Or San Carlos Water in 1982. It smacks of Admirals worrying about the paint getting scratched on their Landing Craft, and sends out the wrong message to our armed forces and anyone else. At the end of the day its the Solent, a sheltered Anchorage. If we can’t even make an unopposed landing a few miles from the home of the Royal Navy, what chance a forced landing thousands of miles away?

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Filed under defence, Navy, News

Only Revolutions

I’ve never written much about international politics. Apart from long ago wanting to work as a Diplomat for the Foreign Office, my sole experience of international diplomacy is taking part in a couple of model UN debates when I was 16. But then again, I write mainly about two things – defence, and history. And isn’t it pretty impossible to separate politics, defence and history? Each affects the other. And of course at the forefront of my thoughts are the events unfolding right now in Egypt.

History underpins what happens in international politics. Egypt has traditionally been a US bulwark against communism and then extremism in the Middle East, and Israel’s closest friend in the region (although admittedly that’s not saying much). Hence leaders such as Mubarak have been able to stay in power for a long time, and their abuses of power have been overlooked, as long as they present a front against Islamic extremism. Pan-Arabism also broadly unites the region, particularly against Israel. I didn’t realise just how many regimes in the Middle East are the same – so many leaders have been in power for donkey’s years, and in some cases their fathers before them. I guess once President’s become established in office, the longer they are there the harder they have to be dragged kicking and screaming. Whatever that is, its not democracy. And if people on the streets are tearing themselves apart, then there is no meaningful Government of leadership in any case – thats a vacuum, and out of vacuums comes uncertainty. Iraq post-Invasion taught us that.

Countless times we have read about the role of the Army. Egypt has a sizeable military – the third largest in the Middle East after Turkey and Iran - and if it wanted to wade in on the side of either Mubarak of the opposition, that would probably prove decisive. Yet the Army seems unwilling to take a side, and doesn’t even seem willing to separate the two factions. This is probably down to experience, as the Egyptian Army may not be skilled at riot control. Tellingly, it says something about a regime if the Army – usually a representative cross section of society – is not willing to back the President. The military’s role in politics is extremely delicate indeed. An Army can deliver a coup-de-grace to a failing regime, but then it strays into the territory of becoming a military dictatorship. But at the other end of the scale, if the Army cannot intervene internally, then its influence is effectively neutered. Imagine if the British Army had not been able to intervene in Northern Ireland… it would have been a laughing stock.

Hanging over all of these events are the outcomes of previous revolutions. The current upheaval in Egypt was prompted by a similar wave of protest in Tunisia. And we only have to look back to the downfall of Communism in 1989 and 1990 to see how a small protest in one state can provide a tipping point across the region. The downfall of Communism had its roots in the Solidarity movement in Poland in the early 1980′s, and culminated in peaceful revolutions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. The lesson from 1989 seems to be that once the people have turned against a regime and are on the streets, it’s in everyones interests for change to take place. History tells us that once the people are on the streets, you can either go on your own terms, or against your will.

Are we looking at a domino effect in the Middle East? Only time will tell. The only fear has to be what might come afterwards.

(oh, and apologies to Biffy Clyro for stealing their album title!)

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A new HMS Protector to replace HMS Endurance

HMS PROTECTOR at anchor

The previous HMS Protector (Image via Wikipedia)

The Ministry of Defence have announced that a commercial ice-breaker will be chartered to replace the current HMS Endurance. It is expected that if the charter proves to be succesful she will be purchased and fully commissioned into the Royal Navy. This is no doubt welcome news, particularly given the antics coming out of Buenos Aires recently.

There has been no comfirmation over which ship has been selected. Rumours suggest that a Norwegian vessel working in North America is a favourite, although the MOD has refused to confirm this, stating that the tendering process has not yet been completed. A similar process was followed for the two previous HMS Endurances, which were previously MV Anita Dan and MV Polar Circle respectively.

The MOD have also announced that the new ship will be called HMS Protector. The last HMS Protector was another South Atlantic Patrol Ship, launched in 1936 and decomissioned in 1968. The last two ice patrol ships have been called HMS Endurance, so the naming is a break with recent tradition. And a very eventful tradition at that, with previous HMS Endurance being in the thick of the 1982 Falklands War, and the last Endurance being adopted by the City of Portsmouth and a very visible sign of the UK’s presence in the South Atlantic.

Warship names have always been an emotive issue. There will no doubt be protests that the world will end if the new ship is not called Endurance. Similar calls have been made that one of the new aircraft carriers should be called Ark Royal. Cities have been very precious about having warships named after them – particularly with the decomissioning of the Type 42 ‘City’ Class. One city- Sheffield – even refused to adopt a Type 45 Destroyer as it was called HMS Diamond and not Sheffield. One of the Type 22 Broadsword Frigates was called HMS London after the Lord Mayor of London requested it. How lovely – what if I fancy there being an HMS Daly? Will the Lordships oblige me? Shall we have Warship Factor, a phone-in competition to decide the names of the next class of Type 26 Frigates?

By choosing a new name, but one that has historical connections, the Navy is being very smart. The Royal Navy has a long and rich history, with literally hundreds of proud names to choose from – why use the same names over and over again? It is important to remember that the service is not just about ships but also about men. It really is a case of the King is dead, long live the King.

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Filed under defence, Falklands War, Navy, Uncategorized

Review of the year 2010

Well what a difference a year makes! We started 2010 with a Labour Government, a Royal Navy with aircraft carriers and harriers, Pompey were (just) in the Pemieriship, this blog was getting 2,000 hits a month, and I was about as single as those things that appear in the top 40!!!

In military terms the biggest story has been the brutal cuts of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. Put bluntly, the Army did OK thanks to the prominence of Afghanistan and the lobbying of people such as Richard Dannatt, the RAF did its usual slick string-pulling exercise to keep its Ferraris going, and the Navy got hammered. On a brighter note Navy Days in Portsmouth was a real highlight – in hindsight ‘enjoy it while you can’ might have been an apt slogan for the event.

In the general election people voted ‘for change’, without thinking that change can also take you backwards as well as forwards. Sadly over the next 12 months many people who currently have jobs may find themselves with a lot more time on their hands.

On a personal level, this blog has gone from strength to strength – only the other day we received our 80,000th visitor since we began back in July 2009. On 11 November – Remembrance Day, fittingly – we had our highest ever number of visitors, 439 in one day. A big thank you to everyone who has visited, and particularly those of you who have stuck around and contributed.

Away from the blog, I enjoyed giving four talks on ‘what my family did during the war’. I am in the advanced stages of talks with a publisher to get ‘Portsmouth’s Second World War Heroes’ published. Most of the research is done, and I’m now in the process of writing it up. If all goes to plan, hopefully it will materialise sometime late in 2011.

And now, time for a few awards…

Best WW2 Book I have read this year

Danger UXB by James Owen… honourable mentions for Mother Country by Stephen Bourne; The Battle for Burma by Roy Conyers Nesbit; UXB Malta by S.A.M. Hudson

Best WW1 Book I have read this year

Mud Blood and Bullets by Edward Rowbotham… honourable mentions for The Great Western Railway in the First World War by Sandra Gittins and Kut: Courage and Failure in Iraq 1916 by Patrick Crowley.

Best ‘other’ History book I have read this year

A Long Long War by Ken Wharton… honourable mentions for Bloody Belfast by Ken Wharton and Crimson Snow by Jules Stewart

Best Fiction I have read this year

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks… honourable mentions for New York by Edward Rutherfurd and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.

… and finally, I would like to thank you all for your support and encouragement, and I hope you all have a great 2011.

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Filed under Book of the Week, defence, News, politics, site news, World War One, World War Two

Harrier to make last operational flight

The Harrier - the world's first operational fi...

The Harrier - into history (Image via Wikipedia)

The Harrier GR9 made its last operational flight later today, before it is retired from RAF service.

As many commentators have remarked, it is the end of an era for British engineering. Although the modern GR9 owes much to the McDonnell -Douglas AV version, the basis for the Harrier was still a solely-British engineering project. It’s telling that there was never any chance of Britain actually developing a replacement for the Harrier – we just couldn’t do it, we’re reduced to buying off the shelf from the Americans or going into expensive and difficult partnerships with our European cousins.

It’s like the Concorde being retired – we’re going backwards in the name of economy. All so the RAF can keep zipping their Bugatti Veyrons over the North Sea. Very sad indeed. In hindsight its remarkable that the Harrier lasted as long as it did – the RAF never really took it seriousy, probably because its not fast enough or flashy enough. Never mind that it produced results. The Harrier seems to have become a victim of its own success, and of inter-service politics. The RAF has sought over the past few years to undermine the Royal Navy and the Fleet Air Arm, in an extension of the age-old land based vs. sea projected air power debate. The utility and flexibility of naval air power has been proven over and over again, yet by retiring the Harrier the RAF knew that it would by default retire the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers – something it failed to do in the 1960′s and 1970′s.

A sad end for an aircraft that deserves its place in the Pantheon of historic British military aircraft, alongside the Spitfire and the Lancaster. And like those two aircraft, the Harrier can justly lay claim to having won a war. Just as the only British jets to have shot down enemy aircraft in wartime since 1945 have all come from the Fleet Air Arm. Afghanistan is floated out as a ‘trumps-all’ ace card, the argument supposedly being that the Tornado is better suited to operating in Helmand. Yet the Harrier is more reliable in the heat, more maneouvreable in counter-insurgency conditions, can take off from rough short airstrips, and is cheaper and easier to run and maintain. In any case, even the Harrier is probably overkill for the job they need to do against the Taliban… the Pucara or even the old WW2 Typhoon would probably be sufficient.

The figures suggest that retaining the Tornado at the loss of the Harrier is actually a more expensive option, given that the Tornado is less reliable, far less flexible and more expensive to operate and maintain. In any case the Tornado fleet is due for an engine upgrade in the coming years – how this will be funded has not been adequately explained. These facts – plus the vehement opposition of such esteemed figures as Admiral Lord West, Major General Sir Julian Thompson, and Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward – suggests that the axing of the Harrier was due more to inter-service politics than making savings. I find it very hard not to be furious with people who put their own service above British defence as a whole, to the detriment of the overall picture.

Lord West in particular has been lobbying very strongly for the Government to re-think its decision regarding the Harrier. His argument, as outlined in the Portsmouth Evening News today, is that the Prime Minister and the Government were badly advised by senior RAF officers with ulterior motives aside from national security. As West points out, none of the arguments espoused for keeping the Tornado over the Harrier stand up to any kind of scrutiny. As well as arguing that the Government has been badly advised, you could also go further and to argue that the Government is full of men of such little stature and with no understanding of defence, that it is all the more likely that they will be hoodwinked by bad advice.

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Filed under defence, Falklands War, Navy, News, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

Ark Royal

British Aircraft Carrier Class Invincible: HMS...

Invincible Class - two down (Image via Wikipedia)

Sadly I missed Ark Royal coming into Portsmouth this morning, having been snowed in at my girlfriend’s place in Felpham, just outside Bognor Regis (of King George V ‘Bugger Bognor!’ fame, or less famously Albert Steptoe‘s “but Harold we always go to Bognor!”).

By all accounts it was a bit of a non-affair, not many boats to welcome her in, and I’m sure the crowds were much smaller than they would have been in more clement weather. I’m told that the Harrier flypast didn’t happen either.

All this was probably quite convenient for the Government, who would probably far rather that the Royal Navy’s decommissioned flagship went quietly and without a fuss. It’s a sad day for the Royal Navy, for Portsmouth and for Britain. It’s squeaky bum time for the next ten years, hoping that nothing happens that calls for naval-projected air cover – because we won’t have any.

In other Carrier-based news, HMS Invincible has been put up for auction on the MOD‘s disposal website… in true ebay style the auction ends early in January 2011, and viewers of the website can even ‘add to cart’ the 20,000 ton warship!

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Ark Royal to enter Portsmouth for the last time

HMS Ark Royal (R07)

HMS Ark Royal (Image via Wikipedia)

HMS Ark Royal is due to enter Portsmouth Harbour for the last time on Friday morning.

The Royal Navy’s flagship, due to be decommissioned as part of coalition budget cuts, will arrive in the Solent tomorrow morning, unusually entering via the Needles and sailing past Yarmouth, Lepe, Cowes, and Lee-on-Solent before anchoring up overnight for the usual assorted top brass, flunkies and hangers on to visit.

She’s due to pass the Round Tower at around 0940 on Friday morning. The best spots are likely to be along the hot walls in Old Portsmouth (the Round Tower will be packed), although Gosport will be a good spot due to the layout of the Aircraft Carriers deck, which means that the view from port is better as she enters harbour.

Weather permitting there will be a Harrier flypast, in what is likely to be one of the last public flights by the soon to be decommissioned jump jet.

It will be a sad sight indeed, after Portsmouth has become used to seeing brand new warships arriving, and throughout seeing flagships returning from war, almost always victorious. My parents were onboard a tug when HMS Hermes came back from the Falklands. How times change.

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Filed under defence, Dockyard, Falklands War, Navy

Last Harrier takes off from Ark Royal

The last Harrier jump jets took off from HMS Ark Royal yesterday. Click here to watch video footage on the BBC website.

The four Harrier GR9′s effectively marked the end of naval aviation as we know it, by taking off from the soon to be decommissioned flagship in the North Sea. The last take off comes over 30 years since the first Sea Harrier landed on the deck of a Royal Navy warship, and 28 years since the Sea Harrier was at the forefront of the fight to retake the Falkland Islands.

Lt Cdr James Blackmore was the last Harrier pilot to take off from the iconic ski-jump:

“It is amazing. I watched a Harrier hovering over Chatham dockyard when I was eight years old and I am now fortunate enough to be flying the Harrier today… It’s an amazing aircraft, superb to fly and just very enjoyable.”

Captain Jerry Kyd said there was a tear in his eye when the last Harrier left. He showed extraordinary tact in the following statement:

“It was an emotional moment and also one of real pride as we look back over 25 years service to Queen and country… No naval officer wants to see any ship decommissioned early and she is a fine vessel and she has a fine history. She is at the peak of her efficiency but one understands that very difficult decisions have to be made across government.”

I wonder what Captain Kyd REALLY thinks?

Petty Officer Andrew Collins, 26, from Glasgow, described the situation in the usual directness of the British sailor:

“HMS Ark Royal is like the girlfriend you hate and you only realise you loved her when she has binned you.”

After a short visit to Hamburg in Germany, HMS Ark Royal is due to enter Portsmouth Harbour for the last time on Friday 3 December. Port movements are only announced 24 hours in advance, but looking at the high tides that day, I would predict that she will arrive sometime around 9am or shortly after. Expect a Harrier flypast and tugs spraying water cannons, as well as huge crowds thronging old Portsmouth.

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Filed under defence, Dockyard, event, Falklands War, Navy, News

Admirals urge re-think on Harrier axing

A group of former senior Royal Navy officers have today urged the Government to rethink its plans to scrap HMS Ark Royal and the Harrier fleet. In an open letter to The Times Admiral Lord West of Spithead, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Julian Oswald, Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, Vice-Admiral John McAnally and Major-General Julian Thompson argue that the recently announced defence cuts “practically invite” Argentina to re-invade the Falklands, and that such an invasion would be a national humiliation on the level of the fall of Singapore during the Second World War. Julian Thompson and Lord West in particular have got more of an insight into this matter than most, having been the commander of 3 Commando Brigade and HMS Ardent respectively in 1982.

Building on Lord West’s recent speech in the House of Lords, the letter goes on to explain that the Tornado fleet will need re-engining in 2014, at a cost of £1.4bn – roughly the savings expected from scrapping the Harrier. They are quite right too that the Harrier can take off from much shorter airstrips, has a much quicker response time, is better at providing close air support, and can remain in service until 2023 with little investment. At risk of sounding like a broken record, the Harrier vs. Tornado face-off clearly had more sinister agendas going on behind the scenes than mere defence and cost-cutting.

Finally – and most pertinently, in my view – the Admirals point out that the last Treasury-driven Defence ’10-year-rule’ came in the inter-war period (prompted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a certain Winston Churchill), and history tells us the folly of that particular policy. I wrote some time ago about the historical parallels between the current Government’s 10 year naval aviation gap and the catastrophic 10-year assumption between the wars. Any aggressor almost always has the initiative; take for instance the Falklands invasion in 1982, and to a lesser extent Germany in 1939. If you leave your defence planning dormant until a threat emerges, the threat has the initiative and will already be on top of you before you have any chance to respond.

There are two kinds of threat: an immediate unidentified threat (such as the Falklands), or the looming threat which is prone to being ignored by weak politicians (such as Hitler in the 1930′s). There’s never much you can do specifically about an unidentified threat specifically, apart from making sure your forces are flexible enough to react quickly if needs must. But wilfully ignoring clear and looming threats is at beat folly, and at worst treasonable.

And the comments from the Defence Minister Nick Harvey are naive in the extreme. Four Eurofighters, an infantry company and an obsolete Destroyer are not a defence against invasion. They’re a better tripwire than in 1982, but a tripwire none the less. The potential for reinforcing British forces in the Falklands is minimal now, and will be non-existent after the SDSR’s effects have hit home. That is the key point that Harvey fails to grasp – if anything were to happen in the South Atlantic, we could do virtually nothing beyond what we already have there.

And while we’re talking about naive politicians, how about the Defence Secretary’s comments recently about how Argentina is a vibrant peace-loving country playing a full role on the international scene – hasn’t he heard any of Mrs. Kirchner’s rants over the past few years? Has he not heard about Argentina’s plans to acquire a landing ship from France? Its the same country, with the same kind of Malvinas complex and social problems as in 1982. Sure, Argentina may not be governed by a military junta, but can you take seriously any ‘democracy’ where the President is the last President’s wife? South America is clearly an un-predictable and volatile part of the world.

A Government getting its military history from the Janet and John books whilst wearing rose tinted glasses. And its policy from an ideology that places swingeing cuts over protecting its citizens. Will Dave and Boy George backtrack? Somehow I doubt it…

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Filed under debate, defence, Falklands War, politics, Uncategorized

Anglo-French alliance – does history matter?

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill (in his a...

Churchill and de Gaulle: the uneasiest of allies (Image via Wikipedia)

Not many of you might know this, but the Anglo-French Defence Agreement was due to be signed onboard HMS Ark Royal in Portsmouth. Until she was hatcheted in the Strategic Defence Review, cue a new plan to spare Dave C any embarassment. Even though the SDSR itself was one big embarassment.

Anyhow, on to my main point. When it comes to the UK and France working more closely together, does history matter? As one of my lecturers told us at Uni, ‘we spent most of the eighteenth century at war with the  French, one – because they deserved it, and two – because they needed the practice’. Even though in recent times Britain has been allied with France and Germany has been the more recent enemy, you cannot help but feel that the man on the street has very little time for our cheese-eating cousins across La Manche.

Anglo-French rivalry begins in earnest in 1066, with the arrival of William the Conqueror. After his death his realms in France and England were divided amongst his sons, sparking a rivalry that led to frequent wars between English Kings and various French Kings, nobles and other factions for hundreds of years. The Plantagenets in particular built up an impressive cross-Channel Angevin Empire, through dynastic marriages and conquest. Battles such as Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt heralded British military superiority during the Hundred Years War.

During the reign of Henry VIII we once again gain of feeling of Henry trying to outdo his French ‘cousin’ King Francis, both in war and in chivalry. The Field of Cloth of Gold was nothing more than an elaborate attempt to outwrestle each other, literally at one point. Early modern international politics saw Kings one moment allying with each other, the next trying to attack each other. Later, after the English Reformation and the coming to the throne of Charles I, his French - and Catholic - Queen was the source of much suspicion, particularly for Puritans who suspected a French-backed scheme to re-impose Catholicism. After the accession of the house of Hanover, attempts to re-install Stuart Pretenders to the throne were more often than not launched from France.

Things really hot up during the eighteenth century. Increasingly Imperial rivals – especially in India – Britain found herself at war with France in the middle of the eighteenth century during the thirty years war, and then in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1787 and 1815. This ‘War of wars’ defined modern European, and really was a titanic struggle between a France buoyed firstly by revolutionary fervour and then by Napoleon Bonaparte; and on the other hand a number of coalitions of European nations, bankrolled by British finance. Rather cleverly, Britain refrained from using her land forces in Europe for much of the period, preferring instead to rely on a naval blockade of European ports which strangled French trade. Although Napoleon marched all through Europe, he could not defeat the Wooden Walls bearing the White Ensign.

After co-operation during the Crimean War, the mid to late nineteenth century was again hallmarked by suspicion, with a min-arms race, involving ironclad warships such as HMS Warrior, and the new rifled, breech loading guns requiring whole new lines of fortifications, such as Palmerston’s Folly’s around Portsmouth. Therefore the Entente Cordial, signed in 1904, came as something of an oddity in Anglo-French relations. Forced into an alliance by German expansionism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Britain and France have none the less been uneasy bedfellows since.

Although nominally on the same side in the Second World War, there was much acrimony between both sides. After the fall of France many felt that the BEF had turned tail and ran. I’m not sure quite what else they expected Gort to do; he was following French strategy after all, which had caused the problem in the first place. Even the free French who fought under allied patronage were prickly, particularly de Gaulle, who only really thought of himself, let alone France. In 1940 the Royal Navy was forced to bombard the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in order to prevent it falling into German hands. The incident still causes high feelings even today. Whilst the French might have promised not to let their ships fall to the Germans, this was a promise they were unable to make. I’m not sure what else they expected us to do.

Even after being liberated in 1944, the French had a bizarre way of showing gratitude. Gaullism brought about a fiercely independent outlook, which vetoed UK entry into the EEC for many years, and also withdrew France from NATO – a nonsensical decision during the Cold War, which left the western world highly vulnerable, all for the sake of French pride. During one famous argument, the French Foreign Minister ordered that all US troops were to leave French soil at once. Quick as a flash, his American counterpart enquired whether that included those that were buried there. In a funny kind of way, Gaullism is an example of how a sovereign state should look after its own interests, but its belligerent manner – personified by one Jacques Chirac – has probably caused France more problems than anything else.

So, co-operation with France is very much against the historical grain. Even in recent history where France has nominally been an ally, relations have been uneasy. It will probably take a lot of effort on behalf of the Sarkozy Government to change French domestic thinking in favour of closer military co-operation. Put crudely, the French will have to show more ‘backbone’, and stop building walls between themselves and the rest of the world. During the Cold War France was not part of the military structure of NATO, although French forces were in Germany facing the Warsaw Pact, and also in Berlin. These units were not allowed to plan with their NATO colleagues, meaning that if the balloon went up allied planning would have been in a vacuum. Lunacy indeed, dictated by French selfishness.

Personally, I am more in favour of European military co-operation being on a ‘cluster’ basis. Take for example the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. Britain is the framework nation, providing the Headquarters, signals units, etc. When required, NATO state will assign Divisions to the Corps. Several nations have units designated for quick allocation, and this took place in Kosovo in 1999. Britain has long had a fruitful link-up with the Dutch amphibious forces, with Dutch ships and Marine Battalions operating in an integrated manner with the British Commando Brigade. In this case the synergy is definitely there. During the Cold War, the commander of the British Army of the Rhine also served as NATO’s Commander of the Northern Army Group, with Dutch and German troops under command. Again, the synergy was there, as it had to be. But is that synergy there with the French? Does it make sense for two of the largest militaries in Europe to spontaneously and bilaterally tie themselves together with no planning regarding other states?

Before I finish off this post, let me share something that I found on a well-known British forces discussion website, which gives an idea of how the French military is regarded…

 

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Lord West: Decision to scrap Harrier ‘bonkers’

A former Naval Chief and Government Minister has described the decision to retire the Harrier in favour of keeping the Tornado as ‘bonkers’.

Admiral Lord West, a former First Sea Lord and Labour Security Minister, was speaking in the House of Lords. West was also the commander of the Type 21 Frigate HMS Ardent during the Falklands War, when she was sunk under overwhelming air attack in San Carlos Water.

“The decision to get rid of the Harriers and not the Tornados is, I have to say, bizarre and wrong. It is the most bonkers decision that I have come across in my 45 years in the military and I assure you I have been privy to some pretty bonkers decisions in that time. In terms of cost if we remove the Tornado force we are looking at £7.5bn by 2018. With the Harriers we are looking at less than £1bn. So in cost terms that does not make sense.”

If his figures are right, West’s argument does seem to suggest that the decision to retire the Harrier and retain the Tornado is about much more than savings. The RAF clearly lobbied to retire the Harrier -an aircraft the junior service has never been overly keen on - knowing full well that its retirement meant scrapping the Aircraft Carriers that carry them, and thus undermining the Navy. Land-based and naval aviation have never been easy bedfellows. A prime example would be the oft-quoted case where the RAF ‘moved’ Australia on the map to show that they could provide land based air cover anywhere in the world.

The decision to retire the Harrier was supported by Lord Craig, a former Chief of Defence Staff and Chief of the Air Staff:

“No one would wish to see them go, but under the circumstances where a decision has to be made between Tornado and Harrier and more Tornado, Tornado surely produces the better result particularly bearing in mind how many aircraft are needed to be supportive in Afghanistan.”

Craig’s argument is entirely in keeping with the RAF’s policy of maintaining its fleet of fast jets at any cost. There is no evidence to suggest that the Tornado produces better results, particularly when it is due to be replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon soon in any case. The Harrier was designed specifically for the job of close air support for troops on the ground, such as in Afghanistan. The Tornado was designed as a Cold War fast interceptor, with the GR variant having a role in ground attack, particularly in attacking airfields. The Harrier on the other hand is more flexible, and can take off from much shorter runways. By ‘produces better results’, does Lord Craig mean that its speedometer goes slightly higher? Another example of defence chiefs looking for gold plated de luxe options when a cheaper turbo-prop counter insurgency aircraft would do the job.

The decision does seem to me to be akin to scrapping a hard-working and reliable Fiesta in order to save a few pounds to keep running an expensive Veyron. It’s amazing how we have come from a few months ago debating ‘what is the point of the RAF?’ to the present where the Royal Navy has been butchered to keep the light blue virtually intact.  Inter-service politics and single-mindedness at their worst.

Elsewhere, a survey of defence experts by the Royal United Services Institute suggests that 90% felt that the Strategic Defence and Security Review was a ‘lost opportunity’, and that Britain’s global role is now undefined and in a vacuum. The RUSI produced a wealth of research material prior to the review, most of which was completely ignored by the coalition Government. There is something bizarre about a Defence Review conducted by a couple of old Etonians (who give the impression of being as rich as Croesus but as thick as shit)  and their ‘special’ advisors, while defence analysts watch from the sidelines with dismay.

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Is ‘victory’ in Afghanistan possible?

Soviet President Michael Sergeevich Gorbachev

Image via Wikipedia

I’m always astounded to read yet-another scaremongering article about how NATO is ‘losing’ the war in Afghanistan. Whilst it is difficult to argue with such a prominent figure as Mikhail Gorbachev, he is not quite right to compare the current war in Afghanistan with the war that the Soviet Union

All historical and military evidence suggests that you do not ever ‘win’ a counter-insurgency campaign in the traditional military ‘win or lose’ manner. For that is what the war in Afghanistan is – a campaign to prevent the Taliban from taking hold, rather than to capture ground or openly defeat an enemy. There will never be any kind of cushing, convincing victory, no ticker tape reception or victory parade.

The British Army fought perhaps the most succesful counter-insurgency campaign in history in Northern Ireland. Whilst it could not be said that the Army ‘won’ in the strictest military sense, it did make it impossible for the paramilitaries to achieve their objectives. I’m sure that at any point the Army could have gone all-out and eliminated every terrorist that it knew of, but while this might have made for good headlines, it would have hardened a whole generation to the nationalist cause. Just look at the effect that Bloody Sunday and Internment had – any kind of bigger offensive does not bear thinking about. The objective in counter-insurgency has to be not only to improve matters, but to ensure that they do not get worse.

Another perspective I have never understood is the argument that ‘the British Army has never won in Afghanistan’. History does not bear out this argument at all. British Armies in Afghanistan did have a very hard time in Afghanistan in the Nineteenth Century, but we need to understand what exactly they were doing there. There was – and indeed, still is not – anything in Afghanistan to conquer. The British Empire was not about conquering empty countries; it was built on trade. Rather, campaigns in Afghanistan were aimed at presenting a strong bulwark against Russian expansionism in Asia, and safeguarding the North West Frontier of India. All of these objectives were achieved.

I do agree that the sooner international forces can leave Afghanistan the better, as their mere presence can be a recruiting tool for the Taliban, but at the same time there is no sense in pulling out pell-mell unless the Afghans themselves can take care of their own security. History suggests that problem states that are left along – Germany post 1918, and Iraq after the first Gulf War – will only need to be dealt with at a later date, and usually in a more bloody fashion. I do not believe either that Afghanistan will become another Vietnam - the US and the international have – or should have – learnt an awful lot in dealing with counter-insurgency since then.

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HMS Ark Royal to be scrapped – Defence Review

It’s emerged this morning that the Royal Navy’s Flagship and only operational Aircraft Carrier, HMS Ark Royal, is to be scrapped ‘almost immediately’. The original plan had been to retain Ark Royal And her sister ship HMS Illustrious in service until the new Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers reached service. The news is bound to spark outrage, with Ark Royal being such a famous name.

My guess is that Ark Royal will be decomissioned as soon as Illustrious leaves refit, which she is currently undergoing. Bearing in mind that the other Aircraft Carrier, HMS Invincible, is rusting in Portsmouth Harbour and completely useless for operations, this will leave Britain with one Aircraft Carrier for some years. And who knows if Illustrious will survive that long anyway?

The Harrier is due to leave service early, and the Joint Strike Fighter is due (this may slip) to enter service in around 2019, which means that for almost 10 years the Royal Navy will not fly fast jets off their aircraft carriers. This gap in service is very serious – it means that a lot of the skills connected with naval aviation, whilst not completely lost, will be by no means as sharp as they could be, and it will take some time to regain that effectiveness.

And with a sizeable gap with no aircraft carrier available, the Royal Navy will not be able to provide air cover for its own operations, especially vulnberable amphibious operations which depend on air superiority. Which effectively means that Britain cannot mount independent naval operations. As my mum – hardly a defence analyst – said watching the news this morning, “we’d might as well tell the Argies to walk in the front door”. If I were a Falkland Islander waking up today, I would be feeling ever so slightly let down by a Government whose first duty it is to protect its citizens.

On the whole, the RAF seems to have done rather well out of the Review. Retiring the Harrier early is not a huge loss for the junior service, and retaining ‘some’ Tornado Squadrons – even when it is in the process of being replaced by Eurofighter Typhoon – is bizarre in the least. The best solution would be to retain at least some Harrier presence until the pilots can begin transferring to the Joint Strike Fighter, and to retire the Tornado early as the UK has the Eurofighter coming onstream in the fast air interceptor role.

The Army seems to have done OK, with stern lobbying resulting in only low level cuts in numbers of troops, but cuts to many armoured and artillery units – capabilities that are being described as ‘cold war’. But at least a grain of capability is being kept - its easier to expand a tank force, for example, if there is even just a basic capability and experience, than it is to raise one from scratch. Flying US and French jets from British Carriers is pie in the sky stuff – it would be hostage to all kinds of political and diplomatic considerations, and in any case would the French and US Navies have enough jets spare to do it more than once or twice a year?

It might have made more sense, from a naval point of view, to scrap HMS Ocean, which was built to commercial standards as a stop-gap is apparently falling to bits. Then Ark Royal and Illustrious could have been retained with one acting as a Helicopter Carrier if need be. The run-down of Aircraft Carrier capability is also bad news for Portsmouth as the home of Royal Navy Aircraft Carriers. Especially for anyone who saw the considerable report from Plymouth on the BBC News this morning, complete with schoolchildren writing letters to the Prime Minister along the lines of  ‘please save my Daddy’s job’. The BBC’s line seemed to be that Portsmouth can take a hit much more easily than Plymouth could. Which may be true, but still painful none the less.

Other reports suggest that the Royal Navy’s escort fleet – Destroyers and Frigates – will be cut from 24 to 19. My guess is that this will mean the loss of the four Type 22 Frigates (Cornwall, Chatham, Cumberland, Campbeltown) and the remaining Batch 2 Type 42 Destroyer (Liverpool). Or, alternatively, if any of the Type 23 Frigates are due for expensive refits then they might be retired early and flogged off.

An even more unbelievable report suggests that while both new carriers will enter service, the first – Queen Elizabeth – may be mothballed and sold after three years in order to recoup the costs of building the thing. The indignity of the Royal Navy selling one of the largest warships that it has ever built, named after the Queen, is fairly evident to even those with a weak grasp of defence politics.

All in all, its a balls up and its wrong of the politicians to insult our intelligence by suggesting anything otherwise. I suppose we shouldn’t have expected anything different from a Defence Review that was completed in five months, headed by the Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor and largely cut out the Ministry of Defence and Service Chiefs, who now have to pick up the pieces and work with whats left.

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Fears over armed forces morale and the Defence Review

Portrait of Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Well...

Wellington: he 'got' morale (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m very selective over what I post relating to the SDSR nowadays – otherwise we all run the risk of SRSD-itis, and in any case, a Defence Review where the MOD is a bystander is pretty dubious. But there is a very interesting report in today’s Portsmouth News that I wanted to comment on, and draw on some historical parallels. The funny thing is, the letter that the article is based on is slightly dubious – apparently written by a ‘senior naval officer’, the individual concerned is currently at sea – so no higher than a Captain, and considering only the Carriers, Landing Ships and some destroyers are commanded by Captains, and few of them are at sea, it looks like its someone who is a Commander of below. Not too senior then.

Morale is possibly the most unquanitifiable resource that any armed service can possess. You cannot buy it (well, not in a bottle anyway), and you cannot measure it by any accountant-friendly matrix. But it wins battles, and a lack of it loses battles. Yet all too frequently, it doesn’t feature at all in planning, or in debates.

Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Andrew Cunningham‘s quote before Taranto that ‘ it takes a day to lose a battle, but hundreds of years to build a tradition’ shows how hard morale is to build, and how quickly it can be shattered. You cannot say, ‘I am going to improve morale’, you have to actually do things to lift it, and it doesnt happen overnight. Look at the oft-quoted Japanese Commander, who decreed to his troops that ‘beatings will continue until morale improves’.

With the Duke of Wellington in command in the Peninsula and at Waterloo, the British Army knew that it had a gifted commander who was on top of his game, and was not going to squander their lives needlessly. Which does wonders for morale – men are more likely to fight well if they know their Generals are good, if they think they have a chance of winning, and most importantly, if they have a good chance of surviving. The same principles could be applied to Marlborough as well as Wellington.

There are some tragic examples of how things can go badly wrong when morale is ignored. Whilst much has been written in the ‘Lions led by Donkeys‘ debate about the Western Front, it would be hard to argue that British Generals in 1914-18 were overly concerned with their men. Its also probably the time in British military history where there was a bigger gulf in understanding between field officers upwards and the rank and file. Living and fighting in miserable conditions, in a war where the men knew very well that the commanders were struggling, could more have been achieved if the men had simply been treated like human beings? It is hard to know for sure, but it cannot have hurt.

The men who commanded the British Army in the Second World War were the platoon, company and battalion commanders of the previous war. As junior officers on the western front they had very much shared the hardships of their men, and most of them came to despise the Generals who had commanded them. Men such as Montgomery, Slim and Horrocks showed a strong concern for their men. Montgomery expressed an opinion that if you want men to risk their lives for you, then you owe it to them to explain exactly WHY. Slim of course was from very humble beginnings himself, having served as Private in a University Cadet unit. Horrocks was famously incredulous when he discovered that the Americans were not giving their men hot meals in the Ardennes. Men fighting in the snow need and deserve a hot meal first, he told them. On the other side of the coin, Generals who had little regard for their men were not liked – Ivo ‘Butcher’ Thomas, for example.

But bringing thinking back to the Royal Navy, the RN is possibly the most prominent example of how an armed service, morale and national identity are inherently intertwined. Rule Britannia, Heart of Oak, Nelson, Victory, Trafalgar… the Navy might not have the vast numbers of ships any more, nor the frequent opportunities to use them, but the tradition is still there. Look at the Falklands… Commander Chris Craig taking HMS Alacrity through Falkland Sound, HMS Coventry and HMS Broadsword on picket duty off West Falkland, and Captain John Coward of HMS Brilliant. They are the descendants of Drake, Rodney, Vernon, Hawke, Howe, Nelson, Collingwood, Cochrane, Jellicoe, Beatty and Cunningham.

Yet, if you gut that sense of tradition, and the feeling of being part of something special, you lose a vital resource that has been built up over hundreds of years, and once thrown away, is lost forever. Morale.

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