Category Archives: News

BAE Systems may close one of British shipyards

Type 45 Destroyer at BAE System Shipyard (Govan)

Type 45 Destroyer at BAE System Shipyard (Govan) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of BAE Systems British shipyards may close, the firms Chief Executive told the Sunday Telegraph.

BAE systems own three shipbuilding facilities in Britain – at Govan at Scotstoun in Scotland, and in Portsmouth. After the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers have been completed there is a noticeable gap in orders from the MOD, with the next programme likely to be the Type 26 Frigates due to begin a couple of years later. This gap means that it would be unprofitable to keep one of the yards running while there is no work, hence the likelihood of a closure.

Notably, BAE has performed poorly in the export market in recent years, only managing to receive orders from smaller countries for patrol vessels. Ships such as the Type 45 have not sold on the international market. By contrast countries such as France, Spain and Germany have extremely succesful export records. If only BAE had managed to sell even a few destroyers or frigates in the intervening years, British jobs might not be at risk.

Portsmouth is believed to be the most vulnerable, with 1,500 jobs at risk. There is a notion outside of Portsmouth that as it is in the South East, it can look after itself. As a result Portsmouth has always fared badly when it has come to defence cuts, compared to areas such as Plymouth and Scotland, which not only have relatively few other opportunities for employment, but have also managed to deploy much stronger political arguments. The previous Labour government went to great lengths to protect scottish shipbuilding, due to the close poximity of the scottish shipyards to the constituencies of several high-profile Labour MP’s. Yet, with Alec Salmond’s hot air regarding independence, not to mention the SNP’s anti-military stance, would it not be sensible for BAE – a BRITISH, ie, London company – to secure itself in England?

It’s cruelly unfair that Portsmouth always gets the thin end of the wedge when it comes to cuts. In the post-war period Portsmouth did much to diversify and reduce its reliance on the Royal Navy and the Dockyard, developing new industries, such as heritage, tourism, technology and services. Plymouth, on the other hand, did very little. As a result Plymouth is still reliant on the Navy, and has long been protected from cuts.

Rather worrying times for anyone working for BAE in Portsmouth.

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WW2 Pigeon discovered; code may never be broken

As you may have seen in the news recently, the remains of a Second World War code-carrying pigeon have been discovered in a chimney in Surrey. The bird had a small red canister attached to its leg, of the type used by SOE – the Special Operations Executive. The code inside cannot be broken with any existing codes, and is currently being worked on by Government code experts at GCHQ.

It is entirely possible that the code may be unbreakable. It could have been written using a unique, ‘once only’ code, which will have long since been destroyed. Alternatively, it could be written using a code written for a specific operations, again, which may have long since been destroyed. Without any contextual information, it will be difficult, even with the use of ‘super-computers‘, to break the code.

Even if the code can be broken, it could well be something completely mundane. It could be a message from a unit confirming that they have achieved an objective, or sending a message back to headquarters for more toilet paper.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20164591

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20458792

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New Design Images of Type 26 Frigates

Earlier today the Royal Navy released new images of the planned class of Type 26 Frigates.

The images show a rather sleek looking vessel, stealthily like the Type 45 Destroyers, with a very similar, albeit shorter and set back. It looks very similar to a lot of the other recent European designed Frigates such as the Dutch Zeven Provincien, Danish Absalon and Spanish Bazan classes. As with the Type 45′s, its nice to see us designing modern warships, but why are we essentially designing ships now that the rest of the world built a decade ago? What is it with out defence policy and procurement that takes so long?

Some more technical specifications have also been divulged:

  • Displacement – 5,400 tonnes
  • length – 148 metres
  • crew – 118, with space for up to 190
  • Vertical launch missile silo
  • Medium Calibre Gun, that looks suspiciously like an Oto Melara
  • A Phalanx-style CIWS
  • Hangar to accomodate Merlin or Lynx Wildcat
  • A flexible mission space for UAV, seaboats, special forces or humanitarian operations

According to reports the planned order is for 13, although given the manner in which warship classes almost always end up consisting of a lot less than the original order, the Royal Navy might do well to get 10. There are currently 13 Type 23 Frigates in the fleet. According to the Portsmouth News the final decision for ordering these ships will be taken in the 2015 Defence Review, so of course that is vulnerable to cuts.

The first ship is scheduled to enter service, but again, expect this to slip once the project goes through the various hoops at the MOD. Mind you, Phillip Hammond announced today that 25% of senior military and civilian staff at Commodore/Brigadier level and above will be cut over the next few years, so things might actually start to run smoother!

Some of the quotes from the Defence Minister, Peter Luff, refer to how the project will sustain shipbuilding jobs in Britain. The design IS modular, a la Type 45 and CVF, but if the first ship is due to enter service in 2020, work will have to start in about 2015 at the very latest one would imagine (unless the ‘in service’ date is actually delivery date, but the two are different). One suspects that there will end up being a gap between the end of the QE programme and the Type 26 work, which might leave shipbuilding jobs in Portsmouth in particular vulnerable.

I’ve gone on record before in my belief that these will be the most important ships in the 21st Century Royal Navy. One only has to take a cursory glance a the operational taskings of the fleet, and 95% of what Royal Navy ships are doing is Frigate work. The Type 26 seems like a step in the right direction for chasing pirates and insurgents in RIB’s.

See the MOD, BBC or Portsmouth News articles for more information. There’s also a nifty looking animation on the BBC website.

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Reflections on London 2012

English: Mo Farah after 5000 m final - World c...

Mo Farah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OK, I know that in the main this is a history blog, but I couldn’t let the momentous events of the past few weeks pass by without saying a few words about the performance of Team GB, and how it compares with the performance of the players of our supposed national sport.

 

The funny thing about the Olympics is that a plethora of minority sports captivate our imagination for two weeks every four years, and then that’s it for another Olympic cycle. We would almost be forgiven for thinking that cycling, athletics, swimming, sailing and rowing do not even take place outside of an Olympic year.

 

Yet they are very much taking place. Olympic cyclists regularly train for 12 hours a day, beginning at 7am. Mo Farah runs anywhere between 100 and 120 miles a week. Add into that things like special diets that most of us would find distinctly unappetising, altitude training at camps far from home, in many cases a dearth of facilities and funding, and you can see that the lot of an elite athlete is hardly a glamorous one.

 

Compare that to the average day of a professional footballer, people who are held up as national heroes and role models. Get up at about 9am, roll in training at something like 10am, sit and have breakfast with your mates, and then do a few tricks and flicks and play some six a side for a couple of hours. Spend the afternoon playing golf, looking at cars or buying the plastic missus some (more) new clothes.

 

And to think we wonder why England always fail in big international tournaments. It’s not hard to see why – by and large, football has lost the charm, the inspiration and the hunger of athletics. Players don’t work hard and then we wonder why they fail. We pay them exorbient amounts of money and don’t ask them to do much for it, and we then wonder why they end up misbehaving and losing sight of why they play the game in the first place. And to cap it all, isn’t it a bit sad that the greatest moment of England’s supposed best player of the last two decades was scoring a last-minute equaliser to scrape world cup qualification against a football backwater?

 

The success of Team GB makes me wish that I was 12 again. If only I could try some of these sports, who knows how things might have turned out? Yet all I can remember from PE at school is playing endless indoor football. Looking back, I could have made a half-decent distance runner, but who at 15 really wants to be a runner? The overwhelming peer pressure, and wider culture, places football on a pedestal. Mo Farah was obsessed with football, and dreamed about playing left-back for Arsenal. Thankfully his PE teacher saw his potential as a distance runner, and the rest is history.

 

I will always like football, or, rather, the memories of the sport before it became tainted by money and celebrity. Football still retains the ability to enthuse and move people more than any other sport, if only it could rediscover them. The problem is, all the time people keep watching on Sky TV and paying the extortionate ticket prices, nothing much will change. But I am pretty sure there are some characters in the FA- hell, even in FIFA- who have watched the past few weeks events and will have realised that football has to begin to raise its game and clean up its act sooner rather than later if it does not want to be left behind.

 

 

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New Patrol Vessels could plug gap for Royal Navy and Portsmouth

HMS Severn (P282) and HMS Mersey (P283), two R...

A report in today’s Portsmouth News suggests that the Government may be on the verge of ordering two new Patrol Vessels for the Royal Navy.

Apparently such a move would be partly motivated by a need to keep the BAE shipbuilding yard in Portsmouth occupied between the end of the Type 45 and QE Class programmes, and the beginning of the Type 26 project. The proposed new ships would be built in 2014 and 2015, at a combined cost of £150m. BAE in Portsmouth already have a good track record of  building Patrol Vessels, having completed HMS Clyde and similar vessels for Trinidad and Tobago, which have recently been sold to Brazil. I am very dubious about the idea of building ships solely to preserve jobs, but in this case there is a strategic need for them.

I have long been of the opinion that well-armed Offshore Patrol Vessels are the answer for tackling low-intensity operations in places such as the Horn of Africa and the Carribean. A helicopter is a must, and the current 30mm gun is probably not powerful enough. A few more miniguns would probably not go amiss either. The ability to operate and launch several RIBs would also be important. Some might point to the lack of decent anti-air defences as a downside, but is this really needed for anti-narcotics and anti-piracy? Perhaps a shoulder-launched SAM or two might be the answer?

But looking at the current situation, is it a good use of a £1bn air defence Destroyer to have it sat east of Suez chasing Arab Dhows and Pirate Skiffs? Basing a patrol vessel in the Carribean and the Horn of Africa semi-permanently – as with minehunters – and rotating crews would free up a lot more escort hulls. An RFA as a mother ship would be pretty sensible as well I should imagine. It’s not far from the global corvette concept that was advanced a few years ago. And if you think about it, 30 or 40 years ago Frigates were not much bigger than River Class patrol vessels anyway. Yet the size of escort vessels has creeped up relentlessly, with the addition of ever more complex weapon systems.

Aside from the operational considerations, such a move would safeguard jobs in Portsmouth, and keep BAE’s shipbuilding in England running. Portsmouth is now BAE’s only shipbuilding operation in England, with its other main yard being on the Clyde. The political implications of Scottish independence do not bear thinking about, and it is surely sensible for the Government to play it safe when it comes to ensuring that such a strategic industry remains in British hands for the future. The shipbuilding industry in Scotland has enjoyed many years of political subsidy, and now must  endure the consequences of Alec Salmond’s bluff and bluster.

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Deal signed for armed forces new boots

The MOD ann0unced yesterday that it had just signed a new contract for the supply of new boots for servicemen in the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force. The contract, worth £80m, will provide servicemen with a new range of brown combat boots. The name of the succesful contractor has not been divulged, but according to the pictures from the MOD it seems to be HAIX, a german company.Troops will have the choice of five different types of footwear:

  • Desert Combat, to be worn by on-foot troops, undergoing high levels of operations in heat of up to 40 degrees (such as Afghanistan)
  • Desert Patrol, as above but designed for mounted troops, such as drivers and armoured troops
  • Temperate Combat, for wear by dismounted troops in temperate climates (such as North West Europe)
  • Patrol, as above but to be worn by mounted troops
  • Cold Wet Weather, for dismounted troops in temperatures down to minus twenty degrees (for example the Falklands)

Each of the five types of boot come in two different styles – what styles these are the MOD have not announced – and in two different widths, so for the first time women can choose a boot that fits them more closely.The new boots were chosen after trials involving 2,000 personnel in Kenya, Cyprus, Canada and the UK.

In the pictures supplied by the MOD the Temperate Brown Boots in particular look very much like the hill walking boots you might buy from a brand such as Brasher. Black boots will still be work by ‘non-camouflage’ units, such as much of the Royal Navy and the RAF, and with full dress uniform – eg the Guards Regiments when on ceremonial duties in London. 

The history of combat boots is actually a pretty interesting one. Of course, soldiers operate on their feet. And on your feet you wear shoes (or boots!). If your boots aren’t good enough, you can’t move. And even in the twenty first century, and army that can’t move on its feet isn’t much good to anyone.

For years troops had worn hobnailed boots, or ammunition boots. With the advent of technology, and in particular the growth of outdoor pursuits such as hill walking, more advanced boots gradually became available.

Yet, in the Falklands troops actually suffered cases of trench foot, as the DMS boots then in use were completely unsuitable to fighting in cold and wet conditions. One supposes that having fought much of the last 50 years in places like North West Europe, Northern Ireland and potentially against the Warsaw pact, boots designed to fight in extremely hot or extremely cold places were not a priority. The DMS even still had toecaps. Initially there for reinforcement, they were beloved of Sergeant Majors as they were ideal for bulling – that is, polishing to a mirror-like state. British soldiers even took their regular fitness runs in DMS boots for many years, until someone inevitably realised that running long distances in unsuitable boots caused injuries.

After the Falklands the MOD introduced BCH – Boots, Combat, High – boots in a very simialkr fashion to those worn by practically every other NATO army for some time. A reliable source once told me all about these famous British Army boots that used to melt in the heat – as seen during exercises in Oman in 2001. I’m not sure about what exactly happened, but it sounds as if the MOD tried to upgrade the boots issued to the forces, but in going for the cheapest option – and potentially buying British – ended up buying a sub-standard product that didn’t do what it needed to do. SA80 mk1, anyone?

With the Army fighting two medium-intensity wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, attention has turned once again to finding a style of boot that is comfortable, durable and can work in different climates. At one stage in the Iraq and Afghan deployments it was well known that troops were purchasing their own boots from companies such as Meindl, Lowa or Altberg. Obviously this situation is pretty ridiculous and led to the MOD putting out a tender in 2011, resulting in todays announcement.

In terms of most military equipment, I am of a functional mind – first and foremost, get something that does the job, and well. Buying sub-standard usually ends up costing more in the long run. And ceremonial considerations such as what they look like should come a distant second to operational matters.

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Government confirms new 20 year rule for official documents

The National Archives website has confirmed that the long-standing 30 year rule for the release of official documents will be reduced to a new 20 year rule from 2013 onwards. From 2013, two years worth of documents will be released each year, until the ‘backlog’ is cleared by 2023.

The change follows a review of the 30 year rule that I covered way back in 2009. We can look forward to important documents being released on key events in history, much sooner after they actually happened – it should be a real bonus for historians and researchers.

Some of the records that we should get to see early in the next few years include Northern Ireland in the 1980′s, the miners strike, Lockerbie, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the first Gulf War.

Traditionally the 30 year rule had given protection to politicians and civil servants, that there actions would not be scrutinised too closely in the immediate aftermath of events. Of course, there is a fine balancing act between confidentiality on the one hand, and transparency and probity on the other.

One restrictive rule that is still in place is the 100 year rule for the release of census information. However, the 1911 census was released a couple of years early in 2009, and there is a Freedom of Information appeal ongoing for the wartime ‘mini-census’ to be released early.

I would also like to see a radical shift from the shortsighted British practice of charging for access to records, compared to countries such as Canada and Australia who make many documents available online for free. It stifles historic research to a degree that the mandarins and accountants could never understand.

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