UK Ministry of Defence bosses have announced their intention to retire seven ships and reduce the Royal Marines by 1000 personnel in a cost-saving effort necessitated by the acquisition of two world-class aircraft carriers, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and the HMS Prince of Wales.
It’s brilliant that the Royal Navy is stepping boldly into the 21st-century with two state-of-the-art aircraft carriers, yet many sailors will miss the still great but aging ships, which have a decade or two of service life left in them.
In fact, two of the soon-to-be retired vessels, the HMS Albion and the HMS Bulwark aren’t even halfway through their expected life-cycle but are excellent ships that could be sold to any Commonwealth nation.
As an island nation and as the world’s oldest sea power, Britain should always command a first-rate navy, and good policy would dictate the sale of RN ships halfway through their normal life-cycle to help defer the costs of maintaining that world-class navy.
The helicopter carrier HMS Ocean was also marked out for retirement in an earlier press release along with four smaller Royal Navy ships, but they too could serve out the rest of their expected life in any Commonwealth nation.
Commonwealth Partner Canada – Needs Those Ships!
The Royal Canadian Navy depends heavily on its 12 naval frigate fleet and is desperately lacking in rescue capability (helicopter carrier) and littoral combat (close-to-shore) vessels — which gaps could be filled by the soon-to-be-retired HMS Ocean, HMS Albion, and HMS Bulwark, while saving the Canadian navy billions of dollars — and more importantly, the several years required for Canada to build new ships.
Although Canada has a great navy with proud tradition there are major credibility gaps in Canada’s fleet and purchasing these Royal Navy ships could partially alleviate that gap, thereby propelling the RCN forward by at least five years and at very reasonable cost compared to building new ships.
Canada should constantly drop hints to the Royal Navy to allow them be first to bid on ships and helicopters set for early retirement.
Commonwealth Partner India – Needs Those Ships!
The Indian Navy has a vast area to patrol in one of the busiest shipping regions of the world and it can’t get enough ships. Ever!
Modern naval vessels are very expensive to build, but expensive new ships don’t always suit the needs of the Indian Navy — a navy that requires huge numbers of vessels to patrol all those millions of square miles. Not all of them need to be world-class combat ships.
With thousands of cargo ships and cruise ships travelling through the region every day, and with piracy at an all-time high in the Indian Ocean having enough ships available to maintain a presence is far more important than how shiny the paint is on inspection day.
The level of shipping activity in the Indian Ocean region can only be described as frenetic and piracy is a common problem in the adjacent Arabian Sea and off the east coast of Africa where many Indian registered ships carry trillions of dollars of raw materials and manufactured goods every year.
Commonwealth Partner Australia
Australia fields a modern navy and (thankfully) it enjoys the strong support of the Australian government.
The country purchases build-to-suit ships and submarines from various countries and it occasionally sells its used ships to New Zealand — a good arrangement for both countries.
However, some early retirement Royal Navy ships could be valuable to the Royal Australian Navy in the future. Their navy is heavy with helicopter frigates and minesweepers and has a respectable number of submarines — yet there may be occasion when Britain’s navy could decide to part with ships that meet the needs of the Australian fleet.
The only thing lacking in the RAN fleet are destroyers. They could make-do with 6 as we are presently in peacetime; At the moment, the Royal Australian Navy has 1 destroyer.
Other Commonwealth Partner Navies
Many Commonwealth nations are maritime countries with various naval capabilities, yet purchasing new ships is an expensive proposition for rapidly developing nations.
For them, it’s difficult to justify a billion dollar warship when they need crucial infrastructure (yesterday!) to serve the needs of their citizens. Yet, having an effective naval presence to deter piracy and to protect national sovereignty becomes increasingly important as their GDP rises.
One way for them to accomplish two goals at once is to purchase used RN vessels that match their needs. Indeed, for the cost of one new frigate a small nation may be able to purchase five used, but still effective, former Royal Navy frigates or smaller coastal defence craft to provide security in nearby shipping lanes.
Until now it has been normal for navies to max-out the life of their ships and to pay massive sums to refit their navy ships at mid-point in their life-cycle (some refits cost more than the original ship!) and that’s an expensive way to outfit a navy when there is a better alternative.
In the 21st-century there are so many rapidly developing Commonwealth nations, UK shipyards could have a continuous frigate assembly line, a continuous destroyer assembly line and a continuous coastal patrol craft assembly line to keep up with total demand from a world-class Royal Navy that retires its ships early and sells them to allied nations.
But that’s only if the Royal Navy makes the historic decision to sell its ships at the 12-year mark, while they still have at least 18-years of life left in them.
It would be wise to continue to operate them as usual — but simply make it known to Commonwealth partners that any Royal Navy vessel over 6-years of age is automatically available for purchase to Commonwealth members.
As the Commonwealth’s rapidly developing nations continue to increase their wealth, they’ll have evermore reason to protect what’s theirs and to surveil and protect foreign ships travelling through their waters.
Instead of keeping ships for decades and running them into the ground along with one or two costly refits over the years, in the 21st-century the better way is to sell them to Commonwealth nations at the 6-12 year mark while the vessels still have plenty of useful service life remaining. And in that way, create a healthy UK shipbuilding industry geared towards Royal Navy needs, but also to the needs of Britain’s allies.
That’s how you build a better Royal Navy and help your Commonwealth partners at the same time!
Though carriers have had ASW (anti-submarine warfare) aircraft, it seems to me that their main purpose is to support expeditionary forces. The Falkland Islands is a good example.
In a changing world, is there much reason to maintain large expeditionary forces? The Falkland Islands is an example of an expeditionary force being used. That is, for a defensive war. Which is related to the far flung nature of the Anglosphere.
However, if you are not trying to maintain a global order, but are retaining a small capacity to wage a defensive war, your forces may shrink in size.
In the meantime, your expeditionary forces are increasingly vulnerable to the missile-centric forces of other powers, such as the Chinese and the Russians.
The one thing I favour is to have a stronger blue water (ocean) and green water (sea-lanes that fall within the 200 mile marine territorial limit) rescue capability.
For this, you need robust helicopter support (more than just the one or two small helicopters that each naval frigate or destroyer carries — but they don’t always carry them, so you never know) and that means the type of ship that is commonly used for expeditionary forces (a small helicopter carrier) or troop ship with a large deck and multiple helos onboard.
Ships can be configured in many ways. Even a frigate can be configured to carry four large helos, but it then sacrifices other capabilities.
In cases of at-sea piracy or rescue, these ships and helicopters are worth their weight in gold.
And when natural disasters strike they suddenly become unbelievably useful — carrying huge loads of tents, food and water, and personnel to disaster sites. It’s off-the-scale how valuable a helicopter carrier is in such circumstances.
So, my suggestion is to lower the expeditionary force numbers and replace them with rescue personnel and increase the volumes of food and water in ship’s stores that are ready-to-fly on a moment’s notice.
(At those times it should be the Task Force commander’s decision to begin rescue operations, they shouldn’t have to wait for permission from the government)
So, your points are well-taken here. Different ships for a different overall mission theme, but with some residual expeditionary force capability.
Regarding the point I raised in my blog post, in a rapid-replacement schedule navy — when the mission changes, the new ships are already entering service.
The analogy is this: When times (and needs) change, instead of trying to saw wood with a hammer, navies with an arbitrary ‘sell-by-date’ for their ships can order saws when they need saws, and hammers when they need hammers — and receive them about as fast as the overall mission theme changes.
Sorry for the long explanation and thanks again for your great comments!
Online commentary: The New Isolationism: Rethinking U.S. Power for a Deglobalized World by Steven Metz.
The author suggests that in a changing world, and new isolationist mood, the U.S. may choose to opt out of maintaining global order. In which case, the U.S. military may be reconfigured, and be used much less for expeditionary purposes.
Yes, it certainly seems that the U.S. is becoming more isolationist and their military posture will change to reflect that thinking.
It is a small negative in my mind, but it does give middle powers like the UK, India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. an opportunity to step-up to fulfill a better and more multilateral response to natural disasters, piracy and rescue missions. (All of which seem to become more frequent every year)
Great to have your thoughts on these matters, Tim!
Interesting online article, “Why the U.S. Navy should Build Smaller Aircraft Carriers” by Tyler Rogoway. The author suggests that the U.S. Navy purchase carriers of the Queen Elizabeth class.
WoW! Wouldn’t that be something, Tim!
What a great way for the UK and the United States to work together — we buy their fighter aircraft and they buy UK aircraft carriers.
As you know, I’m all about making the Anglo-American alliance ‘all that it can and should be’ and I remain ready to steamroll over anyone who doesn’t agree. LOL
Thanks again! JBS
I visited the article you suggested and posted my own comment there, which I will share here:
“I think you’re right on target, Tyler, just a bit ahead of your time.
“However, there is nothing wrong with America’s aircraft carrier fleet at the moment, nor will there be for the next 20 years. All of it is working just fine, and as all those ships are fully paid-for and operational they only require regular maintenance to stay operational.
“Undoubtedly, every time America creates a weapons platform, obviously, potential enemies (and even ‘friendlies’) must adapt to counter it just in case something goes wrong in America (a coup, for instance)
“While countering the super-carriers hasn’t yet occurred, it’s naive to think that it won’t occur in the future. And, let’s face it, the cost of building new super-carriers is ‘counter’ enough. They’re just too expensive.
“As those beautiful super-carriers ‘age-out’ of the system, the question will be: Should America replace its super-carriers with massively expensive super-carriers (No, IMHO) or Queen Elizabeth class carriers (Intriguing, IMHO) or should America go full bore and buy a (larger number of) small (40 aircraft) non-nuclear carrier fleet (Worth considering, IMHO) and not all based ‘Pearl Harbour-style’ just waiting to be sunk in a surprise attack) in one main port city?
“And all of it depends on what America’s potential adversaries do in the meantime. It really is too early to help America’s potential enemies by showing our hand now, at this early date, while the super-carrier fleet is practically brand new.
“But if I were in charge of the U.S. Navy and were forced to decide today, I would choose 5 Queen Elizabeth class (non-nuclear) aircraft carriers to build my fleet around, and 15 smaller carriers — each equipped with different aircraft — so that an enemy would never know what is coming at it. And in the Navy, that’s everything. If the enemy doesn’t know what you’re sending, or when you’re sending it, that improves your chances of victory by 50% right there.
It looks to be a very engaging article, judging by the many comments there.
Thanks for the link!
VTOL drones are in the works. One, the Bell V-247 is a tilt rotor design. The TERN drone, designed to operate off destroyers/frigates, appears to be a tail sitter/flying wing hybrid. The “Artists Concept” has some nice animation of TERN.
Easy enough to imagine a helicopter carrier carrying a few drones for scouting. (Similar to use of planes flying off battleships before World War II).
Drones will be a big part of the future warfighters’ tool kit and may not require an aircraft carrier, or even a helicopter carrier to launch. Some can be launched by a slingshot no bigger than a telephone booth.
Of course, naval vessels are essentially a means to an end. If we imagine an Anglosphere trade network, its far flung geography implies a need to keep sea lanes open. Or, at least certain select sea lanes-for example, the North Atlantic, between the British Isles and North America.
An implication is that the Anglosphere countries may coordinate military procurement towards that end. Essentially, an end that is defensive in nature.
It remains to be seen what other trading arrangements will materialize.
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