The government has just scrapped one of the many troubled defence projects it inherited: the Sea Sprite helicopter. It may yet cancel Brendan Nelson’s Super Hornets. But with budget pressure still tight, it might be worth looking at more radical options. The obvious candidate is to abandon the long-standing tradition that our armed forces should include a surface navy.
It’s been argued ever since the development of the submarine in the late 19th century and the airplane in the early 20th (along with torpedoes and mines) that surface fleets were obsolete, being vulnerable to much cheaper attackers. This argument has been repeatedly vindicated by events, and just as repeatedly ignored by the makers of defence policy.
Update: My point is pretty much proved by this report that the Navy has dropped the ball on training and retaining submarine crews. By contrast, the general tone of many comments seems to be based on the notion “why not have it all?” with no consideration of budget constraints, let alone benefit-cost analysis.
In the first decade of the 20th century, the race to build Dreadnought-class battleships was a significant contributor to the tensions that led to the outbreak of the Great War. Yet when the War came, the Dreadnoughts on both sides turned out to be useless, meeting only in the inconclusive Battle of Jutland. The German Fleet stayed in port for the rest of war and the British Navy didn’t attack them because of the fear of submarines and mines. The real naval war was that of German submarines against British merchant ships and their escorts.
Despite this, governments around the world raced to build more and better battleships in the period from 1918 to 1939. The renewed outbreak of World War showed that battleships were only marginally useful, and highly vulnerable to air and submarine attack. Again the real naval war was one of submarines and carrier-based aircraft. The main role of surface ships was as anti-submarine escorts and as platforms for aircraft.
Since then, of course, the range, speed and capabilities of aircraft have all increased dramatically, while ships continue to travel at speeds of 20 to 30 knots. A ship can be sunk by missiles from huge distances, and the vastness of the oceans has ceased to be relevant in the era of satellites and pilotless spy planes. Submarines have greatly improved their capacity to avoid detection, but it is essentially impossible to hide a surface ship.
Since 1945, there has only been one serious naval conflict, the Falklands/Malvinas war which demonstrated all these points. The Argentine navy played real no role in the war, returning to port after the sinking of the Belgrano by a submarine. Pitted against a fourth-rate airforce (more used to murdering dissidents than to any kind of military activity) operating far from its home bases, the British Royal Navy only survived because the other side ran out of missiles and couldn’t get its bombs to explode.
Based on all this experience, it seems safe to observe first that we are highly unlikely to be involved in naval surface warfare ever again. If we are, a surface fleet will be defenceless in the absence of air and submarine superiority and redundant with it. In this context, there was an interesting piece in Prospect a few years ago which spelt out the vulnerability of surface fleets to submarine and air attack. I didn’t agree with all of it, notably the bit at the end suggesting the push for dreadnoughts leading up to the Great War was a good idea, but it confirms my general view that naval policy continues to be premised on fighting the wars of last century if not those of the century before that.
If we abandon the idea of a traditional surface warfare capacity that still leaves some jobs to be done by surface ships, of which the most significant in military terms is transporting troops and equipment, and supporting amphibious operations. But does it make sense to have a separate arm of the service for this. Wouldn’t it be better to let the army handle this job and decide what resources should be allocated to it?
Then there are various coastal patrol activities. Important as these are, they could be adequately handled by a Coast Guard, as proposed by Kim Beazley a while back.
Finally, there are the kind of long-distance operations characterized by our contribution to various operations in the Persian Gulf. We can never do this except as a small part of a US effort centred on a carrier battle group. It makes no sense to invested in ships dedicated to this kind of job. To the extent that we are obligated to support such operations, it would be better to make a cash contribution, as many US allies did in Gulf War I, or send specialist personnel.
How much could we save by doing without a surface navy? In capital terms, expenditure on large-scale naval projects appears comparable with that on the air force, while delivering a lot less defence. In terms of numbers, the navy has 13000 military staff, compared to 14000 for the air force and 21000 for the army. If we could halve the size of the navy by winding down the surface fleet, that would be about a 15 per cent saving in numbers. Overall, it looks like an option worth exploring further.