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Views and Opinions

King George V with Admiral Sir David Beatty

Canadian Press/1872448

King George V with the Commander of the Grand Fleet, Admiral Sir David Beatty, during a visit to the fleet.

Is there something wrong with our bloody ships today? ~ Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty, Jutland, HMS Lion, 31 May 1916

by David Mugridge

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I make no apologies for my flagrant abuse of Admiral Beattys famous Jutland quote, because it is only a politically incorrect and slightly disingenuous way of asking some serious questions. Do we have the right ships for todays battles? Are the ships we have correctly employed? Do we assume, like the Royal Navy at Jutland, that we are facing an enemy who will not fire back? Unfortunately, there is now considerable evidence to suggest the answers to these simple questions will not reflect well on those who, since the end of the Cold War, have slavishly designed NATOs navies around the SALY (Same Again as Last Year) principle. Those who believe the sacred status quo offers the best recipe for future political success have missed the point. Todays maritime environment is less about frigate numbers, and more about managing capability; less about Task Groups and more about Enforcement Operations. Today, we are guilty of perpetuating a generations worth of underestimating our enemies and demonstrating a clear lack of foresight a combination that may yet cost the navy dearly. Certainly, these are not qualities one would choose for ones military commanders, but appear to be an all-too-common national default when confronted by a sea-blind population, a cadre of skeptical civilian politicians, and public coffers stripped bare by the urgent operational requirements of ill-prepared armies who find themselves no longer on the exercise ranges of Westphalia, but slogging it out in the streets of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan.

No credible student of military history would claim events have stood still since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Yet, the authors of naval procurement plans and maritime doctrine seem strangely content to rest like a forgotten stylus at the end of a dusty LP, little realizing we now live in the era of the iPOD. Are scaled-down versions of the fleet circa 1989 really the best option for combating an enemy of religious extremists, terrorists, and organized criminal gangs in the littoral environment, as opposed to fleets of Udaloys, Kirovs and Sovremennies in mid-ocean? Today, operational misemployment is perceived as a safer political option than strategic revision and physical re-invention, due to the fear of becoming an up-market coast guard. And yet, is this fear justified? If it were the case, based upon their Afghan experiences, how many NATO armies would now look like a deployable paramilitary version of the RCMP? No, it would appear that many navies have become doctrinally stale and myopically focused upon being a military instrument, rather than recognizing the growing importance of either constabulary operations or diplomatic functions in todays three-dimensional approach to security, as opposed to defence.

Corrupting the age-old adage of the pen being mightier than the sword, why is current maritime doctrine so intractably frigid when this leads to wholesale and inappropriate waste of resources? In Canada, this is because there is an absence of doctrine. In its place, tactics and procedures reign supreme, but they contribute little to the navys wider employability. It has become resistant to change and self-serving in its justification of the status quo; more a piece of hewn rock than a tempered rapier blade. Surely those charged with custody of naval doctrine could learn from their army colleagues? Take, for example, the recently published Canadian Armys counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. Herein, a conventional, formation-based army has put enforcement operations at the centre of its capabilities. Its hearts and minds approach to COIN has not only successfully defined its future requirements for heavy armour and artillery, but also justified swaths of new light equipment to better support those troops involved in COIN and related stabilization operations. All of this was done in a political climate where its future expeditionary capability is such a sensitive subject that no-one dared mention the Joint Support Ship or Amphibious Warfare. So, as to how an expeditionary army will get its men and materiel from Canadas shores with a handful of C177s remains a mystery to all but the chosen few.

Few NATO navies exhibit the clarity of vision of the Dutch. Once again, they have sagely and holistically reviewed trends in maritime security and are reconfiguring themselves to counter tomorrows sea-based threats. Dispensing with older legacy platforms in favour of new capabilities means they will be optimized to combat the asymmetric and irregular threats, while retaining the ability to make a meaningful contribution to larger-scale alliance-based operations. They have done this in an environment that mirrors many of their allies circumstances the heady mix of overcommitment, underfunding, and dubious political direction. Their move toward highly capable, ocean-going patrol vessels and amphibious forces vice escorts is perfectly coherent with their commitment to enforcement-type operations. They have also been creating a niche riverine capability for NATOs future theatre entry requirements. The operational modularity the Danes introduced to their surface combatants is another avenue worth exploring, and it should not be discounted by the flawed logic that only large navies can support them. Here, enforcement operational requirements become the base-line default so that the option to increase capability comes in response to a specific tailored mission set. The through-life flexibility this offers across manpower, equipment, training, and sustainability is clearly evident, and it is worth considering, even if one is not the United States Navy.

Given the huge procurement costs of traditional escorts, why have they become the standard platform for so many navies? They are heavily manned jacks-of-all trades in which capability compromises are pronounced, even with their escalating upkeep costs. Seeing Type 42 destroyers conducting maritime interdiction operations with jury-rigged boats, and Halifax Class frigates undertaking fishery protection patrols are but two examples of the regular misemployment that takes place. Surely, fewer, more capable escort platforms with a complementary class of corvettes for enforcement type operations makes sense, even to the cadre of finance gnomes who permeate all aspects of todays defence thinking? While escorts may be able to deliver enforcement-type capabilities, what is the differential between that and their full capability? How many of their highly trained crews are actually gainfully employed? What are the differences in through-life operating costs between them and a corvette? How many of their weapons and sensors are being employed optimally, or even being used at all?

Enforcement operations offer real tasking for smaller, less capable ships, and the ability to increase platform numbers to match expanding commitments inside existing budgets. This logical choice would appear to have been ignored by admirals and ministers alike. As an example, the continuing and outstanding success of the Royal Navy in combating drug smuggling in the Caribbean has not been built upon ahead of the forthcoming UK Defence Review, because it reopens the debate over too few escorts to match expanding commitments, and it is happening at a time when the future carrier (CVF) program is in question. What sort of message does it sound to other government departments when an escort can only be made available for counter-narcotics in support of US-led operations, rather than those interdiction activities that could intercept UK-bound drug traffic off Cape Verde? This is a clear case of where a balanced fleet of escorts and less capable corvettes would reflect todays operational commitments, and also aid a more comprehensive multi-agency approach to maritime security.

The need for balance is clear. An over-investment in high-end platforms may well counter the potential threat posed by the military expansion of states such as China or Russia into areas of the world like the Indian Ocean or Africa, but it leaves too few ships for todays broader military tasks. These emergent conventional threats are likely to illicit an international response through alliances such as NATO, thus mitigating the risk of a reduced number of the most capable escorts. Here, nations can adopt niche capabilities like the Dutch, whose use of their amphibious forces to spearhead riverine operations is but one example. Irregular and asymmetric threats to state assets or commercial interests are a national issue and are best dealt with by lower technology constabulary platforms. The current one-size-fits-all approach to naval programming is clumsy, and it results from poor procurement policies and inadequate strategic development.

In 1939, the Royal Canadian Navy was focused upon building destroyers as the platform of choice, yet the corvettes of the sheep dog navy won the Battle of the Atlantic. The Cold War demanded highly capable escorts to constitute the task groups that were to head off the Soviets before they reached Norways West Fjord. Todays naval missions require a balance between the two extremes. High-end capabilities need to be maintained, but not to the financial and operational detriment of the navy and its professional personnel. Enforcement operations are increasingly required by mature national security policies, and they are best done by ocean-going patrol vessels. Therefore, the scales of effort need to be balanced; otherwise we will continue to prepare for tomorrows operations with yesterdays doctrinal insurance policy, and too few ships to go around. Just ask the UKs First Sea Lord When you focus on high-end platforms like fleet aircraft carriers and Type 45 destroyers, you become a bound and gagged hostage to the whims of the finance gnomes. And today, they are more dangerous than a determined enemy. As a result, the Canadian Navy has lost more ships through financial attrition than to enemy action, and highly trained personnel continue to leave because of a failure to balance ships programs. The Canadian Navy should learn from the failure of the Royal Navy at Jutland, and, in so doing, carpe diem.

HMCS Iroquois, HMCS Regina, and HMNZS Te Mana

DND photo HS034012d16 by Corporal Shawn M. Kent

HMCS Iroquois, HMCS Regina, and HMNZS Te Mana (a New Zealand warship positioned to rear) sail in a diamond formation in the Arabian Gulf, 6 May 2003.

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David Mugridge is an independent security consultant, as well as being a PhD student at Plymouth Business School and a Research Fellow at Dalhousie University. He served in the Royal Navy for nearly 20 years in a variety of operational areas, including maritime counter terrorism, critical infrastructure defence, riverine operations, and amphibious warfare and peace support operations. He lectures and writes internationally for political, military, professional, and academic institutions.

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