BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban
« Previous | Main | Next »

Royal Navy keen to be seen as "serious player"

Mark Urban | 18:41 UK time, Thursday, 3 July 2008

carrier203.jpgBritain has ordered its new aircraft carriers, and the decision has as much to do with the Royal Navy's image of itself as force to be reckoned with as it does with delivering enhanced combat power.

So while many in the Ministry of Defence (usually officers from the RAF or Army...) predict that the cost will soar far ahead of the projected £4bn, that the programme will bleed the other services white or even that the carriers will never get built, ministers would be unwise to under-estimate what is at stake here.

Whatever the current state of play between cash-strapped armed forces chiefs and the government it is as well to remember that the last time one of the heads of the services actually resigned was in 1966, when Admiral Sir Richard Luce, the First Sea Lord, walked out over the Labour government's decision to phase out aircraft carriers.

The navy spent the next few years subverting that decision, turning anti-submarine ships of the Invincible class into the mini-carriers that remain in service. When the Tories proposed mothballing those ships in 1981, it prompted another resignation - that of Keith Speed, the Navy Minister.

Questions remain concerning the new carriers' cost, the ability of a reduced Royal Navy to crew and run two super-ships with a complement of 1,500 each, and the effects on the rest of the budget.

How will these capital ships be protected if minesweepers, anti-submarine or anti-air vessels are all cut back in order to finance the programme ? The current First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band is clearly so concerned about the Royal Nay remaining a, "serious player", that he delivered his own veiled threat to resign in front of a Commons committee in March.

The defence argument for aircraft carriers is pretty sound. As floating national bases operating free of the political constraints that constrain air fields in many countries in order to; hit at Britain's enemies, be used in shows of force to deter conflict, deliver disaster relief; or evacuate people from civil wars.

Nevertheless, as the programme goes ahead, aiming to deliver the ships in 2014 and 2016, the budgetary pressure will become enormous. The temptation to delay the programme will probably prove irresistible since it will spread the spending over more years, and the aircraft they are meant to operate, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will not be ready as soon as this (optimistic) schedule for the ships.

Perhaps the bigger and more puzzling question about the future of the Royal Navy is why the government decided so swiftly last year to upgrade its Trident ballistic missile submarines, at a cost of more than £15bn.

Even many of the senior naval officers I spoke to were dubious about the value of this project, preferring to convert their future hunter-killer submarines to fire nuclear-armed cruise missiles instead. When looking for future economies in Britain's unfeasibly over-loaded defence budget ministers would be better advised to re-visit the Trident decision than to threaten the carriers and with them, once more, the Royal Navy's belief that it is still a 'serious player' on the high seas.


  • Comment number 1.

    Each thing has a good a thing that it is best at [or a specialisation]. Aircraft carriers are good at some things and hopeless at others. How much use are carriers in afghanistan? Would you put one in the strait of hormuz?

    There is no doubt airpower is the key. Without air supremacy you can have an armada of ships blown out the water.

    Given the advent of drones a series of [smaller] drone carriers would make more sense as a means to project airpower.

    If drones are good enough why carriers of this sort? Vanity? Ego? Keeping up with the Joneses [the usa]?

    To subvert a military machine into a humanitarian one is to change its specialisation or that which it is good at. So, by returning to the focus of war fighting, let us have masters of the trade rather than trying to do all things for all including non military objectives and so end up as master on none.

    these carriers are born not out military necessity [for uk defence we have land bases for airpower] but out of the belief in Liberal Interventionism. Which is a failed ideology of those who think we are still an empire. Power projection. Which is a laughable vanity to those people in flip flops and ak47s whose cunning and courage outmatch the greatest technology.

    Given the pr disaters of the ipod and even the inability to stop somali pirates it would indicate by too much humanitarianism the nelson fighting spirit has been bred out of the navy? If we have a guard dog lets have one that can bark?

  • Comment number 2.


    As one looks through the Armed Forces Act 2006 it is ard not to think that New Labour's done a rather good job at emasculating our armed forces just as they have our education and criminal justice system.

    All too few apprecate how much extreme left (Trotskyite/Gramsciite) anarchism they have imbibed through their higher education over the past four deades or so (it's sold as tacitly 'obvious' environmentalism (a panacea of 'education, education, education' or 'rehabilitation') and equalitarianism which all flies in the face of the empirical evidence on individual differences and rehailitation or therapy if you look into it critically) ). There's a sweeping socialy destructive agenda here. Look into the the Socialist International, the New Left (and Trotskyism/Social Democracy) and the (seemingly unstroppable) EU Human Rights/Equalities legislation/Treaty. Look at ths in conjunction with our low EU birth rate (especially amongst the intelligentsia/educated above average half of the population, and especially amongst the expanded female higher-educated since the 60s (note this takes the brigher females out of reproduction for a while differentially - and many wise up to this way too late). Ponder why those who endeavour to stand up to these Bolshevistic/anarchistic 'reforms' are just branded 'terrorists' (and occasionally vilified by NGOs like 'Policy Exchange' on Newsnight - suitably balanced of course by appearances of 'enlightened' ex-members of hizb ut tahrir etc.

    Whom (and what behaviour/policies) does all this license (if not shape up) in our ever more feminised, yet disaffected) electorate? Why are we in the EU/USA the exception and global minority in this sex difference and why are we voting for this 'fitness' (i.e reproductive), extinction in the long run (if we continue to behave this pernicious way?).

    There hasn't been a substantial change in government policy since 1979 when Keith Joseph's lot got in, and there still won't be after New Labour leaves office... and the New Conservatives 'take over'.

    There are twice the number of males with an IQ of 120 as there are females. As one goes higher the ratio increases dramatically. So why are we demanding numerical equality of the sexes if it isn't to subvert our way of life even further? Note: these tests predict Key Stage performance very well 0.70).

  • Comment number 3.


    If the UK needs a weapons system designed to lay waste hundreds of thousands of square miles and kill countless millions of people at the press of a button, the Trident upgrade is 15 billion well spent. If not, the proposed expenditure is as barking mad as the scenario it makes possible.

    For once, the issue is very straight forward. Aircraft carriers are useful, Trident is no use to anyone.

  • Comment number 4.

    Do you want to defend our country, put your life on the line?

    Do you think it is worth defending?

    Well, we are a democracy, if we do not like war, we should argue the case with policitians, but in the meantime support the service personnel 100%, for like it or not, they represent you.

    Our guys and gals derserve the best, because they do their best, and pay the ulimate price.

    Britain is prefixed with Great, because we are accepting of others, we provide charity, down to the amount individuals collect for every diaster, to what our Government gives on our behalf.

    We allow other to intergrate, we grow.

    We try to settle disputes, and we give others the means to settle theirs peacefully, however sometimes it can't be done.

    Finally, open Government is all well and good but sometimes you do not want to know what your Government is doing for you, it should be enough to know that when tough decisions are called for, they can make them

  • Comment number 5.

    Mark Urban:

    It is good that the NAVY in the United Kingdom, wants to make some improvements to the security that the military provides.

  • Comment number 6.


    I am struggling with the concept of war as a positive act; hence I struggle with the idea that its practitioners are, de facto, risking their lives for my freedom/continuance/culture/whatever. Violence, when under attack, is instinctive. Whacking a bellicose neighbour, with a common border, has some justification. But as the threat moves farther away; as military competence in attack diminishes; as politics impinge and oil starts sloshing about - I wonder. Prince Harry seemed to be soldiering for enjoyment as far as I could tell and a young lady-in-arms demonstrated a similar motivation. Has anyone really taken the trouble to uncover the mind-set of our armed forces?
    As for aircraft-carriers, are they not status symbols when our sad politicians strut abroad? We all know of the 'One Horse Town'. Britain aspires to being a 'Two Carrier Bankrupt'.

  • Comment number 7.

    I find the MAD theory comforting myself , as Trident is as described as a deterrent to other nations using these weapons on the UK or our armed forces around the world.

    It seems strange that other nations like France is not only willing to pay for the equivalent , but also for their Head of State to openly threaten to use them against any state that gives WMD to terrorists that then attacks France with them.

    Tony Blair tried to for fill our obligations under the NPT , by reducing our warheads and the other named nuclear powers increased their stockpiles.

    Unilateral disarmament does not work , never has and never will.

    We seem to be making the same errors we did in the 1920-1930's and its going to end in tears !

  • Comment number 8.

    I can see that the admiral's phrase 'serious player' carries a hint of medium sized Britain still aspiring to great power status, and that's partly why I flagged it up. I am not sure though that any waning of the doctrine of liberal interventionism at this particular moment can be predicted to last until 2016 or whenever these ships are operational.

    I like your phrase about a 'Two carrier bankrupt nation' - very much in the spirit of Dennis Healey and the 1966 carrier row that caused Adm Luce to resign !
    Are you ever comfortable with organised violence ? I wont ask you about defeating the Nazis, but since Bosnia or Sierra Leone are more recent and relevant to the subject of these new ships, would you approve of violence to stop Balkan ethnic cleansing or African warlords cutting kids arms off ?

    You are quite right about successive British governments reducing warheads and presenting it as a gesture to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NOTE for those unfamiliar: under which the nuclear weapon states pledge themselves to work towards the elimination of their own nuclear weapons as well as stopping other countries getting them). Like you, I'm not sure whether further gestures of that kind would have any effect. But the question about Trident replacement is why Britain needs such a massively capable (and expensive) nuclear system. The original government logic for Trident was that only a multi-warhead submarine system of that kind could credibly threaten Moscow with its anti-missile defences. Sticking with Trident in the long run means sticking to Britain's nuclear weapon assumptions of 1980. Some in MoD certainly feel that nuclear armed cruise missiles (in hunter killer submarines) would have allowed the UK to stay in the nuclear weapons business, retaining deterrent power - albeit losing the ability to drop 100+ warheads on Moscow.

  • Comment number 9.


    A challenging question Mark - deserving a considered answer.
    I have come to the conclusion (at 71) that violence takes a range of forms: mental and physical, against the person, right through to violence against Nature herself, in which we currently excel - mostly unwitting. Few, if any, mature, stable, contented individuals would cut a limb off another but many, flying at high altitude, are prepared so to do. I am well acquainted with male destructiveness, I was a very angry child and a bitter young man. I went in search of understanding, and now find myself in a lonely place. The animal that underlies the veneer of humanity, needs respect. Adherence to Natures rules is paramount, if the bestiality (advisedly) of war is not to break out. We currently live the lie of 'human-ness' expecting civilisation to break out after each just war. In my view this shows a lack of wisdom that characterises the Age of Cleverness. It is good to know that you are reading - and commenting on - the bloggers' offerings. At least I am no longer 'shouting in my bucket'!

  • Comment number 10.

    JUST WARFARE (Additional to #9 from another thread)

    Peter Hitchens' waterboarding protrayed in pictures - OK. We can all be righteously shocked as it is 'they' who do waterboarding.
    But: as asked before on this blog: when will some enterprising war-zone cameraman make a video, using fibre optic, of an innocent trapped in rubble, dying slow REAL death courtesy of OUR bombing?
    I know it FEELS nastier when the torturer is
    standing by watching, but IS IT? We like to condemn the Nazi swine for going off to the opera after a days 'work', but don't the high altitude 'torturers' who flatten houses, go back to burger and chips while their victims suffer agonies of mind and body, on the way to lonely death?
    When such a video is put on 'general release' maybe we will get a realistic handle on just what is entailed in 'just warfare'

  • Comment number 11.

    There are several issues here, my old friend. First, we have a change in Russia that is returning us to some of the old problems, and the West has to think very carefully about how to address those issues: whether retaining the Trident threat is the right one is another matter.

    Second, forty years on, Labour finds the carrier project as convenient as the navy. The shipyards are in their heartlands and now they need them. We have a shipbuilding programme that maintains the industry but results in frigates and destroyers being mothballed after only half their useful life because Britain can no longer afford a fifty ship fleet. The carrier project will keep pretences going for another decade. At some point, however, the military ambition to be a contributory power, and the financial costs that policy imposes will have to be reconciled,or the ambition abandoned.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hi Mark

    Thanks for responding

    Indeed , the Conservative Gov reduced the warhead numbers on our missiles (in 1992-4 ish ?), but that was in response to Glasnost and the west paying for the old USSR to destroy a lot of their single warhead missiles.

    I can not agree with suggestion that Trident should be scrapped in favor of only tactical nukes. Trident and soon to be Trident+ appears to be a very flexible system either for a limited response or for the full on MAD option.

    I can imagine the Navy is dismayed at the Treasury's threats over cuts in their hunter killer sub fleet and this option to downsize the nukes looks very attractive , but I think they need to hold their nerve. The Treasury knows unless it can get the Armed Forces to say they don't need Trident , they will be forced to buy Trident+ in the long run.

    Lets face it , the Treasury has been picking at our armed forces budget for a few decades now and its got to stop. If we are seen as weak some gimp will try it on and its our sons and daughters that have to put themselves in the firing line to stop them.

    We should learn from the mistakes of the past , not repeat them !

  • Comment number 13.


    I disagree.

    In 1998 Labour held a SDR (Strategic Defense Review), this came to the conclusion that our military should be able to fight one medium size war or two concurrent small wars, the defense budget has been set with these parameters in mind every since.

    If you look at central Gov's income (latest figures at the NAO are for 2007) they got in £460 000 000 000 , they only spend £30 000 000 000 ish on defense.

    If like me you think the 1998 SDR bares no resemblance to todays reality's , you can see why our armed forces are strapped for cash.It is not that we can not afford to increase the armed forces budget , its just there is not the political will to do so.

  • Comment number 14.

    Steve-London, we're not in disagreement at all. My point was implicitly that it has come to the point where the services can no longer do the job asked of them. The carrier project got funded because it is politically convenient for Labour, and the Navy made a good enough case. The various procurement programmes give the veneer of ability and they keep key industries going in the economy; but the money and the personnel are in short supply and are always being trimmed yet further. At some point Britain either has to say 'we cannot do this anymore', or the government has to be prepared to pay the bill and make the argument for a larger allocation of resources to the services. Actually, I think that is quite easy: the line should be 'we should spend the money on real things (whether in health, education or defence), not on administrative oversight that seeks to monitor 'outcomes''.

  • Comment number 15.

    Hi MarkfromOxford

    Yes it appears I had made an error in reading your post , I can only put this down to my haste in getting ready for work this morning , I apologize for my wrongful conclusion.

    After rereading you post and your further post , it does seem we have reached the same conclusion over the UK Govs current expenditure on our Armed Forces.

    Has it nearly been a year since 4 (or was it 5 ?) retired CDS(Cheif of the Defense Staff) spoke out ,in a plea for more cash for the armed forces. Mike Jackson saying another £5 Billion on the defense budget would go along way to sorting out the problems, but yet more cuts are being announced (type 45 orders being cut in half as a recent example), I just don't understand it.
    This would not happen in America or France , political heads would roll over such a disgrace.

    I better keep this short , so I will not get fully started on this issue , for now !

  • Comment number 16.

    Steve, not a problem: as Mark knows, I grew up in a navy family, even if these days I'm an academic, and I have a great respect for what the services try to do. What troubles me is the lack of clear reasoned discussion there is about the problems that the armed forces face.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.