Britannia and Her Hearts of Oak

Si vis pacem, para bellum – “If you want peace, prepare for war”

Every nation has the sovereign right to self-determination. In order for this to be so, there are times when force is required to protect and maintain the sovereignty and self interests of that nation. For this to be achieved that sovereign nation has a need for their own armed forces, kept independent from exterior influence from other nations.

Britain an island nation has always relied heavily upon her navies. The Royal Navy, unbowed, unbeaten, her Jolly Tars with hearts of oak forever keeping Britons safe from peril. The Royal Navy has done so, giving over 350 years of service.

In spite of the best efforts and intentions from the Royal Navy, how long this continues to be so remains to be seen. The fact must be accepted that recent policies of the British government have been equally if not more harmful to our armed forces than any edict from the EU. In the past 10 years there has been some very short-sighted and ill-conceived policies for our armed forces, most notable the Royal Navy.

Since the 2008 global recession the government has sought to cut the budget deficit. Even though there were defence cuts at the time, it was after the 2010 general election the defence budget became “fair game” and the pips have been squeezed thereafter. The Royal Navy was the only division of the armed forces to have the foresight to commission their own full internal audit before the election. Better for skilled surgeons to act and cut away the excess rather than having a butcher hack at the marrow. The Royal Navy with their audit complete were able to show the MoD the minimum strengths needed in order to be an operational force. By some perversity, in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review it turned out that the largest defence cuts would be placed upon the Royal Navy. For all their efforts the butcher had arrived with his block and he was going to cut to the bone.

This is nothing new. It has been ever thus. As is often quoted, history does have a tendency to repeat itself. Wishing to cut budget deficits but unable to make the figures tally, the defence budget, never popular with large ranks of the general public is always the soft, easy, go to target. Be it the build up to World War II, countless actions thereafter up to the Falklands War and beyond. Many of these conflicts may have been avoided if a visible show of force had remained a constant presence. The short-sighted view, the easy option tends to always win the day so, incumbent governments by appeasing the masses take the cleaver to the defence budget. It is only ever in the long-term that these decisions prove to be erroneous. Only in the aftermath and with hindsight once the butcher’s bill of the dead and wounded has been paid, once the true cost of rushed logistics and materials has been tallied, only then is the true cost realised. The government cries out “Never again!” in the aftermath. But there always is and there always shall be.

When it comes to botched implementations while showing little foresight, one of the best examples of a bungled policy in post 2010 defence cuts was the rushed decommissioning of the Invincible class light aircraft carriers, chiefly HMS Ark Royal (R07) in 2011. The Invincible class have served the Royal Navy with distinction. HMS Invincible (R05), the namesake of her class, laid down in 1973 and launched in 1977 was one of the carriers present during the Falklands War. It should be noted at this time, before the Falklands War in 1982 the British government were planning to sell HMS Invincible to the Royal Australian Navy. This short-sightedness along with Defence Secretary John Nott’s flawed plan to withdraw the Royal Navy ice patrol vessel HMS Endurance from Antarctic patrol in the South Atlantic were contributing factors for the Argentinean invasion of South Georgia and the subsequent invasion of the Falkland Islands. Additional cuts to the Royal Navy in Nott’s 1981 Defence White Paper included the scrapping of HMS Hermes (R12), a Centaur class conventional aircraft carrier laid down in 1944 but still operational in 1981 she served as the British flagship during the Falklands War. Surviving the war she still survives to this day serving the Indian Navy. Yet again short-sighted defence cuts led to a cost that was eventually far greater than many could have realised at the time.

The other sister ship to HMS Invincible and HMS Ark Royal in the class was HMS Illustrious (R06), laid down in 1976 and launched in 1978. It was “Lusty” who relieved “Vince” in the Falklands after the war. “The Mighty Ark” was laid down in 1978, launched in 1981 but not commissioned until 1985. From 1986 onwards the Royal Navy had access to 3 Invincible class light aircraft carriers and at their time of decommission each was capable of carrying either 12 British Aerospace Harrier II GR.7/9 vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) jet aircraft along with 10 Westland Sea King helicopters and AgustaWestland Merlin helicopters or carrying a compliment of 18 Harriers and 4 Sea Kings and Merlins. Each carrier was capable of carrying approximately 22 aircraft. The class also had the capability of carrying a compliment of 500 Royal Marines.

HMS Invincible, the carrier which had seen distinguished action in the Falklands War was the first to see her demise. After a recent and extensive refit, HMS Invincible was decommissioned in 2005 and effectively mothballed. In 2011 she was sold to Turkey as scrap, an ignominious end and a tragedy for such a distinguished vessel. HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned in 2011 and in 2013 she suffered the same ignominious end as “Vince” being sold to Turkey as scrap. This left us with “Lusty”.

In 2010 HMS Illustrious was operational but without any fixed-wing aircraft capable of flying from her. In 2010 under the defence cuts all British Aerospace Harrier II GR.7/9 (V/STOL) jet aircraft were retired early from service. The Sea Harrier had already been retired early from service in 2006. Pleas to retire the RAF’s Panavia Tornado in place of the Harrier fell on deaf ears, in spite of the Royal Air Force operating the Eurofighter Typhoon. Since 2010 this has left the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Navy without any combat ready (V/STOL) fixed-wing aircraft capable of operating from an aircraft carrier.

All of these decommissions were unplanned and rushed. In place of the Invincible class carriers were to be 2 carriers of the new Queen Elizabeth class. It is to be assumed that the planned changeover from the Invincible to Queen Elizabeth class was expected to have been a synchronised overlap, ensuring that the UK had a seamless constant protection with deployed aircraft carriers and fixed-wing aircraft. Thanks to short-sighted and short-term thinking this has been far from the truth. Defence cuts have turned this whole affair into a fiasco and a potentially dangerous one at that.

Over the last 6 years the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Navy have lacked any combat ready fixed-wing aircraft, leaving them with only helicopter tactical support. This is where excessive and rushed defence cuts turned to fiasco and indecision. In 2009 aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) of the same class was laid down. Launched in 2014 the vessel is currently being fitted out and is expected to be commissioned in 2017 and to enter into service in 2020. The sister carrier HMS Prince of Wales (R09) was laid down in 2011 and is under construction, expected to be launched some time next year in 2017 to potentially be commissioned in 2020 and enter service in 2023.

These are the current plans, for now. With so much indecision due to the defence cuts it is difficult to predict what the final outcome will be. After the 2010 general election the situation was complicated by the decommissioning of Invisible class carriers and the retirement of all British Aerospace Harrier II GR.7/9 (V/STOL) jet aircraft. The Harrier was expected to be in service until at least 2018 and similar to the RAF’s Tornado was expected to be operational long past its intended date of retirement. A future decision that was not expected to be taken until 2020 was decided a decade earlier. So what aircraft was the MoD going to operate on the Queen Elizabeth class carriers? Were the aircraft carriers even going to be completed?

The MoD had a firm contract with BAE Systems Maritime to build 2 carriers. At a similar time the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod, a maritime patrol aircraft in service from 1969 was retired in 2011, while its successor the BAE Systems Nimrod MRA4 after huge investment had already been cancelled in 2010. In 2011 it proved less expensive to break up the aircraft already manufactured. So the Nimrod could be added to the casualties along with the Harrier. With the same mindset of cutting the defence budget, plans for the Queen Elizabeth class carriers seemed to constantly change by the week. One option was to build both carriers then sell them to other nations, another option was to retain the Queen Elizabeth and cancel the laying down of the Prince of Wales, which due to costs changed to retain the Queen Elizabeth and build the Prince of Wales only to have it scrapped with immediate effect. Then it became retain the Queen Elizabeth, build the Prince of Wales and mothball the carrier before the fitting out, to now the possibility of seeing both carriers being commissioned.

The fiasco doesn’t end there, with more decisions to make. What multirole fighter aircraft will operate from these carriers? With the Harriers retired from service it was decided they would be replaced by the Joint Strike Fighter Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. Which variant model would be chosen? The United States Navy have and continue to operate different variants of the Harrier Jump Jet, mostly operated by the United States Marine Corps (USMC). Fixed-wing fighter aircraft operating off US Navy aircraft carriers use the conventional CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) launch system, where a steam catapult is used in launching the aircraft from the flight deck and upon landing the aircraft’s tailhook is used to catch steel cables stretched across the flight deck to decelerate the aircraft using this “Arresting Gear” mechanical system. If a CATOBAR system were used for the Queen Elizabeth class carriers this would place them on a more similar footing to the US Nimitz-class supercarriers, though certainly not in the same league. The initial purchase of the F-35C carrier-based fighter would be less expensive but it would mean operating the CATOBAR system and adapting the class to accommodate the steam catapult system.

The tried and tested method for the Royal Navy in recent decades has been that of the Harrier, a V/STOL (vertical and/or short take-off and landing) aircraft operating as a STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing) aircraft using vectored thrust. To retain this system would require the more expensive initial purchase of the F-35B STOVL aircraft. For technical and safety reasons the intended plan of the Royal Navy for the F-35B is to operate a SRVL (Shipborne rolling vertical landing) system, effectively turning a vertical landing into a CATOBAR landing minus the arresting gear.

Even past the final hour there was indecision. From the beginning both Queen Elizabeth class carriers were intended to operate a variant of the STOVL Harrier. This plan changed to HMS Queen Elizabeth operating STOVL aircraft but HMS Prince of Wales would be converted to operate the CATOBAR configuration. This would mean procuring both F-35C and F-35B variants. This option then proved to be too costly and the decision was reversed, cancelling all work on incorporating CATOBAR and requiring the need for a STOVL ski-jump ramp. The eventual outcome is the MoD will procure the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II variant. However, even this outcome is not final. The future has been left open where either or both carriers could one day be refitted for CATOBAR.

I am not going to discuss whether the MoD have made the correct decision or not in choosing the F-35, or if they have chosen the correct variant. What can be stated is that the F-35 is well behind schedule and is coming in well over budget. The F-35B is even farther behind schedule than the other variants. This could also be claimed for the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. What this does mean, if all goes to schedule, is that the Royal Navy and Great Britain from 2010 to 2020 will have gone an entire decade without the capability of deploying into combat an aircraft carrier equipped with fixed-wing fighter jets. If by 2020 and HMS Queen Elizabeth is operational, able to deploy 24 F-35B’s into combat and in the remaining intervening years their use has not been required then we can by the Grace of God say that Great Britain and her armed forces were most fortunate.

How has the Royal Navy managed in these intervening years? HMS Invincible and HMS Ark Royal were both scrapped so, what of HMS Illustrious? In 2010 as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review it was decided to decommission either the light aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious or the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean (L12), their survival dependent upon which vessel would make the most viable helicopter platform. That turned out to be HMS Ocean. Even after a multi-million pound refit, HMS Illustrious despite being deployed on duty as a helicopter carrier was withdrawn from service in 2014 and is laid up at this time. As the last of the Invincible-class light aircraft carriers in existence, “Lusty” will be preserved for the nation. At least, that is the current plan. There is every chance that “Lusty” will eventually face the same ignominious end as HMS Invincible and HMS Ark Royal, being sold to Turkey as scrap.

Having read this far, by now I am sure you are wondering, what has any of this to do with Europe, the European Union or the upcoming EU referendum? After all, the only organisations mentioned so far that are open to criticism are the British governments and the MoD. The answer to this comes in several parts.

I could have written about many of the other defence cuts made to the Royal Navy and the other armed forces but I wished to specifically write about aircraft carriers being able to deploy combat ready fixed-wing fighter jets, to show as an example. It is a commonly accepted opinion in modern naval warfare that the quality of aircraft carriers in a naval fleet is paramount to its superiority at sea. They are the flagships of the modern navy. Ever since the decisive Battle of Midway, in June 1942 when the United States Navy took on and beat the might of the Japanese Imperial Navy in the Pacific Theatre, during World War II it has proven the vital importance and necessity of being able to deploy carriers and their aircraft during naval engagements. This fact remained a constant right up to 1982, where HMS Hermes (16 British Aerospace Sea Harriers) and HMS Invincible (12 BAE Sea Harriers) proved to be utterly vital in the Falklands War. To the present day aircraft carriers have had a vital role to play in major navies.

The Falkland Islands and the ghosts of that war play a major role in this piece and to the history of the modern Royal Navy. Hermes and Invincible were not alone. Despatched to the Falklands Conflict as a Task Force, the fleet was comprised of 127 ships, which consisted of 43 Royal Navy vessels, 22 from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and 62 merchant ships, including the 2 aircraft carriers already mentioned. Even then, in 1982 a much reduced Royal Navy to what it once had been was required to requisition merchant shipping in order to complete the task. Now, nearly 35 years later, the Royal Navy is in a far sorrier state. The Royal Navy while awaiting the 2 Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers has been reduced to 19 surface vessels; 6 destroyers and 13 frigates currently in service and even these are undermanned. It was a stretch for the Royal Navy to form a Task Force in 1982, today it would be nigh impossible to do so again at such speed.

Militarily, the first of many reasons for the UK leaving the EU is for the UK to bring an end to the exorbitant payments of hundreds of millions of pounds to the EU each and every week. With extra funds freed up from Brexit the MoD could consolidate the current position of the Royal Navy and armed forces before looking to expand the armed forces into an actual viable operating force.

Returning to the aircraft carriers, while the Royal Navy carrier-less awaits the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Navy is without any combat ready fixed-wing fighter aircraft support, the French Navy are in a very different position. The Marine Nationale has the luxury of being able to deploy their aircraft carrier the Charles de Gaulle (R91), an equivalent Nimitz-class nuclear powered supercarrier operating a CATOBAR configuration. As mentioned earlier, the Royal Navy’s plans are for the F-35B’s on the Queen Elizabeth class to operate a SRVL (Shipborne rolling vertical landing) system. To test this method a development program using a QinetiQ VAAC (Vectored-thrust Aircraft Advanced Control) Harrier was carried out. Despite running tests on HMS Illustrious the Royal Navy was placed in the embarrassing position of having to approach the Marine Nationale for the QinetiQ Harrier to have access to run trials on the Charles de Gaulle. This is not so surprising to discover considering the amount of joint NATO exercises and deployments. The Royal Navy, since the retirement of all British Aerospace Harrier II GR.7/9 (V/STOL) jet aircraft from service in 2010 has been, and still is at the complete mercy and whim of the French Navy, the French government and the EU if the British government ever require the need of naval fixed-wing fighter aircraft support. If the British sovereignty of the Falkland Islands were to be tested now, it would be doubtful if either the EU or the French government would be compliant in agreeing to send a joint task force including the Charles de Gaulle to the Falkland Islands. With no naval air support such a venture by the Royal Navy would be untenable.

With so many EU members operating in joint military exercises it comes as little surprise that so many people hold the misapprehension that these are EU exercises and missions. In reality these are joint NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) operations; for now. Canada and the United States are NATO members and if the UK were to leave the EU it would still be a member of NATO so, there would be no increased threat to British defence if it were to leave the EU. In reality with released funds from leaving the EU, the UK could increase funds spent upon British defence.

Increasingly, it appears that NATO exercises and deployments within Europe are being reassigned (if only unofficially) as joint EU exercises. At the same time there is constant talk of an EU combined army, air force, navy, coastguard/SAR (search and rescue) and police force operating within a single nation federal Europe. There is even the possibility of this coming in to effect long before the EU witnesses a single nation federal Europe.

With recent events that have concerned the borders of the EU, the European Council and the European Commissioner have already agreed to accelerate plans for a EU combined coastguard and SAR service. This potentially means in future the UK’s MCA (Maritime & Coastguard Agency) will at first be answerable to, and then at the disposal of the EU, before a possible absorption in to an EU wide Coastguard Agency.

This is just the beginning. Plans are afoot, once the EU referendum has been held and the expected “remain” vote wins, the EU will set in motion the plans for a new EU combined Auxiliary Naval Fleet that involves the participation of vessels from the already depleted Royal Navy. It is expected for the German Navy, the Deutsche Marine to take command of this fleet. This may start off as a small flotilla but this is only the first phase. Since 2013 Germany has begun the integration and amalgamation of its Deutsche Marine with the Royal Netherlands Navy, the Koninklijke Marine, including their respective Marine forces, the German Seebataillon and the Dutch Korps Mariniers, along with all submarine operations, with the German contingent taking precedence. By this reasoning the eventual outcome shall be the complete absorption of the Koninklijke Marine in to the Deutsche Marine. Neither navy is what it once was in strength and there are many reasons for both nations finding this an attractive option by taking this route. With this in mind, the reasoning behind the new EU Auxiliary Naval Fleet becomes more apparent. It will begin with a small flotilla, a gesture at first, then it will expand in to a fleet, eventually comprising of an entire EU Naval Fleet. It would only be a matter of time before these navies were amalgamated and absorbed in to a single EU Naval Fleet commanded by some form of Deutsche Marine in another EU guise. The navies of France, Italy and the rest of Europe may find this to be a cost effective and prudent step to take but it would be catastrophic for the British Royal Navy to take this route.

I have also in previous pieces mentioned the EU’s desire to one day witness a single nation federal Europe bound together fiscally, legislatively, economically, politically and socially. I should of course also added bound together militarily as well. With plans already begun for an EU Coastguard and Naval Fleet, it seems we shall not be required to wait until we witness a single nation federal Europe in order for us to bear witness to an EU combined armed forces. The EU may be a two-tier behemoth split by the Eurozone, the UK may not be in the Euro, nor in the Schengen Agreement for that matter, but it seems increasingly likely that shall be of little consequence; whether desired or not within the next 2 to 4 decades the only armed forces that shall exist on UK and EU soil are those who march in step under the EU flag.

Other member nations of the EU may be comfortable with this absence of military sovereignty, willing participants who are content to see their air forces, armies and navies completely absorbed in to an EU combined force. If the UK were to comply with this in the future, losing sovereign control of the RAF, British Army and the Royal Navy would prove to be catastrophic for not only Great Britain and her armed forces but also potentially catastrophic for many other nations.

As I have written in earlier pieces on this blog, particularly “The EU, Commonwealth of Nations and Crown Dependencies” and “Sovereignty“, it has been shown that the UK has many great commitments and obligations to uphold outside of the EU and its remit. One of those obligations is to protect the Commonwealth and the 14 British Overseas Territories (BOT) once known as British Crown Colonies which include South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands along with the Falkland Islands. A duty of care is offered to these Overseas Territories to grant their sovereignty and protect their freedoms. If the Royal Navy were in future absorbed in to an EU Naval Fleet these duties of care would become an impossibility to uphold. The same could be said of the duties of the RAF and British Army. There would be no reason to believe that the other EU members would allow or permit their forces to become embroiled in the UK’s concerns of the Commonwealth or British Overseas Territories.

This shall be the great tragedy that will unfold. This is not so much a danger of the present but a very real and possible threat writ large in our future. It should be the moral duty of our politicians and high ranking military to forewarn fellow Britons and members of the Commonwealth and British Overseas Territories of the impending dangers that are looming ahead if the UK chooses to remain within the EU. Those territories that are the most vulnerable and placed in a position of the greatest danger must surely be those in the South Atlantic, namely the Falkland Islands. If in future the British armed forces are permitted to become ensnared and absorbed in to an EU combined armed forces, this shall be nothing but an open invitation to Argentina to use coercion, whether it be by armed force or diplomatic and political delegation to gain sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. Naturally this would be a devastating and disturbing outcome for the Falkland Islanders themselves but it would also be a terrible blow to those brave servicemen who were present in 1982. Shall all those servicemen lost in the conflict have fought, bled and paid the ultimate sacrifice in vain? Shall all those who were severely injured, maimed and scarred both physically and mentally for life, be told that all their pain and suffering endured ever since was for nought?

The UK is on the verge of taking a path of no return; if the electorate of their own volition decide to vote to remain within the EU, they shall be complicit in not only betraying the service personnel of our current and future armed forces but also of betraying the memory of past combatants and the armed services themselves. Those who vote to remain within the EU, thus placing British Overseas Territories, the Commonwealth and in future, possibly Britain herself in perilous danger will leave a tainted stain upon this nation which may never be washed clean.

Those who vote for Brexit; who vote to leave the EU in future shall be remembered as having done a service to their nation, having carried out their duty and paid their respects to the Crown, the British armed forces and to Great Britain herself.

On Thursday 23rd June we can all become “Hearts of Oak” for Britannia, the Royal Navy and HM armed forces by voting to leave the EU.

 

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