Saturday, 7 January 2012
Why the deployment of HMS DARING does not mean the drums to war are beating
Sir Humphrey must confess to his heart sinking when seeing the latest tabloid defence journalism drivel (and in that phrase, he emphatically includes the Daily Telegraph) regarding the deployment of HMS DARING to the Gulf.
The deployment of a Royal Navy warship to the Gulf region is an utterly routine event. Bar a minor gap between 1971-1980, and there has been a permanent presence there for well over half a century. The RN has had a standing task involving the deployment of a frigate/destroyer sized platform in the region for over 30 years - the deployment of DARING is as routine as a journalist hacking someone's voicemail.
It is incredibly sad to see the decline of British journalism, and the death of the quality defence journalist (particularly the Telegraph and its much missed writer Desmond Wettern), that the routine deployment of an RN ship can be turned into a story akin to a pre 1914 paper implying that we're dispatching a gunboat to beat up some foreign types. More broadly, surely editors have a responsibility to report the news, not to try to shift events to create the perception of news?
HMS DARING has had a deployment programmed for many years - the RN does not randomly turn around and decide three or four weeks ahead of time that it will arbitrarily send out a major escort to a turbulent region of the world. Planning the deployment (or the Fleet Programme) is a major job, akin to playing 3D chess while blindfolded. Planning takes months, and involves a wide range of areas from defence policy desks, through to logisticians. Everything from Defence Attaches through to technical support areas are involved in pulling together a programme, and in this day and age, every day at sea counts. Every part of a deployment is planned to deliver 'effect' - in other words to further UK goals in the region in some way.
The idea, as put out by the media that the UK is randomly sending an escort to the region in an effort to fly the flag is nonsensical to say the least. The deployment of an RN escort ship on an operational task takes much planning and effort, and represents the vessel at the peak of their operational performance cycle. To move a vessel outside of this cycle has the effect of breaking many other vessels programmes - you don't do it unless you really, really have to.
The reality is that DARINGS patrol will serve to achieve quite a lot, but it really is a routine patrol. In the first instance, sending DARING into the region demonstrates a UK willingness to take on responsibility for managing the air battle, in a way that we've not done for quite a few years in that region due to T42s not going there. This is a reassurance to our coalition allies that we're still playing the game in all its many formats.
The presence of a major warship sends a reassurance signal to various states with whom we enjoy close diplomatic relations. They will see the presence of the vessel as a clear sign of our commitment to the region, and also that we are committed to deploying our most modern hardware into the area. It does send a signal, but that signal is not necessarily one that we are trying to threaten another state - it is a signal that we have the capability to defend those states with whom we are allied.
There is a sales pitch to this as well - if we aspire to sell UK hardware into an area known to be interested in big ships, then the presence of DARING is a useful means of demonstrating capability. While Humphrey doesn't really pay much attention to claims of 'best in the world', preferring instead to focus on the claim of 'best for your countries specific needs', he does believe based on feedback he's heard, that the T45 / Sea Viper / SAMSON combination represents a superb capability, and one that will genuinely make a real difference in the region should states wish to buy one.
A key factor though is the statement that T45 is now firmly programmed into the fleet schedule. The 13 T23s have been working very hard these last few years, and the T42 is firmly on its last legs. The arrival of T45 as a worked up, capable and deployable unit means the burden can be lifted on the crews of the T23s, and instead provides the UK with more flexibility as to what can be deployed globally. In a navy of only 19 escorts, every one counts, so having a fully deployable high end escort fleet (which with the 42s getting older, we've arguably lacked for some time) makes a massive difference.
The real capability, and the one that gives the UK enormous relative influence isn't the fact that the UK has a high quality escort ship in the region, it's the fact that we have a squadron of excellent MCMVs, who have spent many years out there. In the event of a crisis, a major shooting war is, in the authors strictly personal view, an unlikely occurrence. More likely is the use of mines and other nastiness to cause mischief. Very few navies do MCMV work well, and the UK is firmly at the front of this group. Good equipment, masses of operational experience in the local waters, and a good level of crew training means that the real force multiplier in a problem isn't HMS DARING, but the unsung heroes of the MCM world. If the Straits of Hormuz are closed - the chances are that an RN MCMV vessel will be the one to reopen it.