Monday, 23 December 2013
Tis the season to put to sea...
The Scotsman has carried news that the Russian Navy currently has a warship, possibly a Task Group off the coast of Scotland, which in turn has led to the deployment of the Fleet Ready Escort (FRE) to monitor the situation. In turn this has led to claims that the UK (or Scotland) is at risk due to the lack of Nimrod or similar patrol aircraft, and the supposed lack of surface ships based in Scotland. This sort of article is immensely frustrating to read, relying more on hyperbole than any actual fact, and hiding wider issues.
For starters, while it is tempting for the media to become immensely worried that the UK is at risk of imminent Russian ships near our coast, the truth is perhaps more mundane. A cursory glimpse at an Atlas shows that for any ship transiting from further North, its inevitable that their passage plan will take them near the UK coastline. During the Cold War, seeing Russian warships off the UK was a matter of routine- indeed if you believe rumours on some websites, it got to the stage that they had a repair tug permanently stationed near Scotland to assist damaged vessels. Putting into the Moray Firth, a relatively sheltered area during particularly poor weather doesn't seem an unreasonable activity.
By itself the presence of Russian (or other vessels) is not a cause for worry – the Russians are slowly regenerating their fleet and its activity levels, and as such it is more likely that Russian vessels will be seen near the UK after a long hiatus. Similarly, national security is hardly imperilled – while the Russians nearly started a war in 1904 by accidentally sinking some trawlers in the North Sea, this tactic is hardly likely to be repeated today. The right of vessels to exercise innocent passage is something that the Royal Navy does very well too – one only has to look at some of the more interesting waters where RN vessels sail to realise that to complain of another nation doing the same is utter hypocrisy.
The main complaint though seems to be twofold – that a warship and not an aircraft was sent to investigate, and that it didn’t come from Scotland. In reality one has to ask whether an aircraft is really the best solution for this particular situation. Beyond overflying the hull to visually confirm that ‘yes there really is a Russian vessel out there’ the value of the MPA is limited to being able to say ‘we know you are there’. For the crews its likely to mean sustained sorties flying racetracks in foul weather, with long hours of discussions between kipper fleet members about the merits of different pies that they've tasted. Indeed a look on PPRUNE suggests that most MPA overflights in the past were limited to two or three direct overflights of a hull for various legal reasons. So, the best Nimrod could do would be to find the vessel, loiter with fairly obvious intent, and then land again. To support this around the clock would require a minimum of three airframes, a significant proportion of flight operations and support personnel and tie up the resources of a significant proportion of the station. To say ‘why not send a jet’ is to not take into account just how much work would have been needed back at base to support the task and the knock on impact it would have.
By contrast, deploying an RN vessel is actually a much better way of allowing a permanent monitoring presence. The escort can sit offshore and simply steam with the Russians and escort them until such point as they cease to be of direct interest to the UK. In terms of support, it arguably costs less to deploy such a vessel, and probably would tie up less people in direct support than if a continuous Nimrod presence were to be deployed. Whether in reality if the UK still had an MPA ability then both would be used is debatable, but to suggest that the UK is at risk because a ship is attending and not an aircraft is utterly ridiculous.
The argument on basing location seems similarly frustrating – ultimately the base port location of a vessel is arguably an irrelevance. Unless you constantly have a crisis right next to your homeport, vessels (or aircraft) are always going to have to travel to the problem. Within the UK the bulk of RN deployments require vessels to head south and away from the UK towards the Atlantic or the Med, and far less happens to the North. During the Cold War there was a reasonably sized RN surface ship presence in Scotland, including a small number of Type 42s. But as the fleet has shrunk to just two surface ship classes, and the strategic threat from the North has become all but irrelevant, it is extremely hard to see the justification for sustaining escorts in either Rosyth or Faslane on a permanent basis so far away from the RNs centre of gravity for surface ships support. Ultimately, ship basing is not about randomly assigning hulls to bases to provide fancy looking ORBATS or statistics, but about deploying them where it makes most sense from a long term financial and support basis.
It should not also be forgotten that if ships were based in Scotland, and an emerging deployment occurred off Lands End, then a similar problem would occur. Ultimately the RN is stretched for hulls and people, and the days when a frigate could be sortied from a local port have gone forever. Instead, it is more realistic to remember that most parts of the UK are within 24 hours sailing of another (depending on the weather!), and that wherever you are based, you will doubtless always be in the wrong place for the next crisis!
It’s probably also worth remembering that were escort vessels based in Scotland, then they would almost certainly be in Faslane. A very rough distance calculation suggests that a vessel sailing from Faslane would only have to travel some 100km less than a vessel travelling up from Portsmouth (very roughly some 850 vs 950km). Just because a vessel is based north of an arbitrary line does not magically make it able to respond much faster to a problem, or as a certain Scottish engineer might say ‘you canna break the laws of Physics’!
While it has become fashionable in some quarters to claim that Scotland is somehow utterly defenceless against visiting friendly foreign vessels, two things need to be remembered. Firstly that Defence is a national asset and that you cannot base everything everywhere. In a small navy which is still probably over catered for in terms of wharfage and dockyard facilities, there will inevitably be disappointment that some parts of the country don’t get the military assets they’d like to see. Indeed later in the decade it can legitimately be pointed out that on current plans not a single submarine will be based in the UK outside of Scotland. On current plans Scotland plays home to 50% of the RNs MCMV capability and will host 100% of its submarine capability. Add to this the presence of a large naval base, plus a variety of support facilities ranging from Rosyth down to things like the Lochalsh test facilities, and you realise that there is still an extremely substantial Naval presence in Scotland.
Secondly, its easy to forget in this furore that Scotland already has its own OPV assets – the Marine Scotland Agency (link HERE) has been responsible for fishery protection and offshore constabulary tasks in Scottish waters for 130 years. Today it operates three OPVs , ranging from 700 – 2100 tonnes, and also has a small selection of maritime surveillance aircraft too. These vessels work to the Scottish Government, and effectively provide it with an offshore capability. While one can bemoan the lack of RN OPVs in Scottish waters, it is because Scotland as a whole is responsible for this role that the RN doesn't usually deploy OPVs on patrol there. Its also worth noting that Scotland has as many OPVs for Fishery Protection as the RN does for the rest of the UK.
Without wishing to be diverted too far into the independence debate, its perhaps noteworthy that the RN has sufficient resources to generate a 24/7/365 available escort in UK waters for activation when required, and that it is backed up by a wide variety of ISTAR capabilities to ensure the RN knows where any vessels of interest are likely to be. By contrast a putative Scottish Defence Force faced with a similar challenge would be wholly reliant on one of two Type 23s being available for sea and not in refit, training deployed or otherwise unavailable. It is significantly easier to generate an escort from a pool of 19 than a pool of two hulls. Similarly an independent Scotland may find it far more difficult to get access to the wider information required to maintain awareness of vessels and their locations, leaving the Scottish dependent on the largesse of the UK to step in and support them if they wished.
On that note, Humphrey now intends to sign off for the Christmas break. With the exception of a short ‘review of 2013, look ahead to 2014’ which he plans to write over the Christmas period, its unlikely that there will be any other updates to the site until early in the new year. A merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all readers!