Tuesday, 31 January 2012
HMS DAUNTLESS - The drums to war are still not beating...
The media have reacted with barely concealed glee today at the news that HMS DAUNTLESS is to deploy to the south Atlantic, and may visit the Falkland Islands. If confirmed, and if her programme goes ahead as intimated, then in the eyes of journalists the world over, this is clearly a great day for Britain as we slap down those truly dreadful Argentines who are demonstrating the audacity to suggest that territory owned by the UK is actually theirs. Clearly, sending a gunboat is the right thing to do.
The reality is that the RN has kept a permanent presence in the South Atlantic for 30 years - throughout this time there has always been an RN vessel, sometimes a major warship, sometimes an SSN, sometimes an OPV, but there has always been an RN presence in the region. Over this time, many new ships have entered service, and many of them have represented a step change in capability compared to their predecessors. This is an inevitable mark of progress, and in reality is nothing extraordinary - surely it would be more concerning if a new vessel entered service and didn't have a better level of capability than her predecessor?
The deployment of DAUNTLESS is highly unlikely to be a reaction to recent Argentine sabre rattling over the islands. As noted elsewhere on this forum, the planned deployment of ships occurs a long time in advance, and their programmes are minutely planned. It is highly likely that this began planning at least 12-18 months ago. The deployment of a T45 should not come as a surprise either - for many years the Falklands have been a great deployment for older T42s, as it allowed them to provide an area air defence capability in a relatively benign environment, but also a capability that was genuinely valuable, and meant that the T23s and 22Cs could go east of Suez.
The presence of a T45 merely continues this tradition, and does not in itself mark any change in the RNs capability in the region - an air defence destroyer is deploying on what has become a traditional air defence destroyer deployment. Yes, she is more capable than her predecessors, but that is by the by.
It is easy to read too much into the news, and this appears to be a classic case where the media are fixating on a routine changeover and deciding that its anything but routine. In reality, given the ships company are likely to have been aware of her programme for some time, had it been changed for any reason, then the same media which today are proclaiming that the ante is being upped in the region would probably have run headlines about the surrender to Argentina, and how disgraceful it was that the RN was backing down in the face of Argentine belligerence. As ever, this author is increasingly convinced that the media only want stories which portray either the drumbeat to war (as that sells papers), or which glorify national humiliation (as that sells papers). Anything which says otherwise wouldn't sell papers as it merely portrays cold hard facts. Oh for a return to Desmond Wettern.
There are two things which are worthy of greater concern than the media excitement. The first is the (in the authors strictly personal view) reprehensible way in which serving or retired members of the Naval Service are being quoted talking in language last seen in a 'commando' type comic about blowing the Argentines and every other south American airforce out the sky. Yes, the T45 is capable, but in a region which has a culture of machismo, and in which we fight a daily diplomatic battle to remain relevant, engaged and able to exert meaningful influence, is boasting about your ability to humiliate another country particularly sensible? It may play well in the Sun, but quotes like this get filed, get remembered and get dug out at inopportune moments when it may be necessary to whip a crowd into a frenzy. Crowing about our capability is a great way to equip your face for, but not with, egg in due course.
Personally, this author thinks that if serving members are found to have issued such ridiculous quotes to the media about T45, then they should be discouraged from speaking to the media again for a long time, if needs be by posting them to sites where internet access is a long term aspiration...
Secondly, the focus on the deployment to the FI takes away the fact that DAUNTLESS is likely to have a much wider programme of engagement and defence diplomacy which will do an immense amount to further the UK interests in the wider area. As ever, the UK media are incapable of seeing any story about the southern hemisphere without seeing it through the prism of 1982 redux; in reality it's likely that the presence of a T45 on whatever route she takes is likely to have a major, and immensely positive effect on the UK military reputation in the region, and could do an immense amount of good.
It's not that DAUNTLESS doesn't matter - it does. To conduct a routine deployment of a vessel 8000 miles from its home base, and sustain it for 6 months is something that very few navies can do. To do it as just one of several tasks is a means of showing how, despite its diminished size, the RN is one of the most capable maritime forces on the planet. But, it would be nice to reach the point where the UK can do a deployment of modern technology and not have the media try to start a war in order to see it used, just to make headlines for authors who don't know the difference between a DAUNTLESS or a DREADNOUGHT...