The prime duty of the Head of State and Government is the defence of the realm. This does not come cheap in the new electronic and technological age. Air-power is supreme but limited in scope due to the availability of secure land bases and logistics. Sea-power continues to provide the endurance, reach and flexibility that land based air-power cannot deliver. This is still particularly vital for an island trading nation reliant on the freedom of the seas and trade routes. Modern sea-power requires submarines and aircraft-carriers as part of amphibious task forces. A tank equipped Army is less important now that the prospect of a conventional war in Europe has receded; it is still the foot-soldiers that hold and consolidates ground. But even these ground forces need to be flexible and transportable, with high levels of mechanisation and air-borne with helicopters.
The Royal Navy has traditionally been at the forefront of aircraft-carrier development and operations, being both inventive and innovative. Plans for two new carriers (CVF) – Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales are now in doubt due to financial constraints, with the RN pitted against the Royal Air Force for funding. Faced with another defence review, battle lines have been drawn between the three services because the object of the review is, as ever, all about reducing the cost of defence. Defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP has fallen from 5% to 2.8% and each service Chief is fighting their own corner. From the Treasury point of view this in-fighting diverts attention away from the real need to conduct a review that focuses on identifying the threats, what the realistic need is and then the best way to serve the interest of the Nation. Once that has been decided and costed, the funding then has to be put in place.
As always it is a matter of priorities and political will. The history of defence policy making during the 20th century shows us that the United Kingdom does not have a good record for making the right decisions. Defence procurement has not been efficient and has been dominated by short-term considerations, when long-term strategies would have been more cost-effective and produced a better outcome for the services and for the UKs manufacturing industries.
Naval aviation is typical of this situation. Pioneered by the RN in WW1 and in the doldrums through the 20s and 30s, due to international naval treaties, enough was done immediately prior to WW2 to enable the RN to provide air cover for the Fleet to a limited extent. The UK shipbuilding industry was capable of designing and building the ships and the aircraft industry was diverse and able to produce modern aircraft. During WW2 they were able to deliver the hardware and the Fleet Air Arm expanded.
Following WW2 there was the inevitable reduction in the number of carriers and air-wings but involvement in Korea demonstrated that there was still a need for naval airpower which was not dependent on the availability of a safe and secure land base. UK industry was still capable of designing and building the aircraft and carriers to keep the RN at the forefront of naval aviation while the United States Navy outstripped everyone by developing super carriers, mainly nuclear powered, with huge air-wings.
Throughout the 50s the UK air industry continued to design modern jet aircraft that were world beaters but cutbacks resulted in a dearth of orders. The Suez debacle demonstrated that the lack of United States support would undermine any independent action by the UK and France. The US 6th Fleet actually manouvered to obstruct the combined Anglo-French Fleet. Added to which the earlier US rejection of a request from France to come to its assistance with carrier based air support at Dien Bien Phu resulted with a French withdrawal from Vietnam. The USA was dominant and its use of naval airpower ensured that dominance was maintained. This use of airpower was demonstrated in Vietnam to effect but this conflict also indicated that it had its limits and in more localised conflicts was not the deciding factor.
However carrier and amphibious forces can play a different role. It is unlikely that there will ever be a repeat of the carrier battles conducted in the Pacific during WW2. But the flexibility to respond in a variety of circumstances and situations is unsurpassed. Aircraft-carriers operate in a number of diverse roles; strike warfare, fleet air defence, sea control, amphibious assault, and anti-submarine warfare. They have also been used in secondary roles including the movement of military and air forces to trouble spots, disaster relief and the peacetime duty of ‘showing the flag’.
In June 1961, Victorious was serving with the Far East Fleet on route from Singapore to Hong Kong when she was ordered to the Persian Gulf, with all despatch, to defend Kuwait against a threatened Iraq invasion. In the meantime Bulwark arrived with Royal Marines 42 Commando and Whirlwind helicopters embarked. When Victorious arrived on station some days later she was able to take on the air defence of Kuwait with her sophisticated radar and Sea Vixen fighters. The Scimitar fighters stood ready to attack Iraqi ground forces should it become necessary. The threat did not materialise when Iraqi leaders realised that they would have to attack British forces. Prompt action by the RN carrier task groups averted a war.
In January 1964 units of the Tanganyikan Army mutinied and the UK was asked to help the Government to restore order. Centaur was at Aden and , in addition to her air group was able to embark Royal Marines 45 Commando with ammunition stores and some vehicles together with 16/5 Lancers, their armoured cars and two RAF Belvedere helicopters. After a fast passage the Centaur’s Wessex helicopters were used to land Marines in a surprise dawn assault with complete success.
As the 50s drew to a close the UK faced a scenario that resembles our current situation. Modern jet aircraft were much larger than their piston-engined predecessors, making operations from the RN smallish carriers more difficult. The RN had to finally resort to the purchase of the US Phantom naval fighter aircraft to operate alongside UK Buccaneer strike aircraft from a reduced number of carriers. Due to the shorter decks of the UK carriers the Phantoms had to be modified with a 40 inch extension to the nose wheel to give a greater angle of incidence at take-off, and with a Rolls Royce engine to give greater power on take-off. This added great expense and was a major task. The RN recognised the need for larger carriers of 53,000 ton as compared to the then existing 37,000 ton carrier fleet. It was proposed to purchase a fleet of five CVA with the lead ship called Queen Elizabeth which was ordered in 1963. This is where the similarity with the present should give us pause for thought as we do not want to repeat the muddle of the 60s.
The UK was faced with financial difficulties and public spending cuts with defence a usual target as ever. The RN was in competition with the RAF who needed a new strike aircraft. The RAF rejected use of the RN Buccaneer and hoped to buy the UK TSR 2. On cost grounds both lost out as the CVA and TSR 2 were both cancelled. The carrier fleet was to be run down and the supposedly cheaper US F111 was chosen for the RAF. Two years later the F111 purchase was cancelled. The UK withdrew from east of Suez. The rational was that the UK would do little outside of NATO and there were no conceivable circumstances where an aircraft-carrier would be required – such as an amphibious assault thousand of miles from Europe
Through the 70s the decline continued and the life span of the last carrier, Ark Royal, was extended. The RN, resigned to a carrierless fleet, set up a Future Fleet Working Party to decide how this would work. The WP concluded that the fleet still needed an Airborne Early Warning aircraft to enable the fleet to defend itself with surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles and there would be a need to keep enemy reconnaissance aircraft at bay. The WP had come up with the wrong answer and was disbanded.
The other conclusions arising from the CVA proposal was that two types of escort ships needed to operate alongside the CVA; the type 82 destroyer to provide air defence and a new design of helicopter cruiser to operate anti-submarine helicopters. Only one type 82 was completed and the helicopter cruiser design evolved in to a vessel designated the Through Deck Cruiser which was remarkably similar to an aircraft carrier. The development of a vertical take off aircraft by Hawker and the production of the Harrier for the RAF presented the RN with an aircraft type that was capable of operating from the TDC. The last conventional carrier, Ark Royal was decommissioned in 1978, leaving two commando carriers; the Bulwark was withdrawn as the new Conservative government continued the cutbacks in 1979 while the Hermes was adapted to perform as the TDC pending the introduction of the three vessels in the TDC class. The first came in to service in 1980. In 1981 a further Conservative defence review concluded that the UKs air defence was inadequate and needed repairing. The British Army of the Rhine could not be reduced in the face of the Soviet threat and the RN was to bear the brunt of the cuts with a limited role of anti-submarine operations in the East Atlantic. This deigned that the Hermes would be withdrawn when the second TDC was to enter service in 1982 and the first TDC would then be sold to Australia when the third TDC entered service.
The end result would be two TDCs in service. In addition the two amphibious vessels, Fearless and Intrepid, were also earmarked for disposal. This created great controversy. The withdrawal of the Endurance from the South Atlantic gave the Argentinians another indication that the UK was not committed to the Falkland Islands. Faced with internal problems and relying on its good relations with the US they confidently invaded the Falklands in 1982, calculating that the UK could not respond even if they wished. If they had waited for a year and the defence cuts had been implemented that would certainly have been the case.
A situation had arisen which twenty years earlier UK politicians had said would never happen. They were proved wrong and the decisions arising from that assumption had serious consequences not only for the protection of the remaining British overseas territories that wanted to remain British but also for the defence of Western Europe and those nations for which the UK had treaty responsibilities. With political will it was possible to patch up a Task Force and immediately retake the Falklands.
This proved to be a turning point that had repercussions far beyond the Falklands. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had demonstrated resolve and determination. This was reinforced by the 1980 election of Republican President Ronald Reagan, to replace one-term Democrat Jimmy Carter, and a hardening of US military strategy. This was influential on Soviet military thinking as it indicated a new conviction within NATO to resist the overwhelming conventional force of the Warsaw Pact. The Soviets were also finding out for themselves that invading Afghanistan  was no easy task and they were experiencing their own ‘Vietnam’ debacle. When NATO held a military exercise in 1983 this was misconstrued by the USSR as cover for a NATO offensive. There was a real danger of war by mistake compounded by a failure to communicate. The election of Karol Wojtyla in 1978 as the first Polish Pope, John Paul II, gave hope to Poland in particular and Eastern Europe in general. Increasing resistance to Communist rule and domination demonstrated the fragile hold enjoyed by the Soviet Union over its satellite client allies.
Young people today cannot appreciate what it was like to live in constant fear of a destructive nuclear war and annihilation. This fear was used by the Soviets to engender in the populations of the Western European nations a philosophical resignation that it was better to be ‘red than dead’. Even if the military hawks in the Kremlin still believed in the might of the Red Army to steam-roller its way to the Atlantic coast, and the power of its missile forces to engage in a nuclear war; there was a new-reality emerging in the Politburo from a new generation of political doves. US economic resources and advanced technology were setting a pace in the arms race that could not be matched in the long-term without a drastic change to Soviet economic management. Time was running out for the hawks.
Mikhail Gorbachev became Communist Party Leader in 1985 and introduced new reforms, which eventually and inadvertantly resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Margaret Thatcher had been so concerned about the outbreak of an accidental war in 1983 that she engaged with Mikhail Gorbachev who had similar concerns and after meeting him in 1984 declared that he was a man with whom she could do business. In the UK there was much disbelief and she faced ridicule. But it was small steps like that which resulted in the east-west thaw. One other such small step was when Mikhail Gorbachev sent a Soviet ice-breaker to the northern coast of Alaska to help free a family of whales trapped under the expanding ice sheet. It demonstrated that people could work together. Fear started to recede as both sides recognised a common decency and humanity in each other.
It could have been very different. In 1978 General Sir John Hackett and other UK military leaders, aided by top-ranking US and German generals, co-produced a ‘future-history’ book titled The Third World War. This was a world-wide best seller and wake-up call to the Western powers. The book told the story of WW3 that lasted for less than a month in August 1985. The Kremlin hawks faced a scenario that actually existed in the mid-80s and as outlined above. In response to unrest in Poland the Soviets launched a defensive invasion of Western Europe with conventional forces and the intent of destroying the Federal Republic of Germany. NATO forces are pushed back to the Rhine but pleas for an US nuclear response are resisted. Instead the US flies in reserves over the Atlantic Air Bridge with the UK acting as the stepping-off point. Heavy equipment arrives by sea on the Cavalry Convoy. Heavy losses are inflicted by Soviet aircraft and submarines, but enough arrives in the nick of time to enable the launch of a successful counter-offensive. This forces a Warsaw Pact withdrawal but not defeat.
It does dent the reputation of the Red Army and demonstrate their vulnerability. This encourages resistance in Poland and attacks on Soviet supply lines. As the Soviets lose their grip they launch a single nuclear missile, as a warning and negotiating ploy, aimed at Birmingham that ensures the total destruction of the City and surrounding towns. US and UK Polaris submarines launch a bigger attack on Minsk. To avoid similar reprisals Warsaw Pact nations and Asian Soviet Union states abandon Russia. The dissolution of the Soviet Union is achieved and peace negotiated without the need for a NATO invasion of Eastern Europe. There is no doubt that the publication of this ‘future-history’, together with the real new-resolve of the US and UK in NATO, produced the same result without the death and destruction of WW3.
We do not face the same threats now, but there is a need for the same clear and informed vision for defence.