4th July 2014 – by Alexander Clarke * - europeangeostrategy.org
The game of chess is played with both players having sixteen pieces, of which eight on each side are pawns. Pawns are often the most undervalued of all pieces, but as Anatoly Karpov once said ‘pawns not only create the sketch for the whole painting, they are also the soil, the foundation, of any position’. The Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers will be the Queens of British strategy for most likely the next four to five decades. However, that strategy may evolve to deal with potential threats/situations which will arise over a far longer period of time. The trouble is that security, much like the game of chess, requires more than just Queens.
This is the problem for many navies in the modern world, including the United States Navy (USN), but for Britain, for the Royal Navy (RN), it is particularly acute. Gone are the Harriers, which leaving aside their operating from the Invincible-class carriers (that have been the most versatile pillar of Britain’s global reach capability for more than three decades), which would have operated from the Queen Elizabeths until the F35Bs were ready for service. This decision though is in the past. Short-termist it was, but it is not the only decision that was; and Britain has not been alone in making such decisions. The fact is democracies, Western ones especially, seem to have developed blinkers when it comes to conceiving of problems beyond the next election cycle. This is possibly because the political leaders fear public reaction to what might be required, but more likely it reflects a fear of their ability to sell the need for such things to a taxpaying public that in the modern 24-hour news cycle seems to consume information in ever smaller chunks.
Therefore while the economic crisis is starting to recede (although the joy of ‘boom and bust’ means there is another around the corner), nations are going to have to live with the decisions made in times of crisis for many years to come.
This is the problem for strategists, and for those looking after a nation’s security; they know the threats, they know what is needed – a ship may be twenty times better than a vessel in its predecessor class, but it can still only be in one place at a time. The same goes for planes, for tanks, for troops. Britain has equipped itself with an excellent, First Rate expeditionary aircraft carrier, but it is without fighters that can fly from it; it has six of the world’s best destroyers, yet they were not fitted with vital communications equipment or land attack missile capability; it has built some of the most complex and advanced submarines ever conceived, and is conceiving what could be a brilliantly versatile frigate class. The RN will be fielding some of the best First Rate vessels of any nation. The problem is that this is what all Western nations are doing and it is another trap, perhaps even worse than that posed by the election cycle.
Building the best and fielding only the best; it is arguable that Admiral Fisher started this habit when he was First Sea Lord and got rid of so many of Britain’s gunboats in order to provide manpower for his first rate Dreadnought Battleships of the Grand Fleet. Today it has led to navies, with Queens, with Rooks, with Bishops and Knights, but without Pawns; only First Rate ships are built and there are no cheap frigates or corvettes – that is the biggest problem. Without them there is no real chance for the presence that can alert, and even deter minor conflicts; allowing the First Rates to be saved for when they are really needed. The worst thing about all this, is that governments know there is the problem; the Black Swan concept was envisaged by the British Ministry of Defence/RN as the solution to the problem in 2012, but two years later the closest Britain has got to a small/affordable escort is the order for three new River-class offshore patrol vessels (OPVs).
* Dr. Alexander Clarke recently finished his PhD on British Naval Aviation in the 1920-1930s at the War Studies Department, King’s College London. He writes here in a personal capacity.