Neither Master nor Commander. Goodbye to the Royal Navy

One of my favourite war films of recent times is Master and Commander.  Based on the Patrick O’Brian series of books it follows the fortunes of HMS Surprise and Captain Aubrey, as they duel it out with a much larger French ship off the coast of South America.

The makers of the film researched the period well.  In some spectacular set piece scenes they ably portrayed how a frigate of the time functioned as a unit and how important were the leadership qualities of the Captain.  The charismatic Aubrey led from the front and knew how to motivate his crew to accomplish the exceptional in very difficult circumstances.  He had some memorable  lines in the film, such as when Aubrey urged his crew on at gun practice.

Officer:    Last gun fired, sir.          

Aubrey:  Timing?

Officer:   Two minutes and one second, sir.

Aubrey:  Lads, that’s not good enough.  We need to fire two broadsides to her one.  Want to see a guillotine in Piccadilly?

Crew:      No!

Aubrey:  Do you want to call Napoleon your king?

Crew:      No!

Aubrey:  Want your children to sing The Marseillaise?

Crew:      No!

 Then as the film moved on to the last climatic battle, Aubrey laid out his battle plan to the crew before finishing with these stirring lines:

Aubrey:    England is under threat of invasion.  And though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home.  This ship is England.  So it’s every hand to his rope or gun.  Quick’s the word and sharp’s the action.  After all, Surprise is on our side.

And so for the next 150 years and more our navy went out to project British power around the world.  Ships run by men such as Captain Aubrey, were acting under and answerable to the British Crown, serving the strategic objectives of the British Government and always acting to protect British interests abroad. 

This is why the news that the Navy is going to acquire two hideously expensive aircraft carriers, is a very disturbing development.  Not the acquisition itself.  The purpose here is not to talk about whether we need them or not.  Whether, for example, we could just instead convert a couple of small container ships and then launch helicopters from them.    No, it’s the fact that these aircraft carriers will have no aircraft.  Which obviously seems completely ridiculous as in, what’s the point?  

Unfortunately there is a very logical reason to having aircraft carriers without any aircraft, and it is all to do to with our commitment to being part of a European Defence Force.  As my favourite blogger Richard North has been pointing out for years, Tony Blair in 1998 at the Saint Malo Summit, entered into an agreement with Chirac for a Combined European Force.  This though was just a continuation of the post-Maastricht defence policy espoused by Major, and supported by Portillo (Defence Secretary) in 1996 and continued ever since.  As Richard North admirably puts it:

Amazingly, after the debacle of the “carriers with no planes”, we are now told that, trying to bridge the “capability gap”, ministers have said the new carriers will be redesigned to have catapults to launch aircraft. That “will allow them to carry planes like the French Rafale”. Oh, what a surprise.

The beans have been spilled by French defence minister Morin, who has told a “Euronaval conference” that: “I’ve asked our military command to consider the feasibility of stationing British aircraft on our aircraft carrier and vice versa.” He added: “The idea is an exchange of capacity and an interdependence. It’s a new approach.”

Is it b******s a new approach. That has been the plan all along … even the BBC recorded it in 2003. It was picked up by The Daily Telegraph and on 4 February 2003, AFP reported that “Britain and France will use a joint summit to announce plans for a European naval force equipped with an aircraft carrier battle group on standby at all times … “, all under the headline “Europe plans joint naval force”.

And, of course, all this was agreed by the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council on 17 May 2004 and endorsed by the Helsinki European Council of 17 and 18 June 2004 as the Headline Goal 2010, where there was an undertaking to supply the European Rapid Reaction Force with an aircraft carrier, its associated air wing and escort. Do they think we are that stupid?

He then adds that the French and British are discussing a new fleet of tanker aircraft as well as the French supplying us with a maritime reconnaissance capability, to replace the scrapped Nimrod MR4s.

For this is the whole point of a Combined European Force.  And despite what Liam Fox in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday was trying to hoodwink us with, combined doesn’t mean allied or helping each other in times of need, it means, well combined.   We provide this equipment, you provide that bit, we provide this unit, you send that one.  Bung it all together, put on Ode to Joy, fly the yellow-starred blue flag and bingo, a European Army.

That is why we have been spending fortunes on big-ticket items which don’t make much sense from a purely British Strategic Interest point of view.  Not just the European strike fighter, but also the Armoured Fighting Vehicle, the FRES.  Billions went into this useless program as part of our commitment to Europe.  Then when a real war started, we had to rework a bunch of rusty Snatch Land Rovers from Northern Ireland and send them to Basra, resulting in the death or mangling of hundreds of British soldiers.  

When assessing what military equipment you have to acquire, you need first to know what your Strategic Interest is and then assess what equipment you will need to achieve your strategic interest objectives.  Maybe it means that all you need to do to meet your objectives is ally with the Americans and their Carrier groups, and then make do with those cheap converted container ships.  Spending tens of billions of pounds on fancy war toys with no clear sense of strategic interest other than that of forming a European Army is inherently wasteful and ultimately against our national interest. The European Army is being put together within a framework of 27 competing strategic interests, though dominated by the French and Germans, where the only clear one is that of ‘ever closer union’.  Liam Fox in his article stated, ‘Yet it has always been my view that defence must be a sovereign, and therefore an inter-governmental issue’.  This is completely illogical, given that when it is inter-governmental, it is no longer sovereign.  It could be, for example, that in two years time our national interest will be to ally with the US to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  Then despite having spent billions on them, we would only be able to use those carriers if it was in the French national interest to do so as well.  We have effectively lost sovereignty of our Armed forces.

 Imagine Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. “ Ur Hardy, could you send a dispatch to all the heads of the European Governments.  ‘May we engage the enemy more closely?’”  And somehow I don’t think the cry of ‘God, President Von Rompuy, and the EU’ would have encouraged Aubrey’s men to leap over the gunwales and risk getting a cutlass through the guts.  Especially as they are now more likely to get a musket ball in the back from the Italian marine contingent seconded to them as part of the Combined Naval Task Force.



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