The government’s SDSR 2015 proudly proclaims to be ‘transforming the Royal Navy’s ability to project our influence overseas’ by providing for not only the two Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, but also an increased number of F35s to fly from them. Commissioning both vessels is certainly a bold statement of intent on the government’s behalf, however the decision to commit to only eight Type 26 Global Combat Ships must raise questions about Britain’s capacity to deploy her much vaunted carriers without sacrificing her naval presence in other theatres.
The debate over the most appropriate balance to be struck between ‘capital’ ships and the other vessels required to deploy them effectively has a long antecedence. In the early twentieth century, similar questions were asked when the Admiralty announced its intention to construct the new-model battleship HMS Dreadnought. The influential American commentator Rear-Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan was scathing in his criticism of the new ship, and in Britain the former Director of Naval Construction, Sir William White, cautioned against placing all of the country’s ‘naval eggs into one or two vast, costly, majestic, but vulnerable baskets’. Even supporters of the type like Captain Reginald Bacon, a member of the Committee who had over-seen the design of Dreadnought and the officer that was to become her first captain, acknowledged that innovations in torpedo and submarine technology meant that the battleship could no longer operate independently. Rather, a fleet of smaller craft was required to work in harmony with the capital ship:
the conception of the battleship now is no longer one unit enclosed in one hull, but is bound to come to a ship which the other adjunct vessels associated with her that will supply her with that portion of her power which she herself has lost.
Despite this awareness of the battleships’ increasing dependence upon other craft, critics of contemporary Admiralty policy contended that too great a proportion of the Estimates was being spent upon capital ships at the expense of their vital escorts. Rear-Admiral Edmond Slade, the Director of Naval Intelligence, remarked in 1909 that ‘while we are amply strong in Battleships the fault is that the flotilla has been neglected’. Admiral Fisher’s naval assistant expressed similar concerns, noting that the majority of the Navy’s torpedo boats were ‘20 years old and in such a bad state that they will only be serviceable for about two years unless some action is taken.’
Most famously, Admiral Jellicoe consistently lamented the lack of light craft at his disposal whilst in command of the Grand Fleet between 1914-16. ‘We were very short of destroyers for fleet work’, he later reflected, claiming that this had caused ‘the Battle Fleet to confine its movements under ordinary conditions to the more northern waters of the North Sea.’ In other words, an insufficiency of light vessels had restricted the mobility of the very dreadnoughts that had been built at their expense. Indeed, the ‘insufficiency of the flotilla forces’ was later cited as an obstacle to the introduction of convoys in 1917. At that point, the Admiralty was obliged to choose between the requirements of the fleet and the anti-submarine campaign in the Channel and Western Approaches. Recalling this dilemma in 1940, Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond encapsulated the lesson he had derived from the situation; ‘the Navy must be provided with flotilla and cruiser forces adequate to fulfil both purposes simultaneously’.
Arguably, Admiral Fisher had prioritised strategic concerns over operational matters when he emphasized capital ships within his procurement plans. As he argued in 1906, ‘international alliances and, much more, international Ententes can be made and broken with far greater rapidity and ease than that with which battleships can be built.’ The same could be said of smaller craft, which could be purchased with much greater rapidity and ease than high-value battleships or battle cruisers. This was demonstrated in the autumn of 1914 when, after returning to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord, Fisher moved quickly to inaugurate a sizeable programme of flotilla craft construction. These new vessels would maximize the operational impact of the battleships whose existence secured overall British naval supremacy. Bacon summarised the necessity of securing the most important, difficult to construct ships first:
As long as we remain a fighting sea power, we must have not only ships of equal or superior armament, but we must, at the same time, call then luxuries – call them what you like – but at any sacrifice have ships that are able to overtake, fight and sink the ships of any other country.
SDSR 2015 has replicated this approach in the emphasis it has placed upon carrier strike capability. The challenge for the government now is to provide enough supporting vessels to deploy the carriers without unduly compromising Britain’s ability to act in other areas of the globe. Whether this will be achieved through operating with allies and partners, or through a new variation of frigate for the Navy remains to be seen. Yet if the commitment to ‘global reach’ is to be more than rhetoric, a means of deploying a carrier whilst conducting another naval operation is certainly required.
Image: HMS Dreadnought in drydock at Portsmouth 1916, via wikimedia commons.