Ruling the Waves
fter too many years of hearing senior U.S. officers gripe about sequestration and congressional mandates, and fire off interservice potshots, it’s refreshing to hear a flag officer sounding optimistic.A
The’s senior office—Britain’s first sea lord—is Sir George Zambellas: educated as an aeronautical engineer, a helicopter pilot by specialty and a confessed “antisubmarine-warfare [ASW] guy.” He was in Washington late last month, in part on a mission to boost the RN’s capabilities, which former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates casually trashed in a British radio interview earlier this year.
The Royal Navy, Zambellas said, “is seeing signs of expansion, which is a really weird place to be.” Including its new aircraft carriers, the evolving Type 26 Global Combat Ship—“incredibly versatile”—and a forthcoming replacement for its ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), the navy will have “half the U.K. procurement budget” in the early 2020s. The RN has been through much deeper cuts than any U.S. service—only now, Zambellas warns, is the U.S. Navy facing a switch from “outcome-led to resource-led” planning.
As noted here a few weeks ago (AW&ST July 14, p. 26), U.S. technological leadership is not taken for granted worldwide. One of Zambellas’s most interesting comments was a personal observation from a U.S. Navy commander following an exercise with one of Britain’s new Astute nuclear attack submarines (see photo)—“the most advanced in the world,” according to Zambellas. “How the hell did you do that again?” the American officer said. “That’s really annoying.”
“That again,” in this context, almost certainly refers to the achievement of a new level of stealth. The Cold War-era watchword among ASW operators was: “If you can’t hear anything, it’s either a diesel-electric or a British nuke.” Key technologies like pumpjet propulsion (which slashes noise at high speed) came out of the U.K. in the 1980s and did not reach the U.S. fleet until the late 1990s.
Zambellas stresses cooperation rather than competition. It is a point of pride that the U.S. and U.K. are teamed on the development of the Common Missile Compartment for the next generation of SSBNs. In a similar vein, an increased emphasis on interoperability that started some years ago, in the Persian Gulf, is producing results: One of the Royal Navy’s newest surface combatants, a Type 45 antiair-warfare destroyer, “is operating as an integral part of the U.S. carrier task force,” Zambellas said, noting the significance of the fact that the U.S. Navy “is comfortable enough to allow its premier asset to be protected by a U.K. ship.”
The Type 45 is also the vehicle for the U.K.’s contribution to ballistic missile defense (BMD), which has hitherto been a wide-open gap in national capability. Zambellas confirmed that HMS Daring, the first-of-class Type 45, took part in BMD exercises in the Pacific early this year, with a focus on looking at the economics of theater BMD. “You have to be very careful not to create the most expensive weapon in the world” to counter simple missiles, he noted.
The new carriers are designed primarily to join coalition operations, Zambellas said. (The near-unanimous view in the RN is that next year’s defense review will set a date for the second carrier to join the active fleet.) Together with SSBNs and BMD, carriers are the navy’s strategic assets that belong under national control, he explained.
Zambellas has one major strategic concern: In just over a month, on Sept. 18, Scotland will vote on independence. “If you ever find yourselves with a naval attache from Scotland, you’re in serious trouble,” he joked to the Washington audience. Asked about contingency planning for a “yes” vote, he responded: “I feel the hand of a parliamentarian on my shoulder—so, no, we’re not doing any contingency planning and it isn’t going to happen.” But he adds seriously and carefully: “The Royal Navy and Marines are closely matched to their current strategic tasks, with no spare capacity.” The loss of Scottish bases would have “a disproportionate” impact on efficiency.
The RN has critical assets in Scotland: The SSBNs are based at Faslane, and their missiles and nuclear warheads are handled and loaded at Coulport, close by. The carriers are being assembled at Rosyth, which has the only naval dry dock in the U.K. that can accommodate them for repairs or maintenance. Also in the Navy’s sphere: If the, as expected, restores its maritime patrol capability, its most northerly base in England is more than 200 mi. farther from the North Atlantic than RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland.
Sea warfare and land warfare are interdependent, as a study of Nelson’s wars will tell you. The Scottish referendum could underline that lesson.