Technology

08.14.14

Britain's High-Tech New Plan to Rule the Waves

The Royal Navy is in the midst of a radical reboot—and that’s on top of the secret edge they’ve got on every other fleet.

After too many years of hearing senior U.S. Navy officers gripe about budget cuts and political interference, it’s refreshing to hear a flag officer sounding optimistic.

Britain’s First Sea Lord—the Royal Navy’s senior officer—is Sir George Zambellas, educated as an aeronautical engineer, a helicopter pilot by specialty and a confessed “antisubmarine warfare guy.” He was in Washington late last month, in part, on a mission to boost the Royal Navy’s capabilities, which former defense secretary Bob Gates had casually trashed in a British radio interview 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—a Swiss Army knife of a warship for antisubmarine warfare and a multitide of other missions—and a forthcoming replacement for its ballistic missile submarines, the navy will have half of the U.K. military’s procurement budget for buying weapons by the early 2020s. The Royal Navy 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. That’s a polite way of saying that the U.S. military is going to have to live in the budgetary climate that other nations have had to deal with for the past decade or two.

As noted here a few weeks ago, U.S. leadership in military technology is no longer taken for granted worldwide. One of Zambellas’ 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—“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,” in this context, almost certainly refers to the achievement of a new level of stealth. The Cold War-era catchphrase among antisubmarine warfare (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 ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). At an operational level, 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 anti-air-warfare destroyer, “is operating as an integral part of the U.S. carrier task force,” Zambellas says, 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.”

After an exercise with one of Britain’s new nuclear attack submarines, a U.S. Navy commander had a simple question: “How the hell did you do that?”

The Type 45 is also the vehicle for the U.K.’s contribution to ballistic missile defense, 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 the operation. “You have to be very careful not to create the most expensive weapon in the world” to counter simple missiles, he said.

The new carriers are primarily designed to join coalition operations, Zambellas says. (The near-unanimous view in the Royal Navy 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, Zambellas said.

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 attaché 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, he said. 

The R.N. 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 Royal Air Force, as expected, restores its maritime patrol capability, its most northerly base in England is more than 200 miles 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: Nelson and his fellow admirals fought many battles to take control of seaports or neutralize forts that threatened their movement. The Scottish referendum could underline that lesson.

This column also appears in the latest issue of Aviation Week & Space TechnologyFor more of Sweetman’s columns, see: aviationweek.com/columns/commanders-intent