Archive for the ‘naval’ Category

Pirate Links

A couple of piracy links. Thomas Wiegold (German link) reports that India is very angry indeed about a group of Italian security men protecting a ship who fired on a fishing boat, thinking she was a pirate skiff, killing several people. Of course, the Indian Navy has form here, having destroyed a Thai trawler in error with the loss of dozens of lives not so long ago.

Wiegold’s blog is usually worth watching (for example, this story), and I’d also recommend this piece, especially as a conference on piracy is coming up in London. It’s been suggested that the EU naval force off Somalia would be allowed to carry out raids against pirates on shore, probably with ship’s light helicopters – here Wiegold quizzes the German foreign ministry spokesman and discovers that the wording in question means “between the high and low water mark”, which is suspiciously specific.

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This Ha’aretz piece is interesting for the insight it gives into Israeli policy and especially into process, but also for a couple of other things. Notably, it’s remarkably frank about the Obama administration deliberately trying to stop Netanyahu going to war, and the role of dodgy casino guy Sheldon Adelson in both US and Israeli right-wing politics, and it provides the new information that the Americans have given up on the formal diplomatic channel and concentrated on influencing the Israeli military directly, on a brasshat to brasshat basis. The implied conclusion is that the IDF leadership are interested in external reality while Bibi is too busy being Winston Churchill, and further that they are interested in getting information from the Americans about what their own prime minister is thinking.

Also, Netanyahu considers himself an expert on US politics. The danger here is that the America he is an expert on may not be the same America everyone else is dealing with. If, as I suspect, he is getting a lot of his information from his Republican contacts, he’s living in an alternate universe. In so far as people like Sheldon Adelson are impressed by US politicians who know Bibi Netanyahu personally, his contacts are literally being paid to tell him what he wants to hear. It’s ironically similar to Bush before the Iraq war, just with the stove-pipe reversed.

However, I was astonished by this quote:

While the Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy is operating in the Straits of Hormuz, just as the Pacific Fleet was anchored at its home base near Honolulu on the fateful morning of December 7, 1941, the two instances are not really comparable.

Well, no, they’re not, are they? Some tabloid journalists keep a few paragraphs of general-purposes “sexy” in a file they can drop into a story as required and just change a couple of parameters to fit. This sounds like the same thing, but with Churchill!

Meanwhile, Colin Kahl, and this. It does look like there’s a coordinated push-back against the bullshit, which is good news for those of us who remember 2002. The US Navy bombs Iran…with love. Of a purely Platonic form between comrades of the sea. Oops. while also bringing the carrier back.

US policy does look like it’s trying to achieve three goals – 1) no war with Iran, 2) reassure the GCC countries (so they don’t start one), 3) restrain the Israelis (without pressing so hard they freak and start one). These are partly contradictory, but then what isn’t? Certainly, the combination of being ostentatiously nice to Iranian sailors while also sailing a giant carrier up and down the Gulf does fit the needs of 1) and 2).

So what about those North Koreans? As the SWJ put it, a small war in Korea was postponed. I’d query “small”, especially in the special sense they use it – it wouldn’t have been particularly small and it would have been defined by high-intensity battle – but perhaps they are really thinking of whatever would happen after North Korea, as in David Maxwell’s paper I linked to. (Maxwell turns up in the comments thread.) The postwar is reasonably certain to show up; the big question is whether Korea has to go through the big war to get there.

It’s worth noting that the North Koreans took care to be seen to be alert and causing trouble during the exercises off Yeonpyeong, but without doing anything that would be unambiguously hostile. It’s also interesting that they seem to have used electronic warfare as a way of signalling their continued determination to fight in a field that wasn’t a direct challenge to the South Koreans and their allies.

Actually, all parties to the conflict attempted to find alternative forms of confrontation in order to exert power while trying to keep control of the escalation dynamic. I recently saw somewhere on the Web a reference to the idea that having multiple independent forms of power or status was an egalitarian force in society as they could balance each other. It’s certainly an important concept in international politics. North Korea’s original bombardment of Yeonpyeong was a direct and physical, kinetic, attack on the disputed border – at one level, they hoped that if there was no response from the South, they would have set a precedent that South Korea could not treat the island and part of the surrounding sea as entirely its own territory. More strategically, it was a demonstration that they were willing to cause trouble in order to extract concessions, and that they were willing to escalate significantly.

From the Southern side, there were serious restrictions to the possible response. Anything they could do in the same context would either have involved risking bringing about the big war, or else risking a disastrous fiasco – a major raid over the border would have been too much, a commando operation to destroy the guns facing Yeonpyeong would have risked ending up with prisoners in North Korea. There is not much at the moment they could do to put pressure on North Korea economically, and the North Koreans often respond to economic problems by provocations designed to get economic concessions. The North Koreans held escalation dominance – they could choose whether to go further, without necessarily having to go for the ultimate deterrent.

This is why the navies were so important. Although they were constrained in what they could do in one context, the Peninsula, the US Navy and its allies were not so constrained in bringing ships into international waters in the area. The response was to move the focus of the conflict into a different context. Also, cooperating at sea allowed Japan and South Korea to demonstrate alliance unity in a way that they could not otherwise – nobody would bring Japanese troops to Korea, for example, but there is no such objection to Japanese, US, and South Korean ships (or aircraft) cooperating. This is still true even though the US-made or US-inspired equipment aboard those ships permits them to cooperate very closely indeed, with radars aboard one ship, aircraft from another, a command centre in yet another, and missiles aboard a fourth being internetworked.

Also, there was very little the North Koreans could do about it without taking unacceptable risks (even for them). The biggest concern for the allied ships was that the North might lay mines in the narrow seas west of Korea. Paradoxically, the North Koreans were probably self-deterred from doing this – had they got lucky and sunk the Jimmy Carter while she was spying around Yeonpyeong, the consequences would probably not have been ideal from their point of view.

Another parallel form of conflict was the nuclear issue. North Korea had just revealed its new uranium enrichment cascade when it started shelling Yeonpyeong, after all. Bill Richardson’s officially-unofficial mission to North Korea brought back the offer to sell North Korea’s stock of plutonium to the South. This sounds better than it is, precisely because they now have the capability to use uranium rather than plutonium. On the other hand, accepting it is sensible – it’s a matching concession to de-escalate the situation, less plutonium in North Korea is probably desirable, and it moves the nuclear debate onto the slower “enrichment track”.

The nuclear debate also provided an opportunity for the Chinese government to play the role of turning up late but bringing a solution. If the 12,000 rods do leave North Korea, a big question is where they would go. The Chinese might buy them and might even offer fuel of some description in return, a replay of the 1994 framework agreement.

In my continuing fit of doom about Korea, this isn’t helping – a US Military Sealift Command reserve freighter full of Maritime Prepositioning System kit is practising offloading it all in a Korean port. Supposedly, when they’re finished they’ll put it all back aboard and sail away. If you believe that, though…

The MPS is the US military’s way of saving time shipping stuff around; they basically keep all the gear for an Army or Marine brigade packed in a ship somewhere strategic. Instant force, just add soldiers, who can come by air. This has a nasty logistics sound to it. Meanwhile, there is a real danger of war, says a Korean strategist from CSIS. Serious politicians are saying things like “reunification is drawing near” and that the Japanese military might be sent to look for people abducted by North Korea. That last one, from the Japanese prime minister, has an even nastier propaganda sound to it.

The Chinese envoy has been to Pyongyang, while the Foreign Ministry has had a pop at the US commander in chief in the Pacific, Admiral Mullen. This could be good news in the sense that Chinese engagement might warn off anyone from doing anything dangerous. The US Deputy Secretary of State is going to Beijing soon with a delegation, followed by Robert Gates next month.

And if you want to know what a joint US-Japanese carrier fleet looks like

Meanwhile, this is good news. As more and more ships from various parts of the world – like China and Iran – arrive in pirate country, somebody’s made vaguely sensible arrangements to put them on trial in Kenya, which is what has been done with the ones captured by Northumberland. This is a much better idea than returning them to the tender mercies of Somali rivals, or alternatively to their home base, or any evil nonsense promoted by tiresome Internet hard men. (You know who you are.)

I’m not sure whether to be pleased, or worried that China and Iran are apparently cooperating in an exercise designed to be more law-abiding than some British courts, and far more so than whole swaths of the US defence establishment. This is incredibly important; I keep saying that a primary reason for the success of some Islamist movements is that they offer some form of legal order, rather than Franz Neumann’s Behemoth.

After all, dogs have an innate appreciation of justice, so we should surely accept that it matters for human beings too. As a modest proposal, now the EU has taken over the lead in combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden, could we perhaps give the naval task force a further mission – to compel EU-flag fishing vessels to respect the Somali EEZ? (We wouldn’t have legal authority to stop anyone else without a UN resolution, but it’s a start.) I agree they have plenty on their plate, which is why I’m going to make a second modest proposal.

Rather than frigates, EU states participating in this could instead deploy some of their sizeable fleet of amphibious assault ships, with a deckload of helicopters, a dock of small craft, and a tankdeck containing a mix of marines for boarding parties, and medics, engineers etc to support the UN’s aid activities.

This BBC Radio 4 documentary about the British nuclear deterrent and the people who operate it is absolutely cracking. Not surprisingly, the man behind it is none other than Professor Peter Hennessy (can we call him Henn-dawg yet?).

One of the things that stands out is the amount of desperate psychological coping going on. The forms vary; the RAF V-Force crews of the 1960s, who were not only expected to carry in the warheads themselves but also very likely to ditch the aircraft somewhere beyond, also had to taxy the Vulcans out for every mission past the school playground. Their wives were more than familiar with the desperate QRA launch scenarios; it seems remarkable that anyone could put up with that.

One day at RAF Cottesmore, the public-address speakers, which were wired directly to the Bomber Controller telebrief feed from High Wycombe, went click just as a group of families visited, and everyone ran like hell to the flight line without even waiting for the voice from headquarters, still less saying a word. We’re talking about 1950s telecoms and electronics here – it must have gone click ten times a day.

A different style from this barely contained hysteria was reserved, indeed still is, for the top civil service and since 1969, the Royal Navy submariners; here, they deal with a much slower and more considered form of killing and dying. It’s a neurotic rather than a hysterical scenario: what can I tell them? what will they think? am I doing the right thing?

Was, for example, Denis Healey doing the right thing, in the High Wycombe bunker during 1960s transition to war exercises as one of the Prime Minister’s deputies for retaliation, when he repeatedly pretended to give the authorisation to scramble the V-force – although in fact, he had decided that should it come to that he wasn’t going to launch? (Keighley Man Saves The World.)

Interestingly, James Callaghan, despite the conventional wisdom, was very clear that he would certainly have pressed the button – or rather, his half of the button. One thing that seems to be clearer in the memory of the top officers Hennessy interviews than has been in the past is the duality of civilian and military control – as no civilian can give a military order, the PM or the deputy can only authorise, not order, the launch. (You thought our constitution was weird? Wait ’til you see our nuclear command authority.)

There is a logical AND gate – rather as NATO shared weapons are subject to the dual-key arrangement between NATO and the host-nation, and Soviet ones were to split control between the military (for the aircraft or missile) and the Communist Party/secret police (for the warhead fusing), UK nukes are subject to a dual-key arrangement between the civilian and military authorities. Another of Hennessy’s interviewees, Lord Guthrie, the Chief of Defence Staff who read Tony Blair in on the nuclear files, made clear that he thought this was very much a real constraint on both parties.

An odd feature of the whole thing was the repeated suggestion that, had the UK been devastated by Soviet missiles and the deterrent not been used, the remaining subs or aircraft might have been turned over to Australia. This would have been a challenging redeployment for the V-Force, to say the least, although they did exercise Far Eastern deployments. Of course, the submarines would have had no such difficulty. In this weird way, the last remnants of imperial feeling were to be saved from the ashes, and the deterrent’s true role – to maintain credible independence from the United States – would be maintained under a slightly different flag.

Ah, the Americans. They have a sort of shadow presence in the whole thing. One thing that the broadcast makes clear is that yes, there is a UK national firing chain as well as the NATO SACLANT one. They visit the cell in the Navy’s bunker at Northwood which handles the link between the Government and the extremely-low frequency transmitters – two crypto officers independently authenticate the message from the Cabinet Office and retransmit it via multiple redundant routes. They each need codebooks from two safes, neither of which can be opened at once, and which are permanently monitored by armed Marine Commandos. We hear a simulated authentication; interestingly, the crosstalk suggests that there is a specific distinction between a NATO and a UK national signal.

But each submarine, as she collects her load-out of rockets from King’s Bay, Georgia, also picks up an American shakedown crew for the test launch down the Eastern rocket range from a spot off Cape Canaveral, and the actual handle the submarine Weapons Engineering Officer pulls is the butt end of a Colt .45.

In all, however, it was a story of people in an insane situation working hard at staying sane.

After the show, I looked up some news and saw this. Jamie Kenny deals with it here, but the facts are worth repeating. Some random just rang up Mr 10% and claimed to be the Indian foreign ministry, and threatened war. Pakistan responded by increasing air force readiness; fighters were placed on combat air patrols. We don’t know what happened with the Pakistani nuclear weapons, which are delivered by aircraft; did the F-16s load up and move to the runway’s end?

Pakistan apparently believes it really was the Indians; the Indians claim it was some maniac with a telephone. The Pakistanis also say it came from a phone number at the Indian foreign ministry. This is fairly meaningless – not many bulk SIP carriers, and not that many old fashioned telcos, check or filter the Caller Line Identification strings, and software like the Asterisk free IP-PBX will let you send whatever CLI you like. After all, the head of the Islamic Students’ Movement of India is supposedly a geek.

The answer to this is of course the one the MI6 station chief in Moscow in 1962 used when the secret signal he gave Oleg Penkovsky for use in the event he learned of a nuclear attack came down the phone: do nothing. The crisis was on its way down; Penkovsky had been missing for days, and was presumably in the hands of the MVD. Therefore Frank Roberts decided to ignore the signal. Few feedback loops of such criticality can’t do with some more damping.

Packer vs. Kilcullen in the New Yorker. Here’s the key paragraph:

Police are another main issue. We have built the Afghan police into a less well-armed, less well-trained version of the Army and launched them into operations against the insurgents. Meanwhile, nobody is doing the job of actual policing—rule of law, keeping the population safe from all comers (including friendly fire and coalition operations), providing justice and dispute resolution, and civil and criminal law enforcement. As a consequence, the Taliban have stepped into this gap; they currently run thirteen law courts across the south, and ninety-five per cent of the work of these courts is civil law, property disputes, criminal matters, water and grazing disuptes, inheritances etc.—basic governance things that the police and judiciary ought to be doing, but instead they’re out in the countryside chasing bad guys. Where governance does exist, it is seen as corrupt or exploitative, in many cases, whereas the people remember the Taliban as cruel but not as corrupt.

Beyond that, I was struck by how much the Gesamteindruck of the whole thing reminded me of the sort of thing John Vann was saying in 1969 or thereabouts – it’s still possible, really it is, and we can probably find a reduction in the number of troops at the same time by realigning completely around a classical counterinsurgency strategy. Kilcullen is hardly optimistic, but he’s still desperately committed. (I think I’ve mentioned before that A Bright Shining Lie was this blog’s secret sauce right back to 2003, when Donald Rumsfeld was still denying there were insurgents in Iraq.)

Now, consider this story; first of all, the Indian navy was being lionised for giving a pirate vessel the good old sturm und drang off Somalia and chastening the eurosexual NATO-weenies. It was like 2006 and the Ethiopian army all over again. However, it was only a few hours before it turned out that the Indians had sunk a Thai trawler which they apparently mistook for a pirate mothership – effectively, they saw a funny looking fisherman and just executed 14 people. Now, it’s very true that foreign trawlers are a big part of the problem. Perhaps the international naval patrol could do something about it, if it can find the ships whilst also dealing with pirates.

But this is no way to do anything; I’ve pointed out before that the recent history of Islamist movements shows that given the choice, people will choose law in general over lawlessness.

Given the choice of what is marketed as order without law, but which as always turns out to be chaos, and some sort of legal order, the people pick the latter.

We’re still offering them the Behemoth; we’re on the wrong side of history, supporting the pirates, Viktor Bout, and a world of bent coppers. The upshot, as Arif Rafiq observes in an instant classic post, is that Pakistan is being turned into Iraq.

Quite a score for our reader “Ajay”, who I think is the first to spot that the Mumbai terrorist attack bears a very close resemblance to the coup plot in Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War, which makes it the third and possibly fourth case of someone actually using Forsyth’s book as a practical handbook. The exact number depends on whether you believe the story that Forsyth actually took part in planning a coup in Equatorial Guinea in 1977 which didn’t go ahead, and recycled the work he did on it as a novel. Forsyth now semi-confesses to this, but this may be self-publicity from a man who was, after all, sacked from the BBC for making up the news.

Certainly, however, the so-called “Wonga Coup” team in Equatorial Guinea read the book, Mike Hoare’s “Froth Blowers’ Society” attack on the Seychelles apparently issued a copy to every participant, and now this. How does, say, Curzio Malaparte’s Theory of the Coup d’Etat compare to that? Forsyth can probably claim that more people have died as a direct result of his book than any other book not written by an economist.

In fact it’s closer than you might think; the Grauniad, whose coverage of the whole incident was excellent, has a neat map you might want to consult. Apparently, two of the Zodiacs used were found at the north end of Back Bay, on the west/left hand side of the map; this suggests the attack plan was very close indeed to Forsyth’s. There are two groups of targets, and each group is fairly close to a beach on that side of the peninsula, even though some of them are closer to the east (harbour) side. But doing it this way saves navigating around the headland and keeps away from the main port, where you could expect a police presence.

Very roughly, it’s about 2,050 feet from each of two landing spots near the targets to a point exactly half-way across the entrance of the bay, so you’d know when to set course – this is exactly how the mercenaries in TDOW set up their attack, launching further out to sea in a big group and using the ship as a mark to lay their course to the jumping-off point, which they identify by a transit between two landmarks. Of course, there are plenty of buildings they could line up to identify this waypoint laterally (the Wankhede Stadium looks like a candidate).

Politically, this implies that the “Deccan Mujahideen” weren’t from Deccan at all – otherwise, as someone pointed out, they’d just have taken the train in. Clearly they needed to cross a border, or else the ship and the Zodiacs would have been just more moving parts. This also suggests that they couldn’t rely on getting arms in India. I wonder what they did with the ship? One option would be to have her sink; another for her to sail quietly on, although the chances of getting away wouldn’t be great.

There was worrying reporting that a Pakistani merchant ship had been stopped by the Indian navy but fortunately, if you like your Ganges without plutonium, a search of the ship revealed nothing suspicious.

There’s another question – this wasn’t designed as a suicide attack. Suicide attackers have no need of false papers, cash, and certainly not credit cards:

A bag found in the Taj Mahal hotel contained 400 rounds of ammunition, grenades, identity cards, rations, $1,000 (£650) in cash and international credit cards, indicating a meticulously planned operation.

That certainly sounds like the equipment of someone who at least wanted to keep the option of escape open, and of course we have little idea how many people landed. It was quite possibly a suicidal mission, but that’s not the same thing. The special horror here was that the violence was dispersed and prolonged; it happened all over the place, and it kept happening.

This of course carries some information as to what kind of group carried it out. Clearly, they weren’t the sort of people who you recruit because all you need is someone to carry the bomb. They had to take independent action, and they had to sustain their will over an extended period of time. Good relations between India and Pakistan don’t really provide much net information; when things are bad, you’d expect terrorism, and when things are good there are people who want them to be bad again.

Meanwhile, the Dogs of War parallel holds in another way – the mercenaries’ exit strategy is the weakest bit of the plot, and had it been put into action the endgame would probably have been a lot like the last day or so in Mumbai, with the coupsters being gradually picked off around the presidential palace as they ran out of time, ammunition and ideas.

Der Spiegel has an interesting story regarding the Colombian drug smugglers’ homemade submarines. These have so far been considered a curiosity, but apparently they are becoming more and more common, and the technology is developing fast. The biggest vessel captured so far displaced 46 tonnes, presumably surfaced, with a payload of 10 tonnes. Apparently the current ones, described as the third generation, have a radius of action of 2,500 kilometres; an American admiral is quoted as expecting them to eventually start crossing the Atlantic from northeastern Brazil to West Africa, linking up with the emerging drugs route from there to Europe.

There hasn’t been much progress on my long-term beef with Martin Kettle for a while. But it’s worth remembering that if the Guardian has a major leading article that isn’t a business/economics story, it’s probably him. And Saturday’s second lead (behind a rather competent finance story) bears the Kettle hallmarks.

Forty years ago the Royal Navy came up with a wheeze to persuade the government to buy a new fleet of aircraft carriers – it claimed that they were actually “through deck cruisers”. There was no need for pretence this week when the £3.9bn order for two superships was signed in Govan. The vessels, to be named after the Queen and her son (another naval wheeze – would any government dare axe Her Majesty?), should come into service from 2014 as the oceanic embodiment of British power.

Well, he could have mentioned that the “new fleet of aircraft carriers” weren’t designed as aircraft carriers, either; the Invincible class originally only carried 5 fighters, intended to chase off Soviet Bear reconnaissance planes rather than to provide serious air defence, and their main mission was as a base for anti-submarine helicopters. The Invincibles’ role as light fleet carriers was originally a desperate hack for the Falklands, which the Navy realised could be built upon.

(And if you want a good story about the CVA-01 decision, why not mention the fact the RAF promised they could provide air cover to British forces anywhere on earth, producing a map to support this on which Australia was about 300 miles north-west of where conventional wisdom would suggest?)

The government is proud, the navy thrilled and the army jealous. The problem is that no one seems to know exactly what the ships are intended to do or how they will be paid for.

Wrong; they will provide fleet air defence, the same for British or allied landing forces, close air support for troops ashore, and a significant air strike capability, with secondary ASW, command and control and logistic roles. They are budgeted for in the defence equipment programme. That is a cheap criticism, though. If Kettle means that we won’t ever need the use of an aircraft carrier, or that they are morally appalling in all cases, why doesn’t he say so?

Nor is it clear what sort of plane, if any, will fly from their decks: the Joint Strike Aircraft, which they are designed to carry, will not be ready in time (and will cost a further £12bn), even if the United States goes ahead with the necessary vertical takeoff version, which is not certain. In the meantime the navy will have to make do with its ageing Harriers.

It’s perfectly clear. Harrier until the F-35 ISD in 2014, thereafter F-35. You’ve just said so yourself. Further, note that Kettle is complaining that the Fleet Air Arm’s Harriers are “ageing” and also complaining about replacing them, within the space of two sentences. Is he even aware, I wonder, that there are Harriers in the RAF as well? And that they are no newer? The argument that the cost of replacing Harrier is all the fault of the Navy is dishonest; the Harriers will wear out, whether they are flying from Illustrious and Ark Royal, the future Queen Elizabeths, or land bases.

And if you’re worried about the Army (they are “jealous”, remember), you should be aware that the Harrier force’s central mission is to support the infantry. The aircraft itself was designed back in 1969 as a specialised close support aircraft, a sturmovik as the Russians would say, one that would be small, manoeuvrable, with a lot of space for weapons, and no requirement for airfields at all. This was why the US Marines, probably the most CAS-minded air force in the world, bought them. Letting the Harrier force go isn’t an option – because we already cut half the RAF’s CAS aircraft two years ago when the Jaguars were decommissioned, and the press didn’t really notice.

For a government facing a tricky byelection in Glasgow, led by a prime minister from Fife, it is easy to understand the attractions of ships built partly in Govan and Rosyth. Last year’s Commons statement giving the go-ahead was greeted by MPs cheering news of work going to their constituencies. What was lacking – and has been since the 1998 strategic defence review set out plans for the vessels – was a discussion of why the ships are needed, or how they can be afforded

And you’re not going to get one here. Viz:

No one doubts the importance of carrier fleets in certain circumstances – Britain could not have fought the Falklands war without Hermes and Invincible. Floating off some future conflict zone or humanitarian disaster, the new ships will prove valuable. But so might many other forms of military resource, some of which will be sacrificed to pay for these aircraft carriers. The army lacks secure patrol vehicles and helicopters, but the Future Lynx helicopter programme looks likely to be scrapped in order to bail out a defence budget that is already overspent and must now fund naval gigantism.

Many other forms, eh. Fortunately the Matra-BAE Dynamics Ideological Handwave appears to be cheap and available off the shelf. The FLYNX project ought to be scrapped anyway, because it’s a procurement zombie – it’s been going on for ten years, not a single helicopter has been procured, but no less than three different sets of capability requirements have been written, at astonishing cost, and the current solution is to buy another lot of the same helicopters, which don’t actually cover the LIFT element of the requirement (which is the bit about racing to the succour of the wounded in Afghanistan, Minister), and are rather large and expensive for the FIND element, which is about sneaking about spying, and could better be done by robots, more smaller and cheaper helicopters, or by ones big enough to cover the LIFT requirement with the spooky gear bolted on.

Regarding the “secure patrol vehicle” thing, here’s Armchair Generalist. Sure, everyone would like to see more of them. But they are relatively cheap, and in fact the government keeps buying more of them. Which is a pity, because they are completely useless for anything other than Iraq and some missions in Afghanistan (the ones where you don’t need either heavy metal, or mobility). But politicians love them because they show We Care. As far as Army procurement goes, the generals are more concerned about the FRES project, which is costed at £14bn and has already spent hundreds of millions of pounds without building a single vehicle. Many people think it is actually physically impossible.

Further, the Invincible class lasted 30 years; HMS Fearless was laid down in 1964 and managed to launch Chinooks full of SBS men into Afghanistan in 2001. Will we be in Iraq or Afghanistan in 4 years, let alone 14 or 40?

So we didn’t get a serious discussion of why the ships are needed, did we? Oh well, space constraints. What about the solution?

This does not mean Britain should not have access to carriers; only that it cannot afford to build and support two new ships, three times the size of its current ones, without doing harm to other capabilities. The answer would have been to share the cost of construction and operation with France, which has just pulled back from expanding its own carrier fleet. Talk of this last month led to silly tabloid headlines about an EU navy. But a shared fleet and a capable military to back it up would do much more for global security than two big British ships and a cash-strapped army – even if it meant that the red ensign had to fly alongside the tricolour.

What does “access” to carriers mean? I hate this “access to” meme – it’s a long standing government way of saying “something other than what you need”. Rather than poverty, unemployment, or a terrible diet, your problem is that you “struggle to access finance, employment, and fresh foods”. I fully expect to hear a government minister explain how they “are taking forward an initiative to improve our counter-terrorist capability’s access to ammunition”.

More seriously, how can we possibly “share the cost of construction and operation” with France when France has just “pulled back from expanding its own carrier fleet”? The French government wants to make some quite impressive cuts in its defence budget, and has decided to put off building a ship, so why would they give us money to work on ours? This “answer” is actually self-refuting.

In fact, the French are likely to get assurances of some sort of the use of the British ships for training when the Charles de Gaulle is in dock, and perhaps also of support if something comes up. Presumably they will offer something in return. This is roughly what Kettle is suggesting, but reversed; but it’s impossible for both Britain and France to do this, just as two people with no money cannot help each other out by lending to each other.

And on top of this, we finish with what sounds like a call to revive the European Defence Community of 1954, which is…different. After all, the Guardian’s policy is not actually to support the creation of a single European state, the last I heard. Nobody actually wants this, and there is no evidence the French do. How it would work, who would command it, who would task it…all this is handwaved away.

Worse, this is a common fault of much discussion of British defence policy. On the Right, the assumption is usually that we don’t need a policy because the Americans will provide. On the Left, it’s usually that we don’t because the Europeans will pay, as if there was a great pool of available funding or forces over there. It makes as much sense as assuming that “the Boche will pay” did in 1919.

Here, it’s driven by Kettle’s addiction to Neither-Nor Criticism. He wants to appear decently anti-militaristic and concerned – this is the Manchester Guardian, after all – but he also doesn’t want to accept the policy consequences of this. After all, he’s a sodding Decent! How can you be a fan of humanitarian intervention and the war in Iraq, but also be opposed to having a blue-water navy? If you don’t think we need a navy, or you think that we don’t need armed forces at all, go ahead and make a case. If you think we do, then please suggest a shape of the forces and a foreign policy that would reliably not need the carriers. But he refuses to go anywhere near either. So, what we get is a sort of tepid soup of unexamined assumptions, with the extra feature that he seems to be desperately underbriefed on the issue.

Alternatively, the reason why he dislikes the carrier project is that it might confer too much independence of the United States. Now, this would indeed be consistently Decent. Some sort of half-baked “access to carriers” would be far more likely to prevent independent British – or European – action, and far more likely to compel a future prime minister to march because some ally wanted it. George Orwell attacked the “shabby kind of pacifism common to countries with strong navies”, in a passage much quoted by the Decents. But how much worse is a shabby kind of militarism that doesn’t want to pay for the Navy?