Sunday, August 06, 2006

The surprising uses of aircraft carriers

I complained last week about Nick's silence about Lebanon. Well Nick has spoken. Sort of. He tells us that the "awkward question" facing those who want an immediate ceasfire is what might happen if the Iranians order Hezbollah to start fighting again. Thus does Nick reveal his understanding of the situation: it is all a plot that was made in Teheran. Well maybe it is. Alternatively, perhaps the Israelis were just itching for an excuse to have a go at Hezbollah? And maybe the awkward question facing those who oppose an immediate ceasefire -- such as Nick? -- is all those dead bodies piling up. But I tend to be naive and sentimental about that kind of thing.

However, anyone reading Nick's opening paragraph and hoping for some words of wisdom about the Middle East will have been disappointed. The whole thing was just a peg on which to hang one of Nick's favourite themes: purchasing by Whitehall. This was the Defence-specific version, but the general outlines are familiar from many Nick columns. Not that Nick is all wrong about that, but those of us who have taken on the burden of reading his thoughts week after week know exactly how it is going to go.

I did learn one or two nuggets though. Such as that the principal function of aircraft carriers is to protect ground troops from suicide bombers. I think that's it.

Apart from that, there's not much to report. The seventies weren't all bad, and a lot of people want to leave Britain because of high house prices. On the other hand, as Nick has complained in earlier columns, a lot of people want to come here too. How will they afford to live? With housing so much cheaper in Riga and Krakow they must be crazy! Mustn't they?

Update, by bruschettaboy. There is a lot of confusion in there about matters military and I think Nick might have taken on a few things rather too uncritically. For example:

The Cold War ended in 1989 and since then Britain hasn't fought an adversary with an air force worthy of the name.

In fact, the RAF spent most of the 1990s making a significant contribution to the enforcement of the no-fly zone in Kurdistan. In general, no-fly zones are likely to be a big part of the apparatus of humanitarian interventionism (one could quite likely have helped a lot in Darfur) and the Eurofighter is really quite well-adapted to this task.


Blogger Matthew said...

"The navy was determined to spend money on them rather than aircraft carriers, even though Britain needs carriers to provide a safe base for fighters in combat beyond the reach of suicide bombers."

I think your interpretation is not quite right. The idea (as far as I can tell) is that the conventional air bases (not ground troops) are too prone to attack by suicide bombers. I have utterly no idea which bases he means - presumably ones in Iraq, but even then I don't recall it being a major problem.

8/06/2006 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

Nothing I've read anywhere suggests Hezbollah are the sort of militia to take orders directly and unquestioningly from "the Iranians", so chalk that up as more speculative nonsense.

8/06/2006 12:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have the impression that military bases everywhere are guarded. There's almost no risk from suicide bombers just walking in detonating themselves. They're not going to get past the gates, and they're not going to scale the fences, weighed down with explosives are they? But what is he talking about? I don't even know where to begin checking, but I'm sure that the Israeli air raids in Lebanon flew from ground air bases rather than aircraft carriers (does Israel even have any? First Google hit suggests not. If Israel's air force can cope with suicide bombers, I can't see why we can't). Like Matthew, I think he means Iraq, but I can't see the use of fighter planes in peace keeping there.

I think he went wrong much earlier: "should he [Blair] order British troops to support moderates in Lebanon?" I take it he means 'support moderates fight Hezbollah'. Possibly behind that is 'support Israeli troops.' We can't just drive in and start shooting people.

8/06/2006 12:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm disappointed you've failed to make merry on his ludicrous use of Heart Of Darkness imagery.

Perhaps he's trying to devalue all of the current Apocalypse Now comparisons of Blair to Colonel Kurtz

"I've seen the horror. Horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that, but you have no right to judge me . It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and mortal terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies."

"You have to have men who are moral and at the same time were able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment--without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us."

(Nicked from

8/06/2006 01:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I'm disappointed you've failed to make merry on his ludicrous use of Heart Of Darkness imagery."

probably through overexposure - that one always seems to crop up in highbrow comoplaints about military procurement.

But it's surely a bizarre argukment that buying aircraft carriers would keep troops in thjeatre beter protected and an even more bizarre one that it's a way to save the money needed to equip them better.

8/06/2006 03:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is, IIRC, a suicide bombing in Apocalypse Now. There's a helicopter about to take off when a woman runs up and throws a grenade in which seems to kill her too. That's just about the only way that the airborne military are vulnerable to suicide bombers.

I quite enjoy Nick's bashing the government, but I really suspect that the cost of aircraft carriers is several orders of magnitude greater than the cost of destroyers, and the navy never considered it either/or.
Also, of course, Nick's ideas of what defines modern war may well become dated in the service lifetimes of a naval vessel. We used aircraft carriers in the Falklands (and much more controversially nuclear submarines) but neither is much help in the Middle East. (Anyway, isn't the theory that we convert the ME to democracy state by state, so we can use Iraq to base attacks on, say, Syria (or Kuwait, not notable for progressive thinking). But we used detroyers in the Cod War. We don't know what 'modern war' will be like in 10 years.

My prejudice in this is: America is supposed to be our ally, and they're keen on aircraft carriers, so let them build them. We're better on infantry, and we should each stick to our strengths and hope that we can pull together if we ever need to. I'm far more bothered about troops without proper armour than I am about fighter pilots.

8/06/2006 05:44:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Nick likes carriers as they are Euston/Henry 'Scoop Jackson Society in ship form.

8/06/2006 06:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BD: That incident in Apocalypse Now isn't a suicide bombing. The white-clad woman who throws a grenade (hidden in a straw hat) into the helicopter as it's about to take off survives and is then mown down as she tries to flee with some other Vietnamese, by another helicopter from Robert Duvall's squadron.

8/06/2006 09:09:00 PM  
Blogger Backword Dave said...

Thanks Anon. Well remembered.

8/06/2006 09:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought it was not quite PC yet to mention that the Henry Jackson Society's plan for democracy in the Middle East involved a lot of permanent bases (or their naval equivalent).

8/07/2006 06:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The ignorance about naval warfare on display in this piece is quite astonishing.

"there are no planes to shoot" — unless there is a repeat of the Falklands War, or we get in a war with North Korea, or exchange shots with China over Taiwan, or if insurgents manage to acquire planes for the purpose of kamikaze attacks.

"there isn't an enemy with subs to hunt" — unless we get in a war with Iran, or Argentina, or North Korea.

"Destroyers [have] no role in modern war" — an absurd claim. The Type 45s have an air defence role, protecting other ships against air attack. If Cohen can remember the Falklands War he will remember how important that role was; and of course the threat of air attack against carrier groups has only got worse since then. There's no point spending tens of billions on aircraft carriers and then leaving them vulnerable to submarine or air attack.

Finally, in an article complaining about how the UK is not building aircraft carriers, it would have been at least polite to mention the UK's carrier programme. (The Navy's own puff piece is at

Cohen's contact is probably right about massive waste in defence procurement. But it doesn't help his case to surround it with blunders like this.

8/07/2006 09:20:00 AM  
Blogger Backword Dave said...

Thanks Anon (same one?)You've made my point with rather more and put it better.

Since we're talking about wasteage in defence procurement, this seems apposite.

Rude and belittling remarks about Penn and Batten became a techy leitmotif, so predictable that rather than convincing they sometimes encourage you to sympathise with the men he is attacking. As Batten is repeatedly accused of corruption in his dealings with timber, hemp and tar merchants, flag-makers and rope-makers, you ask your, are these not the very groups of men with whom Pepys himself is engaged in profitable negotiations? Hard as it is to be categoric about the financial details of contracts made by either Batten or Peyps, it seems likely that both were offered and accepted the sweeteners that were standard for the time. If Batten was a rogue, then so was Pepys.

Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self p143. AFAIK, naval procurement has always been corrupt. It's not a good thing of course, but I don't trust Nick as the man to end it.

8/07/2006 07:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

could I repeat my periodic plea to anonymous commenters to click the "other" option and choose a nickname for themselves. It really doesn't compromise your anonymity and it makes it much easier to keep track of who's saying what.

8/08/2006 12:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if Nick had this in mind when he wrote about suicide bombers.

8/08/2006 11:14:00 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

This is completely weird and clueless, and it seems to be a growing problem that columnists read this Page bloke's book and think they are Alanbrooke's reincarnation.

Apparently we don't need the T45s because "there are no planes to shoot down", but we do need carriers as a "safe base for fighters in combat beyond the reach of suicide bombers". Surely if there are no planes to shoot down we won't need fighters and there won't be any combat?

The T45s are also anti-submarine ships, platforms for various patrol and blockade tasks, and they launch cruise missiles at land targets. And there are quite a lot of subs around - the Americans have been borrowing an ultra-quiet diesel electric sub from Sweden to practice on and they find her very hard to locate. SSKs are not uncommon - Argentina and Iran both have German- and Russian-designed modern subs..

It is incredibly batshit weird to suggest that the Navy doesn't like carriers. Carriers are the modern standard of sea power. There is nothing the RN is more concerned about than the success of the carrier project. They fought tooth and nail to save the original late-60s CVA01 project, and when the RAF won out and the project was killed they quietly rejigged the specification for the so-called "through deck cruisers" to make them essentially little aircraft carriers.

The carriers would not be "controlled by the RAF". The Harrier fleet is joint, but the RAF doesn't get to say where the ships sail. Lewis Page is barking mad, is an Army chauvinist, and should get less attention than he does.

8/09/2006 11:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The biggest problem with defence procurement, is that its seen as a way of subsidising the British defence industry, so most procurement projects are a compromise between what the forces want, and what companies think they can export. Revolving door corruption is there too, but its not the whole story.

And my suspicion is that the problems with supplies in Iraq are more due to logistics problems, than a lack of equipment. It takes time to set up reliable supply lines, and the government didn't really give the army/navy time to do that (actually I think some of the logistics might have been privatised).

As for personnel carriers/Chinooks. Some of that is going to maintenance problems (Afghanistan and Iraq are pretty unforgiving places for equipment), but no army is ever going to have enough equipment. There's a limit to defence spending.

There's an additional point also. Supplies/Equipment are bought based upon projections of future engagements. And given how overextended the armed forces currently are, its unlikely anybody ever predicted they'd need that much equipment.

Aircraft carriers are a terrible way of launching planes if you have an airbase on the ground. Expensive, slow, limited. Nick's an idiot. Aircraft carriers enable you to project air power - they're mobile. That's the point (well the other point is that you need them for a combat fleet).

The idea of having aircraft carriers with no protection from submarines, aircraft, or anti-ship missiles is an interesting one. And I'd love to see an aircraft carrier in an intercept role. I think it would be quite entertaining. His comment that the navy didn't want aircraft carriers is spectacularly ill-informed. The Navy have for years had a complex because they didn't have full sized aircraft carriers (like the US and French).
However he missed a trick. I forget what the ratio between the cost of an aircraft carrier and destroyer is (10:1 I think) - but there's ICBM subs and carriers probably cost about the same...

And does Nick really know what he's arguing here:
"But high-tech weapons aren't always an advantage. A better image for what the MoD has done to British forces comes from 1902 in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness"

So hi-tech aircraft carriers and bombers would be better because?

8/09/2006 03:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Incidentally in his piece on house prices, he seemed to let slip something interesting:
"a country where you can barely get a hovel in the south east for less than £500,000 isn't a happy or comfortable place to live."

A hovel. I never knew I lived in a hovel. Thank you Nick.

8/09/2006 03:40:00 PM  

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