Friday, 22 October 2010
Less than Astute
HMS Astute is certainly not the first British sub to crash into something it shouldn't. In recent years subs have hit everything from the bottom of the Red Sea to a French ballistic missile submarine. However coming in the week that the government took the axe to local government jobs it does make you wonder whether they really need their expensive toys.
Once upon a time the military strength of a nation was easy to calculate; you had so many ships and so many soldiers. Then at the end of the nineteenth century there was an explosion in military technology. On land it wasn't just enough to count noses, you also needed to know how many rifles, artillery piece and machine guns an army had.
At sea things were even more complicated. Armored Battleships were so expensive that the race was on to find something cheaper that could sink them. The result was the Torpedo Boat, a barely seaworthy vessel that had a mathematical chance of sinking an ironclad - and a somewhat better chance of sinking itself. To counter this navies invented the Torpedo Boat Destroyer. At the same time the Cruiser was invented, a less heavily armoured version of the ironclad Battleship could patrol the oceans without requiring a fleet of colliers to follow it.
Comparing these different ships was like playing paper-wraps-stone. A Battleship couldn't catch a Cruiser and a Cruiser couldn't outfight a Battleship. The result was to leave naval planners utterly baffled, a condition that got even worse in the twentieth century when the naval mine and the submarine arrived. Every navy worth its salt had to have a bit of everything because everyone else did too.
When was came in 1914 the result was not what people expected. The Royal Navy went to war expecting a second Trafalgar, but instead its Battleships spent almost the entire war hiding in harbour. The submarine meanwhile proved utterly devastating to a land power like Germany, but almost useless to a naval power like us.
The twentieth century ended much like the previous one, with any serious navy having something of everything, including seriously expensive Hunter-Killer submarines. We have the Astute class because the Russians have the Akula class because the Americans have the Seawolf class and so on.
To make matters worse unlike Aircraft Carriers, which can at least be used to land marines or evacuate refugees, and Frigates and Destroyers which can at a pinch be turned on Somalian pirates or Caribbean drug runners, nuclear submarines can't really do much except play with other subs.
True they can sink surface ships, but 28 years after Maggie torpedo the Belgrano this doesn't seem like the sort of thing nice nations do. They can also fire cruise missiles at land targets but that would be, as Pitt the Younger said about an earlier naval operation, "like breaking windows with golden guineas". When the War on Terror started an imaginative US defence contractor came up with the idea of using them to fire Special Forces out of the torpedo tubes, but funnily enough the troops didn't seem too keen.
Council workers on the Isle of Skye wondering if their P45s are in the post may well look out at the Navy trying to rescue its newest ship and wonder whether that really is the best way to spend £1.3 billion.