Sunday, 1 September 2013

August 2013 Thoughts: Sea Based Conventional Deterrence; more than just gunboat diplomacy!

There has been a growing vogue in some quarters of the internet to view every problem as being resolved by the deployment of a warship; and to a certain extent they are right. However, the problem would likely never have occurred if there had been a vessel there already; or more often if the other nation perceives that that vessel has nothing behind. A Gunboat works because of what it represents. Britain ruled the world with its fleet, because it had ships everywhere, therefore presence everywhere; but just as importantly it was realised that if anything happened to those ‘gunboats’ there was a big battle fleet and expeditionary ground forces sitting behind it ready to sail to battle. That is deterrence for a global super power; the trouble for a nation comes when it is challenged to satisfy the tenements of deterrence to achieve security when they have global commitments/interests, a status as a world power and the budget of medium power.  

Conventional Deterrence

Conventional Deterrence requires certain things in order for it to be viable:

·                      Overt strength and at least apparent capability – the best way for a nation to deter conflict is to maintain a force capability which is good enough most other nations and organisations will think twice about risking conflict, and will seek to carefully plan and prepare for any conflict which they might have decided upon giving time for the nation to discover their plans.

·                      Intelligence – a nation relying upon deterrence for its defence, most know what its friends and possible antagonists are thinking, preferably before they do anything.

·                      Pre-emption/Reaction – with good enough intelligence, then moves against the nation’s interests could be nipped in the bud with a quick pre-emptive move; alternatively if not seen coming then they need to be able to deploy forces quickly and in strength

·                      Scalability – to deter a small nation may only require a gunboat, a major power will require a fleet if perhaps (in local terms) not of equal strength in numbers, it definitely has to be equal (preferably superior) in capability and professionalism. 

In simple terms these could be summed up in three words; Presence, Potential and Perception. For a nation to be able to project overt strength it must have presence, the same thing which is starting point of scalability, of pre-emption and intelligence. Potential is all about capability, there is no point having a capability only part time; it’s the same as having a strategic deterrent, if it’s a constant it can act as a deterrent, if it’s something that’s deployed when tensions increase it can actually magnify those tensions. This is where Perception comes in, it’s not only what a nation thinks of it’s own strength but how others view it’s resolution to use that strength.  Perception leads into another issue often raised as a deterrent, that of collective security.

Collective Security

There is no Security on this Earth;

There is only opportunity.

General Douglas MacArthur

Interesting words from an interesting character but also very true, there is a lot of talk of collective security, of nations co-operating on security issues and that is true when there are opportunities for them to benefit. The problems comes that it’s not always in another countries interest to help, Britain fought the Falkland war alone, despite being in the Commonwealth, NATO and the 5 Power Agreement - whilst lots of kind words and even information was given, some technology & equipment proffered, no troops, no ships and no planes were sent to Britain’s aid. The case could be made it wasn’t needed in 1982, the trouble is it might be needed in the future and collective security only functions as a deterrence if it can be relied upon in times of crisis.

Therefore if countries can only be relied upon to act collectively when it is in their interests to do so, i.e. if their energy supplies are threatened, an over mighty neighbour throwing it’s weight around or similar pressures, then security becomes a balance between how a nation seek to deter threats to its commitments/interests itself and how well it can bind others to those preservation of those commitments/interests.

This though is not the biggest problem with collective security; that honour goes to a more complex proposition. Even if a nation can call upon the resources of it’s allies to defend it’s interests in times of conflict; will they share those same resources to prevent it? To deter the aggressor nation from initiating conflict of more than just words? When they have their own requirements for their resources; even if they did allow their vessels to be used would it have the same effect? To put it in less abstract way; would an American destroyer being sent to reinforce the Falklands have the same impact than a British destroyer? This is valid because despite Britain’s tradition of going to war alongside the other partner in what is sometimes called the ‘special relationship’, American diplomacy has often proved more schizophrenic than the British Foreign Offices on the subject of the Falkland Islands… so would Argentina believe the ship would be allowed to do more than show the flag? They might actually even count on that ship being used to implement a UN ‘peace zone’ allowing them time to consolidate their forces post invasion.

Presence & Potential

‘Gunboats’ are great, they don’t need to be expensive, they don’t need to have all the best equipment; what they do need is enough weaponry that they have the potential to cause trouble and the capability to defend themselves against limited threats[1].  These are vessels which do need range, and space for the crew to be comfortable on long voyages and entertain dignitaries when visiting ports. These are ships which like the ‘Gunboats’ of the late 19th century and early 20th century were the task group ships, the vessels which clustered together had Potential, when operating with larger ships had POTENTIAL, but alone just had potential. Modern equivalents are what nations must aspire to, instead of the current focus on building only the best the can, which can never be built enough numbers to achieve presence.

That’s not saying that the best does not have to be built, it is required for the major surface combatants, the aircraft carriers and amphibious ships which are the modern ‘battle fleet’; they are what allow for scalability of the response, sending a destroyer would be a physical re-affirming that a situation is being watched closely. The despatch of an amphibious ship, with suitable landing force would be a more a defensive gesture with more impact – as well as enabling the nation’s government to rapidly deploy supported land forces instead of just light forces should they decide it necessary. The deployment of carrier with it’s strike potential is a far more assertive gesture; it can do offensive operations and hit at the heart of the enemy – or provide an aerial shield of the allied nation. Beyond this is of course the Task Force, an Amphibious Task Group, Carrier Battle Group and extra escorts for outlying pickets can provide a total response scenario for short term crises.

Presence with sea based forces is far more effective than land based because of the reach of them; one ship with a helicopter could ‘wander’ around the Indian ocean visiting all the nations that share it’s shore and project a visible presence even beyond the shore with the aid of the helicopter and various other methods of naval diplomacy – before being relieved by the next ship which would continue again from the beginning. Furthermore in terms of deterrence, whilst sea based forces have the potential for a war fighting response they also have just as much potential for withdrawal should the situation improve. In comparison land forces are more expensive to deploy/redeploy and once deployed those forces are a more blatant threat because they have been deployed ‘on the ground’. This is because the ‘potential’ of land forces is more limited and are more binding for the deploying nation; whereas sea based forces whilst they are deployed they don’t have to be employed. For a long term commitment the deployment of land based forces could make more sense from a financial perspective – but then all sorts of questions have to be answered about the level of commitment which can vary from a trip wire/training force to a full scale British Army of the Rhine with schools, housing estates and a huge deployed civilian infrastructure as well as the military infrastructure.


Deterrence whether strategic or conventional is certainly from one perspective a house of cards, presence is all about maximising assets to make it look like a country has to ability to be everywhere it needs to be at the same time; this is of course impossible, but it’s impression, the perception which counts. However, just as important image is to presence, the reality is important to potential; there is no use having a part time capability a carrier battle group will require an aviation ship loaded with a carrier air group (i.e. Strike Aircraft, Air Defence Aircraft, AEW Aircraft and ASW/SAR Aircraft[2]) as well as escorts, an amphibious task group will require at least one vessel with a dock for landing craft and it’s own aviation ship loaded with an amphibious air group (troop transport helicopters, helicopter gunships/Close Air Support aircraft and possibly ASW aircraft).

This means that 2 aviation ships are required at all times, now in an ideal world a nation would allocate the money and build 3 amphibious aviation ships and 3 aircraft carriers and always guarantee those at least two aviation ships available (usually would be 3 – 4), however it can be done with five vessels. Under this circumstance one aviation vessel would be a swing one; for example a nation could build two carrier orientated ships, and 3 amphibious orientated ships – two of which would also have docks (making them LHDs, the amphibious ships with the most potential), but the third whilst being of the same design, would not have the dock, instead that space would be used for storage of fuel and supplies. The third vessel without the dock would by virtue faster and able to carry a wider range of aviation stores, meaning should a circumstance arise where one carrier orientated vessel is in deep refit and the other has an accident it could be used to cover for that carrier; just the same as it could be used if similar circumstances occurred to cover for an amphibious ship. Whilst of course a nation could make do with just 4 aviation ships and still achieve a similar effect, the benefit of 5th vessel would be the guarantee of at least 2 aviation ships available, the flexibility that the possibility of 3rd task group centred on an aviation ship being formed should circumstance require it.

A similar policy would be the most practical in terms of other vessels, general purpose/multi-role or easily adaptable vessels are far more useful to a small navy than focused ones; although more difficult to sell to Treasuries in times of peace/economic stringency, when lack of a clear mission to highlight their necessity can leave them open to accusations of no mission.

The fact is that whilst the construction necessary to have the forces for these missions, and the maintenance of those forces would cost money. The question is though, is it cheaper to deter a war or fight it? Is it better to expend treasure at a measured & controlled rate or have to splurge it under the pressure of an emergency? Finally is it better to raise a little more money in tax to fund all this, or to suffer the economic disruption (damage to trade, higher insurance premiums, damage to property, ect) that conflict brings?

[2] In 1982 the RN was without a proper carrier battle group, it had Sea Harriers which were very capable air defence aircraft, and it had aircraft carriers, small ones but serviceable – so the question is why did the Argentinian government perceive Britain as lacking the necessary aircraft to mount a response? Well for starters it was numbers, the Argentines doubted there would be enough aircraft carriers available capable of heading south, more importantly they felt that whatever was sent if anything was (and they sincerely doubted the resolution or the capability of Britain to send anything) it would lack any AEW and despite having the (for the time) excellent Type 42s this would leave whatever was sent at a massive disadvantage against air attacks. Now it’s well known, that their calculations proved false, but how much money would have been saved if the RN had had an AEW aircraft in service, if the Invincibles had been slightly bigger and carried a slightly larger air group? Would the Argentinian’s have made the same calculations?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thankyou for taking the time to comment, I endeavour to reply to every comment that I can within the constraints of time