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The US pivot: how far do European navies want to reach?

© U.S. Navy

Image credit: U.S. Navy

During World War Two the United States Navy (USN) and the Royal Navy (RN) developed an amazing ability, it was called ‘Replenishment at Sea’ (RAS). Just as the name suggests, it allowed fleets to operate at sea unrestricted by using a combination of Auxiliary Tankers and Solid Stores (or Fleet Replenishment Ships) to refuel, restock food or rearm (although this is something which the missile age has reduced to a rarity). This is what enables fleets to be rapidly redeployed from one corner of the world to the other, to operate on the opposite side of the world from home and to conduct missions independent of Local Land-Based Support. It is therefore a critical mission, but uninterested observers could be excused for thinking that the ships that are used for it are far from critical, as they often do not receive the attention they warrant.

The numbers of Auxiliary Ships reflect this point. For example, in 1980 the RN alone had fifteen Tankers (it would have thirteen in 1990 and nine up until 1999) and four Fleet Replenishment Ships; today the RN has three Fleet Replenishment Ships, and just five Tankers. Carrying on from this, as of 2014 the German Navy has five Tankers, the French Navy has four Tankers, and the Italian Navy has three Tankers. These are the navies of four principle European members of the NATO alliance, and yet today their combined auxiliary strength, the thing which is most crucial to maintaining effective fighting forces at distance from their nation’s shore, is on a par with what one of these states had just thirty-four years ago.

Yes, fleets have got smaller and individual vessels have got bigger (carrying more fuel and stores), and so they require fewer ships to support them. However, the fact is distance and level of operation play a large part in how much support is required. For example, in 1980 the RN was structured on the Cold War scenario of fighting the Soviets in the North Atlantic; as a result when it came to fighting the Argentinians in the South Atlantic waters around the Falkland Islands there were not enough auxiliaries. This meant that some of the Ships-Taken-Up-From-Trade had to assist with the RAS requirements. Now though, the post-Cold War world has seen governments return to an almost 1920s philosophy with their navies – deploying them far and wide in the name of influence and protection of interests.

In the case of the RN it deployed a destroyer and the aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious, to the Philippines in 2013 – a good example of the emergencies which come on top of the ‘normal’ commitments. Some examples of which include 1) maintaining a constant presence off the Horn of Africa for countering Somalian pirates; 2) a presence in the Gulf to show Britain’s commitment and interest in promoting stability in that region; and 3) a patrol in the South Atlantic to stress that refighting old wars would not be a good idea. These of course are just three tasks, and do not include any NATO commitments and presence in Home Waters. This is just one nation, a nation which is by necessity a Global Power; but is by no means a Super Power.

This is all possible only while good will prevails, meaning that there is no massive difficulty with leap-frogging from port to port, and using those facilities instead to support ships. However, as the recent events in Ukraine, during the Arab Spring and the East China Sea illustrate so aptly, the world can change in a moment and any level of reliance that cannot be replaced will quickly become a crippling strategic weakness. A situation which is made worse in Europe by the way the debate on Auxiliaries is being approached. In America it is about the number of and the speed the Auxiliaries are capable of – which is good because it is examining it from an operational and strategic perspective. In Britain, for example, the debate is about where the ships are going to be built – important but not strictly about the ships and their role. All of this points to a thought process or perhaps an attitude which seems to think that because these ships are ‘Auxiliaries’ they are unimportant and therefore do not require (or perhaps do not deserve) the amount of time which is lavished on the ships which they will support.

This attitude could in part stem from some politicians in Europe wishing to reduce the likelihood of what they perceive as unnecessary foreign deployments by reducing the means with which they are supported. Frankly, whilst a logical plan it is governments which are reducing the numbers, not the fringes of the political spectrum. More likely is that it is another example of the European reliance on the US, where thanks to NATO standardisation, all the RAS ships can be connected to all the allied ships, therefore enabling them to use those facilities when necessary. This though is a very blinkered strategic vision; as while the USN does have fifteen tankers and nineteen replenishment ships (of various types), it still has to support its own fleet and operations which are worldwide in scope and commitment. Plus, the deployment of such vessels will reflect US operational/strategic requirements and not those of their allies. Furthermore, it is not as if the USN has been immune from cuts, as its thirty-four ships represent a fraction of the force it used to have – the total USN Auxiliary strength has shrunk from a hundred and ten vessels to just forty-two, a fall of over 53% since 1980.

Now this is all not to say things are looking all bad in Europe; whatever the type of debate, the RN will be getting four of the Tide class Tankers, so eventually the RN should have six Tankers in total (if plans are kept to). In addition, as was highlighted in a previous piece published by this author with European Geostrategy, three Solid Stores Ships are on the books to be built. The trouble for the European NATO members is that the USN, the navy that they looked to underpin their ‘global reach’ with, is in the middle of a pivot of focus; a pivot to a different ocean on the other side of the world. Furthermore, the complexity of the world would seem to make inevitable the need to operate further afield than the Mediterranean or Eastern North Atlantic – and yet they have constructed a system with no slack to help their forces absorb the operations coming their way. The answer would be therefore for the conscientious governments to do their sums; to weigh the cost of a carrier, its air group and its battle group being made impotent in the face of an enemy because of a delay or even outright failure to get fuel (food or weapons) to them versus the cost of purchasing a brace more Tankers and an extra Supply Ship. Vessels which would be used as force multipliers in peace time, by better enabling operations, but which in war time would be incalculable in keeping the nations frontline strength supplied.

Vol. 6, No. 72 (2014)


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