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September 19, 2011

HMS Dauntless - the new dreadnought: For it to be effective Britain's auxiliary fleet must be overhauled, argues Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge - visits Britain's latest Destroyer.

Visitors to London cannot fail to be struck by the ubiquitous traces of Britain's maritime and naval heritage. Proceeding from west to east down the Thames, there is the World War II cruiser HMS Belfast, then the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, the old Royal Navy yards at Chatham and the Medway. Even the railway stations, especially those of the Docklands Light Railway, speak of a seafaring past, for example East India Dock. My favourite halt on the DLR, however, is Gallions Reach, a name redolent of the Spanish Armada and general derring-do. It was also the place at which I alighted in order to visit the Royal Navy's most modern ship in Prince Albert Dock, just beside City Airport.

HMS Dauntless is the second of the new Type Daring-class 45 Destroyers, and represents a massive advance on its predecessor, the Type 42, which served in the South Atlantic thirty years ago. The ship's modernity begins with the facilities. In the past, the ratings often slept forty to a cabin, now six men or women share one space. The communal areas are fitted out with bars, and numerous televisions or DVD players. There is even a gym. It is therefore hardly surprising that the ship's company make not only a sharp but also a very happy impression. The interior is striking: an artistic medley of exposed wiring and pipes not unlike the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This is a legacy of the Falklands War when damage control parties found that the traditional panelling actually got in the way of repairs. The Health and Safety notice I passed therefore struck a rather incongruous note: the men and women on board know that when they are called upon to inflict devastation or to suffer it, such regulations will quickly go overboard.

Even more impressive are the capabilities of HMS Dauntless. She is designed primarily as an air defence platform to cover the operations of a carrier or amphibious task force, for example. HMS Dauntless's Sea Viper system can track and engage a huge number of targets simultaneously and react within a very short period of time. Remarkably, her info-fusion is about ten years ahead of any US warship afloat, even the USS Arleigh Burke, something which has been noted with admiration across the Atlantic. HMS Dauntless's engines are also the most advanced in the world.

Moreover, it is said - though not by its officers - that the ship enjoys important stealth features, such as the radar signature of a fishing trawler. In short, as its Captain Will Warrender argues, HMS Dauntless can be compared with the early twentieth century HMS Dreadnought, which completely revolutionised design of fighting ships. Given that the vessel is British-designed and built, with some help from the Dutch and French with radar and missile technology, respectively, HMS Dauntless is a clear sign that British naval power is far from waning.

The new ship will add considerably to Britain's global military and political each. Together with the assault ship HMS Ocean, Dauntless and her five sister ships (of which HMS Daring is already afloat), she will comprise a formidable amphibious task force capable of projecting influence to all coastal regions of the world. She will also be able to escort allied vessels, increasing Britain's ability to work within a coalition, especially with the Americans, who are normally very sniffy (and rightly so) about what others can bring to the table. Her versatility means that she can be deployed on both hard war-fighting and soft humanitarian missions, such as disaster relief.

To be really effective militarily, however, the Type 45 destroyers should really be matched with fixed-wing aircraft carriers (HMS Ocean can only carry helicopters). At the moment, the navy scandalously has none of these, and even when the new aircraft carriers are available in about ten years time, one of them will be mothballed, while the other will not be serviceable on a continuous basis. The decision to run down the carrier fleet was much regretted at the outbreak of the Libyan war: the sight of the last carrier being towed away to be scrapped past the scene of the fighting en route for her final resting place in Turkey spoke for itself. There is also a question-mark over the number and quality of aircraft to fly off the new commissioned carrier.

Recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown the importance of the army, but the campaign in Libya, where the Navy did so well even without its carrier, has also shown how dangerous it is to neglect maritime power. It desperately needs more funding, not at the expense of the other Services of course, but as part of a properly-resourced national security strategy. There should be at least one more operational carrier, the Fleet Air Arm must have more aircraft and the Navy needs its own dedicated unmanned drones. At the same time, the government needs to proceed with the overhaul of the unglamorous but essential auxiliary fleet, without which the Navy cannot function. The Type 45s are a vital contribution to the nation's defence, but their value will be much diminished without the capital ships they have been designed to protect.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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