Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The aircraft carrier debate & Australia moving 500 miles Westwards: Plus-ca-change

As part of my PhD research which was funded via a scholarship from funds made available by the Ministry of Defence I looked into the issues, theories and dynamics of strategic decision making applying my model and others to the latest available material from the archives of the Public Records Office.

At the time the latest materials concerned the 'Healey Reviews' of the mid 1960s which heralded a period of substantial British military and political disengagement from its 'East of Suez' commitments. One of the strongest threads running through the period was the battles between the armed services over resources and key programmes - of which the most contentious were the Royal Air Force's TSR-2 aircraft and the Royal Navy next generation aircraft carrier programme, known as CVA-01.

The CVA-01 was revolutionary, large and designed to support power projection for decades to come. The island (control tower) was offset so that aircraft could taxi around it. The displacement was substantial - and at a time of financial crisis - it was, like the TSR-2 too expensive.

Something had to go and the Royal Navy at least had a champion in terms of the first officer appointed to the new position of Chief of Defence Staff in the newly (April 1st, 1964) Ministry of Defence - Lord Mountbatten - the archtypal sailor.

To supplement the output of the archives - which includes various passionate memos to the Secretary of State from 1st Sea Lord and Chief of the Air Staff I studied the organisational directories of the time and identified two persons to interview. One was the Military Assistant to Lord Mountbatten, an aircraft carrier captain himself. The other was a junior civil servant working with the staff of CAS - whom would go on to become Permanent Under Secretary of the Department, Michael Quinlan.

At stake in the battle was the crucial issue - could aircraft (ie. TSR-2) conduct the missions using an air basing strategy of airfields around the world conduct the tasks of carrier-borne aviation ? Aircraft carriers, the air complement and logistics tail needed to support them was and remains in the current debates an expensive proposition. fields of concrete on land could prove a lot cheaper. The counter-arguments were many and of them several held great weight - which brings us to the urban legend at the heart of the mid-1960s defence reviews - that the Royal Air Force moved Australia 500 miles West to justify their strategy could obviate the requirement for investment in CVA-01 - with the consequence that the carrier programme should be cancelled in favour of investment in TSR-2.

My interviews sought to clarify this episode for research sake though also for my own curiousity. The Americans pushed strenuously for Britain to maintain forces East of Suez, even offering an aircraft carrier cheaply for the RN to use to keep them in the game - which in the archives was discounted 'due to inadequate messing [dining] arrangements'. Although my interview suggested that the configuration of arrestor wires might have been a greater factor at the operational level.

Mountbatten's MA was sprightly and still possessed strong memories of the event. He remembered clearly a presentation from CAS which looked somewhat odd to a man who has spent most of his life pouring over admiralty charts. Excusing himself from the presentation he pulled a map which showed that the type of projection being used by the RAF enabled Australia to conveniently fit into the flight peformance envelope of the TSR-2, thus justifying the strategy. The MA advised Mountbatten, pulling him out of the meeting on another pretext and the game was up.

Meeting Michael Quinlan during a visit to the Royal Military College of Science was, on reflection a great opportunity. I would like to think that I genuinely caught him off guard with him expecting me to ask a variety of questions concerning the 1990 options-for-change review, the personal dynamics of which were colourfully captured in Alan Clark's Diaries.

His view differed and a few weeks after meeting him a two page letter with a long quotation I was free to use in my research appeared. Sir Michael's view was that,

"In a genuine mistake, soon detected and rectified, an officer in the Air Staff based certain calculations about the capabilities of land-based air power on a figure some hundreds of miles too short for the distance between the Indian Ocean island of Aldabra - then under consideration for development as an air base - and a hypothetical operational area on the mainland of Africa. The episode (which later became, sometimes with embellishment. a treasured Royal Navy anecdote) was indignantly seized upon by the Naval Staff as evidence of Air Staff duplicity. This illustrates the level of feeling and tension which the review generated between the two Services".

So who was right ? Ultimately, and I might suggest that this be the real lesson, that inter-service rivalry delayed decisions being made before the resource constraints hammer really fell on the Ministry. CVA-01 was cancelled. TSR-2 was cancelled. The RAF proposed buying US F-111 swing-wing bombers - and that was cancelled too due to resources cuts and an IMF crisis.

Playing a very minor industrial role during the early stages of the CVF programme one can look back and see, post-SDSR, that delaying decision-making in a quest for the best military solution can risk ending up with a very compromised solution downstream. Years of prevarication I am sure are regretted from the corridors of the Ministry, to CINC Fleet Headquarters to industry balance sheets, ship building union offices and ultimately the communities of men and women simply trying to make a living.

The original in-service dates I remember for CVA-01 and CVA-02 were 2010 and 2012 respectively. Just to think that had the deadlines been held the SDSR would have been completed with one aircraft carrier having been recently or imminently launched by a senior member of the Royal Family with the newly elected administration in full attendance.

cest tragic. Should you wish to read in greater detail my own research into the defence policy battles of the mid 1960s I should like to point you to a copy of my PhD research at:

(Full copy of my PhD research thesis)

(A more concise version of the story published by the UK Defence Forum)

(A presentation to military students concerning TSR-2 versus CVA-01)

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