Friday, January 13, 2017

Royal Navy Versus China?

Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States, recently told a Washington think tank that Britain will send aircraft carriers to the Pacific once they become operational in the 2020s. Four Royal Air Force Typhoon fighters, which arrived in Japan in October for joint exercises, are scheduled to fly over the South China Sea.

“Certainly, as we bring our two new aircraft carriers onstream in 2020, and as we renew and update our defense forces, they will be seen in the Pacific,” Darroch announced. “And we absolutely share the objective of this U.S. administration, and the next one, to protect freedom of navigation and to keep sea routes and air routes open.”

Naturally, Beijing warned that these moves could threaten relations between China and Britain.

There are two questions here.

The first is technical: What exactly does Britain think it can accomplish militarily against China? The Royal Navy is now down to just nineteen destroyers and frigates, and is phasing out its antiship missiles, leaving British warships to slug it out with cannon like the Grand Fleet at Jutland in 1916. The Royal Air Force is shrinking, and the British Army has fewer infantrymen than were killed on the first day of the Somme in 1916.

Compare this to China, whose defense spending has surged 12.9 percent per year between 1989 and 2011. Even with the Chinese economy slowing, the defense budget was still expected to increase by 7.9 percent in 2016.

Assuming the Queen Elizabeth–class carriers and their F-35B aircraft are ready by 2020—two big ifs, given the history of these two programs—then each carrier will accommodate perhaps fifty aircraft at most, including F-35B vertical/short takeoff and landing strike fighters, as well as assorted airborne early-warning and antisubmarine aircraft and helicopters.

If the Americans, with their bigger carriers and sophisticated Aegis-equipped escorts, are worried about Chinese submarines, hypersonic weapons and carrier-killer ballistic missiles, how would a British carrier task force fare? If a time warp could take a Queen Elizabeth battlegroup back to 1982, it could possibly take on the entire Argentine air force and navy. But China in 2020? Not likely.

Which in turn brings up the question of what Britain hopes to accomplish. As a means of asserting British influence in East Asia, the British military presence probably won’t help much unless London is prepared to somehow wield a bigger stick (nuclear weapons don’t count—China has them too). As deterrence against a Chinese attack on Taiwan or Japan, if Beijing isn’t afraid of the United States, then it’s not likely to be afraid of Britain.

Militarily, despite some claims that Britain could defeat China under some conditions, this seems a risky proposition at best. With Chinese GDP almost five times greater than Britain’s, it is a proposition that will only get riskier. In the high-tech arms race between America and China, Britain simply doesn’t have the resources to compete.

Nor should it. Regardless of what China does, there is still the emerging Russian threat in Europe. Wouldn’t it make sense to concentrate the Royal Navy in Europe and the Mediterranean, as in World War II, and let the United States worry about the Pacific?


ordinary malaysian said...

Right on! It will be suicidal of GB to play hero. Maybe they are trying to curry favour with the US of A. For what? - it is hard to fathom. But you don't take on China whom you want to do business with, surely not with one who is no push over militarily. It is even foolish of Trump to try to show that he could teach China a lesson. Trump would be better off trying to secure the borders of his own country against ISIS. We are not even sure he could do that successfully. If you can't even take on the terrorists and defeat them, what hope do you have of cowing a fellow nuclear power and one that is today the world's largest economy on PPP basis? China has so much at stake economically they won't take any threat to their well being lightly. America and the rest of the world have to learn that no one has the divine right to being the perpetual sole super power. China is in fact an old hand at being the world's preeminent world power for much of the past thousands of years. The US of A is a newcomer by contrast. China's rise today is merely a reassertion of their past preeminence. But history has shown that in the Chinese case - unlike the west's - trade was more important to them than bossing and colonising others.

sykes.1 said...

Over two-thirds of the shipping in the South China Sea is either heading towards Chinese ports or coming from them, so if anyone has an interest in keeping the shipping lanes open it is China. The US/Japanese interest would be in closing them.

The UK, of course, has become a joke, even in Europe. It maintains a single tank regiment with 56 tanks, barely enough to control the Muslims in Birmingham. Some of its newest ships can't operate in hot climates, like the Persian Gulf. By the 2020s, China will have three to four carriers, two of them similar to the Nimitz class and two Kuznetsov class. And dozens of frigates and destroyers, all armed with the latest anti-ship missiles, and covered by land-based missiles and strike aircraft. The US Navy itself will be hard pressed to maintain a presence under those conditions. The Brits are totally delusional.