Royal Navy 1803

Goodbye My Lads by Fred Roe.
Lord Nelson waves goodbye to the crowd at Portsmouth. Lord Nelson joins his ship HMS Victory before the battle of Trafalgar.

Becalmed – HMS Victory in the Doldrums by Ivan Berryman.
Two of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s ships lie becalmed together, bathed in the soft glow of the setting sun. The 74-gun HMS Captain basks ahead of the mighty HMS Victory, the ship that would ultimately lead the British fleet into battle against the combined might of the Spanish and French fleets at Trafalgar in 1805.

At the time of the renewed outbreak of war in 1803, however, the Royal Navy was also a highly professional force. It was (in contrast to the army) in the hands of the educated sons of gentlemen of modest means, like Nelson. Relations between officers and men were, particularly under Nelson, generally excellent. At the top Pitt had appointed, as First Lord, Admiral Sir John Jervis, who had taken his new title of St Vincent from the battle which had saved England in 1797. A close second only to Nelson, it was ‘Jarvie’ to whom Britain owed most for her survival, then victory, at sea. Already aged sixty-nine in 1803, he had joined the navy the week of his fourteenth birthday, and by the time he was twenty-four he had witnessed Wolfe’s assault at Quebec, in command of the Porcupine. He was a square, oak-like, small figure, but with twinkling eyes, a man of irresistibly forceful personality, and with a dread reputation as a most stern disciplinarian. It was reputed that he had once administered a dozen lashes to a captain of the maintop who had failed to uncover during ‘God Save the King’.

During the alarming mutinies in Spithead and the Nore of 1797, which could have devastated the fleet had they spread, St Vincent (then Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean) had had to act with extreme measures. On the Marlborough, a ‘very bad ship’, he ordered a mutineer to be hanged from the yard-arm by his own shipmates; a launch with a ‘smashing carronade’ was sent alongside to blow the ship out of the water in case the order was refused. In another ship under his command, two homosexuals were hanged for their ‘unnatural crime’. Four mutineers were ordered to be hanged immediately, but, as it was a Sunday, St Vincent’s second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Thompson, proposed a delay. He was promptly sacked. The word went round: ‘If old Jarvie hears ye, he will have you dingle-dangle from the yard arm at eight o’clock tomorrow morning.’ Yet, though severe, ‘Jarvie’ was not a cruel man, and was respected both for his rigid sense of justice and for his hatred of unfairness. Like Montgomery in a later world war – and though quite out of phase with his own times – he was much harder on the officers than on the men; and he was correspondingly loved for it.

Having suffered a crushing blow during the ‘Terror’, when the guillotine had almost wiped out its officer corps, the French Navy had never really recovered. The quality of the French ships was often superior to that of the ageing British vessels, worn out by years of service (Nelson’s Victory, for instance, had been laid down in the 1760s), but discipline on board ship was poor. Perhaps more than to any other factor, the ability of British ships to stay at sea, and endure longer than the French – which would eventually decide the war – could be ascribed to that fierce, almost inhuman, discipline maintained by St Vincent. Under him, too, far-reaching reforms of pay and conditions were also carried out. When commanding the Mediterranean Fleet, he found more than one of his exhausted men-of-war to be worn out by nonstop operations: ‘altogether in such a crazy and infirm state, as to be totally incapable of a passage back to England’. After the period of the ‘Phoney Peace’ in 1802, Addington had imposed certain ill-chosen economies, and the navy’s ships were in a terrible state when St Vincent took over as First Sea Lord; but somehow he was able to transform its ‘hulks of dubious wood and canvas into a fighting fleet’ – and just in time to meet Napoleon’s greatest threat to England. An unflappable figure, it was ‘Jarvie’ who, during the 1803 invasion scare, had declared challengingly, ‘I don’t say the French can’t come. I say they can’t come by sea.’

Body and soul, he stood for the all-out, offensive blockade of Napoleon’s ports. He was replaced, briefly, by Lord Melville, who was in turn to be succeeded in April by Lord Barham. Very much Pitt’s appointee, Barham (previously Admiral Sir Charles Middleton) had resurrected the navy after the war with America. Although aged seventy-eight, he was still full of vigour, and knew more about reactivating ships than anybody in the business. In the short time that was to elapse before the ultimate showdown at Trafalgar, Barham was to prove the greatest naval administrator since Pepys.

Just below came a galaxy of brilliant sea commanders: ‘Billy-go-tight’ Cornwallis, the sixty-year-old Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Fleet; Collingwood, who had served so long at sea it was said his children scarcely knew him; Cotton, Calder, Cochrane and Pellew – and, above, the genius of the frail but fearless Nelson. It was they who maintained the superb standards boasted by the navy of that day. Ships-of-the-line, though minute by twentieth-century measurements, then represented the pinnacle of the high-tech and constructional skill of their age; Nelson’s Victory, for example, had been six years in building (it was already forty years old at the time of Trafalgar); it had required the felling of 2,500 oaks, had 27 miles of rigging and 4 acres of sail, displaced 3,500 tons, carried 104 guns and had cost £63,176 (about £3 million in today’s money). After decades of hard training, the British handling of these exquisite, yet primitive, pieces of equipment was unsurpassable, and so was the tactical seamanship of the commanders. When it came to the crucial factor of gunnery, nobody could concert a broadside with such deadly efficacy; it was something that Napoleon’s navy, for all its enthusiasm, could never emulate.

Yet, on the outbreak of war in 1803, England could count no more than fifty-five capital ships against France’s forty-two, though because Addington’s declaration had taken Napoleon by surprise only thirteen of these latter were ready for immediate service. Nevertheless, the margin was still uncomfortably slim by the critical spring of 1805 when – with Spain and Holland aligned against her as well – Barham had only eighty-three battleships in commission, and many of those badly in need of repair. But the spirit made up for much; putting to sea in May 1803, Nelson wrote to Emma Hamilton, ‘I have no fears,’ and the following year (to his friend, Alexander Davison):

I am expecting the French to put to sea – every day, hour and moment; and you may rely that, if it is within the power of man to get at them, it shall be done; and I am sure that all my brethren look forward to that day as the finish of our laborious cruise.

Of 1803–5 it could be said with truth that only the Royal Navy of St Vincent, Barham and Nelson stood between Napoleon and world domination. Fortunately for Britain, although sailors like the courageous, doomed Villeneuve would do their best, the French Navy, however, was never a high priority with Napoleon, any more than the German Navy was with Adolf Hitler, which was the fundamental reason why both would ultimately be defeated. Certainly, had the Royal Navy proved unable to prevent Napoleon landing a substantial force in England, her prospects would have been dim, for the British Army came out of a very different mould from the navy. It was, according to one contemporary description:

lax in its discipline, entirely without system, and very weak in numbers. Each colonel of a regiment managed it according to his own notions, or neglected it altogether; professional pride was rare; professional knowledge even more so. Never was a kingdom less prepared for a stern and arduous conflict.


The Royal Navy and the Lessons of 1914–1918 Part I

It is an axiom among historians that a knowledge of history can serve as a guide to the present. This is not to say that the present ought simply to imitate the past, for every human situation is indeed unique, but rather that individuals and groups should act to meet new situations partly on the basis of past experience. Armed forces have a particularly bad reputation for not taking this axiom seriously. Let us examine in some detail one case history, the Royal Navy after the First War, with a view to understanding how much that Service profited from 1914–18 and why it did not learn as much as it might have from its war experience.

The gruelling test of battle in the war naturally had brought to the fore a host of defects in the Royal Navy–in materiel, tactical doctrine, and system of command. What would the postwar Navy do about these shortcomings–that was the question. During the hostilities, the ‘Young Turks’, led by Captain H. W. Richmond, partly to assuage their bitter criticisms of the inefficiency of the Navy, looked forward to a postwar British version of ‘J’accuse’, to be followed by an era of reform which would capitalize on the lessons of the war. They were confident that the war would provide the will for, and create an atmosphere favourable to, reform. ‘The English won’t learn in peace,’ declared one of Richmond’s disciples, ‘but they can’t fail to learn from war. It may be 5 years, or 10 … but sooner or later the truth must come to light and a renaissance will result, followed by a sound system of education.’

Early postwar prospects were good. Before leaving the Admiralty at the beginning of 1919, the First Lord, Sir Eric Geddes, recommended to the Board of Admiralty the appointment of ‘a strong, critical, and as far as possible independently-minded Committee’ to examine ‘the naval position on the outbreak of war and the steps taken during the war to remedy defects and meet new requirements’. Captain Stephen Roskill says that this suggestion, ‘with its implied criticism of the Admiralty’s conduct of the war’, was not implemented. Early in 1919 the Admiralty took steps ‘to appoint Committees of Sea Officers to summarise the more urgent lessons of the War and to make recommendations as to future policy, whilst the experience of the War is fresh in their minds….’ Here again there was no immediate follow-up. The only two committees formed were the ‘Mitchell Committee’, appointed on 21 March 1919 to make a thorough investigation of what had gone wrong at the Dardanelles and on Gallipoli in 1915, and a Post-War Questions Committee in August 1919 (Rear-Admiral R. F. Phillimore, chairman) with narrow terms of reference. It was to ‘consider in the light of the experience of the war the military uses and values of the different types of war vessel’ and ‘consider and advise the Board of Admiralty on the part likely to be taken by aircraft, both in attack and defence’. A Government directive struck the examination of the naval air situation from the terms of reference. As regards the first charge, no doubt because of Admiralty sensitivity to what might emerge from a searching study, the Committee made a superficial examination of the pertinent experience of the war and put its imprimatur on the continuing predominance of the battleship (March 1920).

More promising was the work of the Naval Staff College, which was started at Greenwich in June 1919 on Sir Rosslyn Wemyss’s initiative to train officers for Naval Staff duties. Its very establishment proved that one all-important lesson of the war had not gone unheeded. As Lord Beatty, who succeeded Wemyss at the end of 1919, put it: ‘Such naval disasters as occurred during the war were the direct result of the lack of sufficient and efficient staff. … We paid very dearly for the experience which led to its formation and nothing should interfere with its development.’ The main object of the staff course training (the course was approximately nine months) was (and remains), in Admiral J. H. Godfrey’s words, ‘to broaden the mind to study war and to make officers think’. By 1939 the list of officers who had completed the course, or had served on the staff of the College, filled two pages of the closely printed Navy List. During the 1920s the Navy, generally, regarded staff officers with a good deal of suspicion, particularly those with really independent thoughts and ideas. This attitude had changed by the beginning of its second decade, and ‘it seemed to be universally accepted that the staff course should form part and parcel of a promising naval officer’s career, and that the qualifications for selection to the course were the same as those for promotion. Of the fifty-one executive officers who did the course during 1929 and 1930, eighteen have become Flag Officers.’ As part of its work, the Staff College did its best to study and absorb the lessons of 1914–18, and the evidence is that it made as good a job of it as could be expected. The battles of the First War were studied, Jutland above all, with personal talks by the leading admirals of that time–J. R. Jellicoe, W. E. Goodenough, and others–adding a realistic element. In 1936 Admiral Sir Reginald (‘Blinker’) Hall, the great wartime Director of Naval Intelligence, delivered a ‘magnificent’ talk on intelligence and on ways of communicating with those at sea. He also discussed trade protection, drawing on the experience of 1914–18.

The Tactical School was founded at Portsmouth Dockyard in 1924 (it was the proposal of Admiral Sir Frederic Dreyer, Jellicoe’s Flag-Captain at Jutland) to promote a more scientific study of naval tactics. It expounded the Battle Instructions (title changed in the summer of 1939 to Fighting Instructions), with a well-organized demonstration of Jutland on the big tactical board as the high spot. This was laid on to bring out the lessons to be learned. For the rest the officers did convoy exercises and staged imaginary fleet actions. Admiral of the Fleet Sir Algernon Willis has ‘always thought that the Tactical School did a good job and I believe this was the general opinion in the Service. The fact that the Navy never put a foot wrong “tactically” in World War II is generally attributed largely to the work of the Tactical School.’ I would not dispute this expert judgement, except to note that there was perhaps too much emphasis on fleet action as being the ultimate test of war. One must add that a lot of tactical experiment and investigation went on at sea, where it should, and was carefully analysed. All the same, as will be indicated below, not all the tactical lessons of the First War were learned.

The accepted doctrine of the Navy’s strategical ideas was supposed to have been enshrined in the Naval War Manual, first issued in September 1921 and revised in October 1925. There was little in it beyond a few catchwords pertaining to the ‘principles of war’ and generalities on ‘naval policy’, the ‘functions of the Navy’, ‘war plans’, and so on. A much fuller statement, completed in October 1938 by Commander John Creswell at the R.N. College, Greenwich, at the direction of the Admiralty, had not been issued when the war came.

In short, there was in the interwar years a fairly close study of the lessons–some of the lessons, at any rate–of the war, and certain principles were evolved and reforms instituted. It may rightly be claimed that British naval successes in the Second War can be attributed in part to these studies and exercises. Apart from the establishment of the Staff College, there were various ways in which the lessons of the First War had obviously been learned and were well applied. Thus, enemy reporting was much improved and the Navy had good success in solving the problem of a massed torpedo attack by destroyers on a battle fleet, which had hobbled Grand Fleet tactics. The Grand Fleet doctrine of not committing a fleet to night action was rejected, and improvements were introduced in night fighting (as through the introduction of star shell and improved searchlight control), with the reward of Matapan. Ernie Chatfield and W. W. Fisher in the Mediterranean in the early thirties placed great emphasis on night-action training. In the last prewar months the new DNI, Rear-Admiral J. H. Godfrey, was able to apply an important lesson of the First War–that Operations and Intelligence must work together, avoiding any semblance of secrecy. The neglect of this common-sense principle had had disastrous results at Jutland. There was a big improvement on the First War as regards initiative and leadership. Those in command of operations, even small ones involving perhaps only a few units, showed a high degree of initiative, in no small way regaining the confidence in, and capacity for, independent judgement of those captains of the old sailing days who usually had to rely on themselves. Staff work generally, ashore and afloat, was improved. ‘There was’, writes Admiral Sir Manley Power, ‘a tremendous change in the behaviour of Senior Officers in the period between the wars, particularly in their attitudes towards their staffs. Early ones resented having staffs thrust upon them at all. Chatfield, as C-in-C [Mediterranean, 1930–2], used his staff to the full, but officers venturing opinions uninvited were severely choked off. [A. B.] Cunningham, whom I served [1939–43], professed to despise Staff training, but thrived on controversy and encouraged it. One of his earliest remarks to me after I joined him was: “I hate Staff Officers who agree with me.” This made me a No man for the duration!’ ‘A.B.C.’ was typical of the new breed of senior officer–men like John D. Cunningham, B. H. (‘Bertie’) Ramsay, and James Somerville–who encouraged controversy.

There was after the First War tremendous room for improvement in inter-Service understanding and co-operation. ‘To appreciate the atmosphere in which the Dardanelles assault was hatched, one must accept the fact that Admiral [Sir A. K.] Wilson, Lord Fisher, and Lord Kitchener were incapable of co-operation and would have been deeply shocked at the idea of revealing a naval plan to a soldier, or a military project to a sailor.’ The lesson was learned. After the war the three staff colleges held a joint exercise every year (the one in 1935 was ‘The Recapture of Singapore’!), which welded together Royal Air Force, Army, and Navy officers from the staff and personal points of view. The creation of the Chiefs of Staff Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1923, a body where the three Service Chiefs met as a team to work out a common strategy and advise the Government on defence, was another encouraging development in the same direction, as was the companion Joint Planning Committee. I should mention, too, the establishment in 1927 of the Imperial Defence College to ‘train a body of officers [from all three Services] and civilian officials in the broadest aspects of Imperial Strategy’. As a result, despite the fact that differences of opinion continued and good relations were bedevilled by the Navy–RAF feud over control of Naval Air, inter-Service co-operation in the last war in the strategic field, though far from perfect, particularly at the very top, was highly effectual.

But all this gives a false impression of what actually was achieved in the twenty years between wars in the way of profiting from the lessons of 1914–18. Much was done at Staff and War colleges and at the Tactical School, but it was not based on a really critical study of the past. Moreover, investigation focused on materiel problems. Ship design, questions of gunfire (success was achieved in the control and concentration of gunfire), the development of smoke screens, and the like absorbed the energies of Admiralty committees. Apart, however, from the Mitchell Committee on the Dardanelles in 1919, there was little attempt by these committees to study the larger problems and lessons of the war. The results of this neglect were most serious in the field of trade defence.

The Royal Navy in 1945


The last battleship of the Royal Navy, HMS Vanguard, with eight 15in guns in four turrets.

The Royal Navy in 1945 was a different service from the one that had gone to war in 1939. Manpower had actually peaked in mid-1944 and had already begun to fall but the number of ships was at its peak in 1945.

This was a modern navy and a well-balanced fleet, possibly more so than at any time in its history. The irony was that the two oldest aircraft carriers, Furious and Argus , had survived the war while all the other pre-war aircraft carriers had been lost. By this time, these two veterans were no better than hulks. In fact, those ships that had served through the war were almost all in dire need of a heavy refit as not only had they taken battle damage, but routine refits had been neglected because of the pressure on the Royal Navy to keep as many ships at sea as possible, while its three main bases were also subjected to heavy aerial attack. One man who joined Illustrious after the war recalls seeing much evidence of the damage done to the ship off Malta and then again while undergoing emergency repairs in Malta.

Yet, even at the war’s end, new ships were joining the fleet. One of these was the last battleship of the Royal Navy, HMS Vanguard, with eight 15in guns in four turrets. Serious consideration had been given to converting the ship before completion as an aircraft carrier, but this would have been a costly operation and the end result would have been too narrow in the beam to make an ideal carrier. The question was, of course, why was anyone ordering a battleship at this time? However, tradition dies hard and for the navies of the day, possession of a battleship was seen as a necessary status symbol. Many minor navies, especially in Latin America, kept battleships for many years afterwards, while others – for example, the Dutch, Australian, Canadian and Indian navies – all preferred the ‘modern’ option of an aircraft carrier.

While none of the Colossus and the extension of this class, the Majestic -class, ships saw action in the Second World War, they were involved in the Korean War and two saw service in Operation MUSKETEER, the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal Zone. More enduring was that having ordered these ships in large numbers, especially for ships of their size, many were immediately available for sale or transfer elsewhere. These two classes saw service with the navies of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, India and The Netherlands, and in some cases introduced these navies to carrier-borne air power for the first time.

As many as possible of the Lend-Lease auxiliary or escort carriers were returned to the United States but some were in no state to go back, with Dasher having blown up killing many of her ship’s company and others sunk or so badly damaged that they had to be scrapped and another, Biter , was loaned to the French as the Dixmude . Nairana , one of the few British conversions, was loaned to the Dutch as the Karel Doorman , the irony being that the want of air cover had seen the loss of the admiral of this name with his ship in the Battle of the Java Sea. The Dutch subsequently received a Colossus -class light fleet carrier, Venerable , and after returning Nairana to the Royal Navy their new ship was named Karel Doorman .

As the Royal Navy was run down from its wartime strength, the naval bases around the world filled up with redundant escort vessels, especially corvettes. Other ships were sold off. While many of the escort carriers returned to the United States were converted to merchant vessels, strangely few of those operated by the USN were converted. The Royal Navy kept one of the British conversions, the Pretoria Castle , for many years as a trials ship.

There were some problems with personnel, with those of the wartime ‘hostilities only’ category expecting to be released as soon as the war ended, but this was impractical. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy did not suffer the indiscipline, almost amounting to mutiny, that affected many Royal Air Force bases, especially in the Indian subcontinent.

One naval pilot, a lieutenant commander, managed to switch from the RNVR to the regular service, but was then disappointed to find himself demoted to lieutenant and left waiting for weeks for a new posting. Nevertheless, when he eventually did retire many years later it was as a captain. Less fortunate were those caught in training as pilots or observers when peace was declared. While still not commissioned as this did not come in wartime until flying training was completed, they found themselves posted to be trained as aircraft engine mechanics and all hopes of early commissioning lost. Worse, on being posted for training, their superior ‘officer potential’ led to extra harsh discipline being imposed on them until the newspapers found out about it.

The Post-WWII Navy

In contrast to the situation earlier in the century, the post-war Royal Navy included many national servicemen, although less than the Royal Air Force and far less than the British Army. Of those who did find themselves undertaking national service with the RN, many were Merchant Navy personnel whose national service had been deferred until their training was completed.

A substantial Royal Naval Reserve and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve were both maintained for many years until eventually these two categories were merged into a single Royal Naval Reserve. As the future of the Royal Navy was planned by an Admiralty committee known as the ‘Way Ahead Committee’, flying training for reservists was dropped, and eventually as the service contracted and national service ended, the RNR was mainly tasked with minesweeping. Other cuts saw the last battleship, Vanguard , first as the headquarters of the RNR and then eventually scrapped. Warspite had been withdrawn for scrapping soon after the war had ended and showed her displeasure by breaking her tow and ending up beached in St Michael’s Bay in Cornwall; Vanguard did the same, but off Southsea.


Aerial view of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Victorious (R38), taken circa 1958-1960, when the Royal Navy operated the Douglas Skyraider AEW.1.

The wartime aircraft carriers eventually were scrapped, except for Victorious which underwent a massive rebuilding to emerge with a half-angled flight deck and three-dimensional radar in the late 1950s, but she too was scrapped a few years later after a fire while under refit. Nevertheless, by the mid-1960s the Royal Navy had five aircraft carriers and two commando carriers. The latter were equipped with helicopters and could take a Royal Marine Commando brigade wherever it was needed; a legacy of the Suez campaign when the Royal Navy flew off the first heliborne assault.

Naval bases were cut. While the former RAF base at Hal Far in Malta was transferred to the Fleet Air Arm as HMS Falcon , the 1970s saw the Royal Navy’s presence run down and the base eventually closed as the Royal Navy left Malta after more than 170 years. Other major bases that were abandoned included Singapore and later Hong Kong after the territory was handed over to the Chinese People’s Republic. Today, only Gibraltar remains of the overseas bases and there is no longer a Mediterranean Fleet or, even in its much-reduced state, a Home Fleet. The various overseas squadrons and stations have all gone. Chatham was the only one of the three manning ports to close but it was followed in the 1990s by Rosyth. Today, the Royal Naval Reserve also has all but disappeared and its various ‘divisions’, small outposts around the coast, have gone.

Naval aircraft also changed. The first generation of jet aircraft such as the Supermarine Attacker was soon followed by the de Havilland Sea Venom and Armstrong-Whitworth Sea Hawk, but in the 1960s there was a major step forward. Starting with the Blackburn Buccaneer and then joined by the American McDonnell F-4M Phantom, carrier-borne aircraft suddenly became comparable with those based ashore. No longer was there a significant performance gap between aircraft designed to take off from ships and those based ashore. Both aircraft were also to see air force service.

The threat from low-flying aircraft also ended with Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft such as the Fairey Gannet, a development of the Royal Navy’s last fixed-wing anti-submarine aircraft, while this role passed to increasingly powerful and effective anti-submarine helicopters such as the Westland Sea King and later the Agusta-Westland Merlin.

The 1970s almost saw the end of the aircraft carrier with the previous decade having seen replacements, known as CVA.01 and CVA.02, for the Royal Navy’s two largest carriers, Ark Royal and Eagle , cancelled. Ark Royal and Eagle were modified, with the former able to operate McDonnell Douglas F-4M Phantom fighters, and their lives extended. A complete end to British fixed-wing naval aviation was avoided when the Hawker Siddeley Kestrel vertical take-off aircraft appeared and this evolved into the British Aerospace Sea Harrier, while the concept of the ‘through deck cruiser’ emerged as a cut-price light fleet aircraft carrier. The discovery that a Sea Harrier had a much greater range or warload when using short take-off aided by a ramp known as a ‘ski-jump’ settled the shape of British naval aviation, and also that of Spain and Italy, for some years.

The ski-jump was not the sole British contribution to carrier aviation. British naval officers had invented the angled flight deck that allowed aircraft to land and take off at the same time, and allowed a pilot landing to go round for another attempt if necessary. The mirror-deck landing system was another of these inventions that helped aircraft to land, while the steam catapult enabled ever-heavier naval aircraft to take off safely.

In the end, three ships of what was known as the Invincible class were built. The conversion of the Centaur -class carrier Hermes as an interim ‘Harrier Carrier’ and the delivery of the first Invincible -class carrier meant that the Royal Navy was able to recover the Falkland Islands which had been invaded by the Argentine Republic in 1982. Unfortunately, only two of the Invincible -class ships, Illustrious and Ark Royal , were kept in commission and then the Sea Harriers were scrapped, although of a more up-to-date mark than those that had rescued the Falklands. After that the remaining carriers were withdrawn, although Illustrious received a temporary reprieve as a helicopter carrier. In the meantime, the remaining Harriers were jointly manned by Fleet Air Arm and RAF personnel as ‘Joint Force Harrier’.

The number of escort vessels also fell sharply from more than 182 in 1958: first to around 80; then to 40; to 25 in 2008; and eventually to just 19 today. Escorts were no longer steam- or diesel-powered but powered by gas turbines and gradually all escorts had a helicopter landing platform and hangar with some of the Type 22 frigates able to carry two helicopters. In the interests of economy and extending range, later escorts were powered by diesel and gas turbine propulsion.

Mines are no longer swept, not even hunted and then swept, but instead are found by sonar with a remotely-controlled submersible used to destroy the mine. Meanwhile, mine countermeasures vessels (MCMVs) as they are now known are no longer built of wood but of glass-reinforced fibre.

The biggest change has been the introduction of the nuclear-powered submarine, of which the first in Royal Navy service was named Dreadnought . These vessels were initially all ‘fleet’ submarines or ‘hunter-killers’, meaning that their main role was to counter Russian missile-carrying submarines, but later the responsibility for Britain’s nuclear deterrent was passed from the RAF to the Royal Navy and four intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Resolution -class submarines were introduced to carry Polaris missiles. There should have been five boats of this class but, with the nation ever more concerned about economics than defence, the fifth boat was cancelled. When Polaris was replaced by a more potent missile, Trident, the Resolution -class boats were replaced by the Vanguard class, also of four vessels.

The rank structure has also changed. The rank of commissioned airman or gunner that replaced the warrant officer rank was abolished in the mid-1950s and those holding this rank became sub-lieutenants, but change is often reversed and after the introduction of fleet chief petty officers, the rank of warrant officer has returned. At the other end of the scale, with all three services abolishing five-star ranks, there is no longer a rank of admiral of the fleet. Indeed, given the continued run-down of the Royal Navy, one wonders how much longer a First Sea Lord will be able to justify the rank of admiral?

At present the Royal Navy has the two largest aircraft carriers it has ever operated, the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales , under construction but there are no plans to operate both ships and in any case, there are insufficient escort vessels for both to put to sea safely in a potentially hostile environment. For the first time in history, the French Marine Nationale has more ships than the Royal Navy.

US Destroyers 1935-39





Historical Units: Sims, Hughes, Anderson, Hammann, Mustin, Russell, O’Brien, Walke, Morris, Roe, Wainwright, Buck.

Type and significance: This class of U. S. destroyer serves as an example of U. S. destroyer design upon the outbreak of World War II.

Dates of construction: All units were constructed between 1938 and 1939.

Hull dimensions: 348’4″ # 36′ # 12’10”

Displacement: 1,764 tons

Armor: None

Armament: Five 5″ guns, four .5″ AA weapons, eight 21″ torpedo tubes, and 10 depth charges.

Machinery: Turbines powered by three oil-fired boilers that produced 50,000 shaft horsepower.

Speed: 35 knots Complement: 190

Summary: All of the vessels in the class served in World War II. Sims, Hammann, O’Brien, Walke, and Buck were destroyed in the conflict. By 1948, the others were either scrapped or destroyed as test ships.

The high number of destroyers launched between 1935 and 1939 was spurred by rising world tensions and continued to include primarily large destroyers capable of extended operations in the Pacific. The first of these were eight ships of the Porter class, launched between 1935 and 1936, that filled the U. S. need for flotilla leaders. These can be classed as the first U. S. superdestroyers. The hull of Porter measured 381 feet, 1 inch by 37 feet by 13 feet, displaced 1,834 tons, and housed engines capable of 37 knots. Its armament consisted of eight 5-inch guns in four twin-gunned mounts that were fully enclosed by gun houses. Two of these were located in the bow while the other two were sited in the stern. As a result of this armament and the ship’s tonnage, Porter conformed to the London Treaty at a time that corresponded with the breakdown of the Second London Conference. The ship was also armed with eight 1.1-inch and two .5-inch AA guns as a reflection of the growing threat posed by the airplane. Finally, the vessel carried eight 21-inch torpedo tubes.

The Porter type was followed by six more classes launched up to the end of 1939 that yielded 52 new destroyers. The last of these, the Sims class, is an example of regular U.S. destroyer design upon the outbreak of war in Europe. The hull of Sims measured 348 feet, 4 inches by 36 feet by 12 feet, 10 inches and displaced 1,764 tons. It was armed with five 5-inch guns, four .5-inch AA weapons, and eight 21-inch torpedo tubes. The vessel’s engines generated a maximum speed of 35 knots.

In addition to ships of these general design specifications, the United States continued the production of superdestroyers. The Somers-class ships displaced 2,047 tons and carried an impressive primary armament of eight 5-inch guns and 12 21-inch torpedo tubes. The large displacement of these ships is evidence of the fact that by the time of their launching between 1937 and 1938 the United States had accepted the fact that the era of arms limitation was over. By this point, it was also clear to many that global conflict was once again a real possibility.




Czar Nicholas and his Navy


Imperial Russian battleship Borodino at Kronshtadt, Augst 1904. Borodino was the lead ship of her class of pre-dreadnought battleships built for the Imperial Russian Navy although she was the second ship of her class to be completed. Named after the 1812 Battle of Borodino, the ship was completed after the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. Borodino was assigned to the Second Pacific Squadron sent to the Far East a few months after her completion to break the Japanese blockade of Port Arthur. The Japanese captured the port while the squadron was in transit and their destination was changed to Vladivostok. The ship was sunk during the Battle of Tsushima on 27 May 1905 due to explosions set off by a Japanese shell hitting a 6-inch (152 mm) magazine. There was only one survivor from her crew of 855 officers and enlisted men.

The Industrial Revolution and the age of steam heralded a period of comparative decline in the Russian navy which was destined to last more than a century. They were slow to adopt steam-powered ships, this in itself reflecting the innate conservatism of Russian society, their lack of natural resources in coal and iron, and the paucity of labour and skilled craftsmen. In the Crimean War the Russian Navy was hopelessly out-matched both in the Black Sea and the Baltic so that the sailors were used on land as infantry while the warships were laid up in their home ports. Only on rare occasions did the ships venture out and even then scuttled back behind the shelter of their garrison artillery at the first sign of the Royal Navy. In the final quarter of the century there was some revival of interest in the fleets, the Czar Alexander II appointed his brother as Minister of Marine. This resulted in a prototype ironclad being imported from England and the eventual appearance of a small squadron of screw-driven warships in the Baltic, but the standard of maintenance was such that the ships had only an indifferent performance, while their design lagged far behind the more progressive navies.

By the turn of the century the navy had begun to show some improvements under Czar Alexander III and his son Nicholas II: the navy was encouraged to learn from others and new methods were copied from the naval powers, especially the Germans. However all this was dissipated in a ruinous war with Japan; the Russo- Japanese war is probably chiefly remembered for the almost total defeat of the Imperial Navy at the Battle of Tsushima. Czar Nicholas introduced an acquisitive foreign policy in the Far East which meant that the Pacific Fleet should operate out of the secure base of a warm water port. Such a policy was bound to result in a collision with the rapidly emerging naval power of Japan. The Russians found their base in Port Arthur which the Japanese had been forced to return to China in 1895; the Chinese with a little pressure allowed the Russians to garrison this base under the cynical guise of protecting them from the further ravages of Japan. For the first time in their history the Russians possessed two viable bases for their Pacific Fleet, in Vladivostok and Port Arthur, and this represented a direct challenge to Japanese ambitions for the naval hegemony of the North Pacific.

The Japanese war aim was clear and explicit. They needed to bottle up the Russian squadrons in their respective bases and then destroy each in turn with an overwhelming show of force. To this end the Japanese prepared secretly for war and then, in a style reminiscent of a later occasion, struck swiftly and without warning early in 1904. Japanese mine-laying proved almost immediately successful for when the Russians sailed out from Port Arthur in April to meet the Japanese challenge their flagship the Fetropavlousk was enticed onto a minefield and sank, taking almost the full complement and their Admiral, Makharoff to the bottom. By August of that year the Russian naval presence was practically destroyed. While the Imperial Japanese Army laid siege to Port Arthur from the landward side, their naval squadron defeated the Russian fleet twenty miles out, the few vessels that survived struggled back into the harbour. In the meanwhile the squadron at Vladivostok was defeated by the Japanese fleet under Admiral Kamimura as it tried to reach Port Arthur. In five short months the Japanese had thus secured control over the Northern Pacific and had completely destroyed the Russian squadrons as a viable naval force. It is ironic that the architect of this brilliant episode in Japanese history. Admiral Togo, was an officer who had studied the art of naval warfare in England and whose major victory over the Russians, which was still to come, was to earn him the immortal title of the ‘Nelson of the East’.

Czar Nicholas II prided himself on being a European and thus this defeat of his navy by an oriental power represented a double humiliation as well as thwarting his ambitions in the Pacific. He therefore decided to restore the balance and regain his tarnished reputation by transferring his only remaining fleet from the Baltic to the Northern Pacific, and so began what must be regarded as one of the most bizarre episodes in naval history. Nicholas appointed Admiral Rozhestvenski to command this expedition, at fifty-six a relatively young officer who owed his rapid promotion to his dashing exploits as a torpedo boat commander when fighting against the Turks. The spearhead of the Baltic fleet was built around four new battleships, which were not really operational, manned by novice crews. The rest of the fighting ships (together with the fleet support and colliers) were vessels that already belonged to a bygone age, old ships armed with obsolescent guns and poor crews.

Rozhestvenski intended to work up his fleet during the voyage to the Pacific, but even as he sailed from the Baltic alarmist (and totally unfounded) reports warned him that Japanese torpedo boats, which had been shipped to England, were already lying in wait in the North Sea. This jittery Russian fleet fired on a Swedish merchant ship and the occasional German fishing vessel in the Baltic; it was hardly surprising therefore, that when it came upon British trawlers operating in the fishing grounds off the Dogger Bank, in the dead of night, that ‘all hell should break loose’. At point-blank range, as mass hysteria gripped the Russian ships, broadsides poured into the trawlers, although British loss of life would have been much greater if the Russian gunnery had been even half-way efficient. Nevertheless by the time the Russians had realised their mistake the damage had been done; although only one trawler actually sank, a number of lives were lost and the resultant indignation and sense of outrage in England pushed the two countries to the brink of war. Royal Naval units shadowed the Russian fleet through the English Channel and out into the open seas as far as Tangier, with their main armament trained on this hapless Russian Force. At the Mediterranean the Russian fleet divided, the older units proceeded to the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal while Rozhestvenski took his main squadron the additional 10,000 miles around the Cape of Good Hope. In the New Year of 1905 the units rendezvoused at Madagascar where the fleet waited for two months for the reinforcements of the Black Sea fleet and for colliers and auxiliaries to replenish the much depleted bunkers. This period of enforced delay and inactivity in an unhealthy and disease-ridden anchorage played havoc with Russian morale and efficiency.

It was while they were off Madagascar that news was received of the Fall of Port Arthur. Rozhestvenski dared not turn back and so the nearest haven was Vladivostok, a voyage in itself of many thousands of miles through waters unknown to the navigators, and between them and safety was the Japanese fleet under Togo. In March new units joined up with the fleet at Madagascar, including the battleship Nikokai I and the force set out across the Indian Ocean. In early April the Royal Navy shadowed the Russian fleet as it passed within sight of Singapore on the way to Kamranh Bay in Cochin China where Rozhestvenski intended to make his final landfall and complete his preparations before undertaking the last leg of this remarkable voyage to Vladivostok. At Kamranh Bay a reinforcement reached the Russian Admiral in the form of a second squadron of new fast battleships from the Baltic fleet, which had not even been completed when the original force first sailed. On the 14th May 1905 this enormous armada set sail for its rendezvous with destiny and the waiting Japanese. The Russians had already completed an incredible voyage, but the ships were now badly in need of a major refit, the crews were stale and tired and the strain of command was already beginning to exert a fatal influence over Admiral Rozhestvenski. The Japanese, on the other hand, had been able to follow the Russian movement from the telegraph of the press agencies, while the precise details were passed on by the friendly British. The Japanese ships had been refitted and replenished, their crews were well trained, rested and, above all, under the inspired leadership of their dynamic commander.

Rozhestvenski’s force made sedate passage northwards passing through the Bashi Channel between the Philippines and Formosa, his more modern and faster warships fatally inhibited by the pace of the older and slower brethren. Although lacking any precise information of the Japanese deployment, location or strength, Rozhestvenski was sanguine enough to appreciate that he must now fight his way through to Vladivostok. Accordingly he detached his auxiliaries from the main force at Shanghai where they were to await events. From Shanghai northwards there were a number of routes the Russians could take to reach Vladivostok, but Admiral Togo was convinced that the Russians must come through the Tsushima passage, for it represented the most direct course, and he deployed his force accordingly. Rozhestvenski was indeed heading for the passage and was timing his run to clear this stretch of water in daylight for he knew that he could not trust the competence of his ships’ navigators to make the passage at night.

On the 27th May 1905 thirty-seven Russian warships steamed through the Tsushima passage at their best speed of eleven knots; the battle force was deployed in two parallel lines, cruisers scouted ahead while the few essential auxiliaries brought up the rear escorted by the older vessels. The Japanese received word of the Russian movements from their scouting cruisers and Togo deployed his force from its anchorage at Masampo Bay in Korea in good time to contest the Russian passage. The Japanese were, on paper, heavily out-numbered but had the advantage of superior fire-power and speed; this allowed Togo to complete the classic maneuver of naval warfare by crossing the ‘T’ with his battleships while his armoured cruisers harried the Russian flanks.

Battle opened at a range of 9,500 yards in the early afternoon and the Japanese broadsides wrought havoc on the Russian battleships in the van of the line who could offer only poor response with their forward firing guns. Most of the many excellent accounts of this engagement are all based on the report of a British naval officer who with the sang-froid typical of his breed, observed events from a deck chair on the Japanese flagship’s quarterdeck! By the late afternoon the Japanese victory was assured. The Russian battleships were either sunk or disabled, their squadron commanders had lost all control, and indeed the wounded Admiral Rozhestvenski was captured as he tried to run for Vladivostok in a fast destroyer after his own flagship had been sunk. As night fell those Russian vessels that had somehow survived the holocaust of fire were harried and pursued by the lighter units of the Japanese navy while the disabled battleships were finished off by Togo’s cruisers. Only one small cruiser, the Almaz, reached Vladivostok with two attendant destroyers while three other cruisers sought sanctuary in Manila.

The maritime powers hastened to digest the lessons of Tsushima and almost all learned the wrong ones. For Russia, humiliation and defeat was even further endorsed as the Japanese revived the old custom of incorporating the spoils into their own fleet. Eastern power had displayed its ability to master Western technology, but few nations seemed to take cognizance of that fact.

Naval Recce



In 1919 the Royal Navy had an urgent need for a three-seat spotter/reconnaissance aircraft. In order to save money, it was decided to adapt the existing Airco DH.9A, for which part completed airframes were available in large numbers following the end of the First World War and the subsequent cancellation of production orders. The initial attempt was carried out by Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft, adding provision for an observer and removing the stagger from the wings to produce the Armstrong Whitworth Tadpole.

Further development, however, was passed on to Westland, who further modified the aircraft to produce the Walrus, with a 450 hp (336 kW) Napier Lion II engine replacing the Liberty engine of the DH.9A and Tadpole. Like the DH.9A, the Walrus was a single-engined, two-bay biplane. It was fitted with an extra cockpit for the observer/radio operator behind the gunner’s cockpit, while the observer also had a prone position for observing in a ventral pannier. The undercarriage was jettisonable and the aircraft was fitted with floatation bags and hydrovanes to aid safe ditching, together with arresting gear to aid landing on aircraft carriers. The wings were detachable to aid storage. The prototype first flew in early 1921, proving to have poor flying characteristics, being described by Westland’s Test pilot, Stuart Keep as “a vicious beast”. Despite this, a further 35 were ordered.

The earliest American and British experiments were conducted using landplanes equipped with flotation bags in case of an emergency water landing. By the time of the Hibernia trials the Royal Navy was using seaplanes, which predominated in shipboard use thereafter until well into World War I. René Caudron and the Farman brothers in France, Glenn Curtiss in the United States, and the Short brothers in Britain all developed practical seaplanes by 1912. They quickly were joined by other designers, especially after the French industrialist Jacques Schneider established the valuable Coupe d’Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider in December 1912 to encourage the development of seaplanes through international races to be held annually from 1913. Flying boats also developed rapidly, with very practical machines emerging from Curtiss, again, in the United States, Sopwith in Britain, the Franco-British Aviation Company in France, Lohner in Austria, and Oertz in Germany. Seaplanes, aircraft with float undercarriages, nevertheless predominated over flying boats, aircraft with boat-type fuselages, for shipboard operations.

Some further developments were very significant for the emergence of effective aircraft carriers. In 1913 the Short brothers patented their wing folding mechanism. This allowed them to reduce the stowed width of their seaplanes to as little as 12 feet and permitted rapid and trouble-free unfolding before flight, while maintaining structural strength for safe operation. This advance greatly increased the potential aircraft capacity of carriers, since the relative fragility of early machines required hangar stowage while at sea if they were to remain operational. In 1914, working very closely with Commander Charles R. Samson, in command of the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps (usually known as the Royal Naval Air Service), and Captain Murray Sueter, head of the Royal Navy’s Air Department, Short produced more powerful versions of its folder seaplanes that were equipped to carry and drop torpedoes or bombs. This enabled the Royal Naval Air Service to conduct experiments in using its aircraft offensively. The greater load-carrying capabilities of these seaplanes also permitted experiments with wireless telegraphy communications, long-distance navigation over water, and some early trials of night flying operations.

Early in WWI the Royal Navy in the Canal Zone created two carriers “in theater” from German merchantmen interned at Port Said. Modifications to the Anne and the Raven II consisted of adding a 12-pound low angle gun for self defense and erecting canvas screens to protect embarked aircraft. These vessels initially operated under the Red Ensign with mixed naval and civilian crews and their first aircraft were up to six French Nieuport floatplanes apiece, originally operated by the French seaplane carrier Foudre, flown by French pilots with British observers, an extraordinary arrangement that worked very well in practice. During the summer of 1915 they were at last commissioned as Royal Navy vessels with naval crews and served until the later half of 1917.

The French Navy too created a seaplane carrier locally at Port Said in 1915 from a requisitioned French cargo liner, the Campinas. This vessel was very similar to the two extemporized British vessels and operated as many as ten Nieuport floatplanes. In home waters the French Navy also created a pair of seaplane carriers from cross channel packets. The Pas-de-Calais and the Nord acquired two hangers to accommodate two or three F. B. A. flying boats and were lightly armed. Their main distinction was their propulsion system- they were very unusual among aircraft carriers in being side-wheel steamers.

Navies placed considerable emphasis on the reconnaissance and gunfire observation missions from the outset. The Royal Navy’s first such aircraft was the Parnall Panther, whose design originated late in World War I as a dedicated carrier machine. It featured a wooden monococque fuselage that folded for stowage. Powered by a 230- horsepower Bentley B. R. 2 rotary engine, it attained a top speed of 108 miles per hour and had a maximum range of 350 miles. British carriers then embarked a series of three-seater biplanes from the Fairey Aviation Company, derived from a successful medium-size floatplane design that saw limited service during World War I.

Unlike other fleets, the Royal Navy also briefly deployed highly specialized gunnery observation aircraft equipped with facilities intended to maximize their effectiveness in this limited role. The first was the Westland Walrus, a much-modified variant of the Airco D. H. 9A light bomber featuring an observation cupola below the fuselage to accommodate the gunfire spotter. Powered by a 450- horsepower Napier Lion engine, it reached a top speed of 124 miles per hour and had a range of 350 miles. Its successors were the Avro Bison and Blackburn Blackburn. Both aircraft featured large cabins with good observation facilities to accommodate gunnery spotters and their equipment. Their Napier Lion engines gave them top speeds of 105 and 122 miles per hour respectively, while their maximum ranges were 360 and 440 miles. By 1931 the Royal Navy determined that the performance penalties of their accommodations and the burden of incorporating such specialized aircraft within the limited size of carrier air groups made further development of this category unnecessary, and the mission devolved on the fleet’s regular reconnaissance aircraft.

The French Navy too introduced dual-purpose observation and reconnaissance aircraft in 1928, when the Levasseur PL. 4 entered service aboard the Béarn. This three-seater biplane, with an all- metal structure, was powered by a 450-horsepower Lorraine 12eb engine, giving it a top speed of 111 miles per hour and a range of 560 miles. Its successor, the Levasseur PL. 10, entered service in 1932. Its 600-horsepower Hispano-Suiza 12Lb engine gave it a maximum speed of 137 miles per hour but its range fell to 450 miles.

The Imperial Japanese Navy gave up deploying carrier-based reconnaissance aircraft when the Mitsubishi C1M left front-line service in 1931. This aircraft was introduced in 1922 as the Type 10 Carrier Reconnaissance Plane, one of a trio of designs by Herbert Smith who came to Mitsubishi from the defunct Sopwith Aviation Company and created the navy’s first machines specifically designed for carrier service. It had a 300-horsepower Mitsubishi Type Hi engine giving it a top speed of 127 miles per hour and a range of 350 miles. Thereafter, until well into World War II, Japanese carriers relied on dedicated reconnaissance support from aircraft deployed on accompanying heavy cruisers and, to a lesser extent, on missions flown by their own attack aircraft.

Dedicated carrier reconnaissance types fared considerably better in the United States Navy. The Chance Vought Corporation produced a series of two-seater biplanes, derived from the successful VE-7 advanced trainer, that formed the backbone of the fleet’s carrier observation aircraft from 1922 until 1934. These machines started as all-wooden airframes and switched to steel tube fuselages in 1927. The original engine was a 200-horsepower Wright J-3 radial that gave the OU-1 a top speed of 124 miles per hour and a range of 400 miles. The improved O2U, powered by a 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp radial engine, could reach 150 miles per hour and had a range of 600 miles, while the final SU-4, with a 600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Hornet radial engine, had a top speed of 167 miles per hour and a range of 680 miles. An early Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation product, the SF-1, briefly supplemented these Vought types until 1936. This biplane aircraft, with an all-metal structure and powered by a 700-horsepower Wright Cyclone, featured a retractable undercarriage and could reach 207 miles per hour with a range of 920 miles. The real replacement for the Vought observation aircraft, however, was a series of scout-bombers, introduced in late 1935, that combined the scouting role with the dive bombing mission.

The most important proving grounds for testing tactics were the regular unit, squadron, and fleet-level exercises that all the carrier-operating navies conducted. Such exercises allowed naval aviators to explore new ideas and validated their concepts to squadron and fleet commanders so that the tactical possibilities offered by improved aircraft and weaponry could be incorporated into operational doctrine. In these venues carrier aircraft units demonstrated the efficacy of coordinated torpedo attack, dive bombing against fast-moving warships, tactical search missions, strike operations against shore targets, and distant reconnaissance. They also enabled fleet and squadron commanders to evolve effective combinations of carriers and escorting surface warships, and to develop concepts to integrate fast-moving carrier forces with battle fleet operations. These exercises also revealed the limitations of aviation: the vulnerability of carriers to tactical surprise brought on by deficiencies in search, the impact of weather, and, above all, the magnitude of the task of maintaining an effective defense against an enemy air attack. Navies discovered that it was very difficult to provide adequate fighter cover, since the warning time of an incoming attack was more often than not too short to allow quick launch of defending fighters while it was impossible to maintain a large enough standing covering force without crowding out attack aircraft from the carrier’s air group. This problem would not be solved until the advent of radar and accounts for the emphasis navies placed on striking fast and first with the most aircraft possible, the attendant diminution of fighter strength in favor of attack aircraft, and even the adoption of armored carriers by the Royal Navy.

To address the shortfall in carrier tonnage imposed by the Washington and London treaties, Japanese naval planners added to the fleet a number of modern auxiliaries whose design incorporated specific features allowing their relatively straightforward conversion into full-fledged aircraft carriers if required. A total of seven such vessels were ordered, three submarine depot ships (the Taigei, the Tsurugisaki, and the Takasagi) and four seaplane carriers (the Chitose, the Chiyoda, the Mizuho, and the Nisshin). All but two of the seaplane carriers (which were sunk while operating in their original role) were converted into carriers either before Japan’s entry into World War II or during the conflict.



JS Izumo (DDH-183) just after her launch.


PEARL HARBOR (Nov. 3, 2008) The Japan Maritime Self Defense Force guided-missile destroyer JS Ashigara, DDG-178, makes her way pierside at Naval Station Pearl Harbor.



The current Japanese defense strategy is addressed in the 2005 National Defense Program Guidelines, which affirm that the country’s security depends on its defense forces and its alliance with the United States. Of Japan’s armed services, the maritime self-defense force is the most important, because it is responsible for safeguarding the sea lines of communication upon which the nation depends for its economic well-being.

Any question about this priority was settled by the 1973 oil crisis, an event that conclusively demonstrated Japan’s dependence on the SLOCs. Their defense was confirmed as a strategic priority beyond naval circles.

The mid-1970s Soviet emphasis on strengthening its Pacific Fleet emphasized this priority on a national level.

Tokyo reassessed its maritime priorities following the end of the Cold War. Both the 1995 NDPO and the 2004 Defense Program Guidelines (DPG) sought to delineate capabilities to confront a potential military problem in Northeast Asia. Of particular concern were, and remain, China’s naval modernization, exacerbated by forward-leaning activities in the East China Sea, and North Korea’s nuclear threats.

By the beginning of 2009, the JMSDF had reassessed its growth of the preceding two decades, as part of the drafting of a maritime strategy for the new century. Japanese maritime strategy had been understood and prominent during the Cold War. It is striking that it was only a short two decades after the Cold War’s end that the situation in Northeast Asia developed to the point where Tokyo recognized a need for a new, formal maritime strategy.

The essence of the new maritime strategy is twofold. The first aspect is defense of regional SLOCs, perhaps best defined by a triangle, the points of which are Tokyo, Guam, and Taiwan. This area is not dissimilar to that for which the JMSDF took ASW responsibility during the Cold War. It is not an easily managed responsibility, because it requires proficiency across the spectrum of both coast-guard and naval missions, from surveillance to defense against ballistic missiles.

Second, the JMSDF is tasked with fulfilling responsibilities under the mutual defense treaty with the United States. This relationship continues to provide the basis for Japan’s maritime defense efforts. In addition to expressing support for the U.S. policy reorientation, or “rebalancing,” toward East Asia announced by Washington in 2011, Tokyo’s policy is characterized by “enhancement of its defense posture in areas including the Southwestern Islands.” Japan has expressed concern about the “increasingly uncertain security environment in the Asia-Pacific region,” advocating strengthening “engagement with countries in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Tokyo’s primary national security focus was directed against possible Soviet aggression during the Cold War but now is focused on North Korea and China, the most likely maritime threats to Japanese interests. Cooperation with friendly third nations is being pursued; Tokyo invited Australia and the United States to the Sixth Pacific Island Leaders Meeting in Naga, on Okinawa, in May 2012.20 Such increased international cooperation is envisioned further in the possible defense of common interests with the Republic of South Korea (ROK) and India. Officially unspoken is the possibility of support for operations in support of Taiwan.

The 2011 DPG thus has long been under development and has led to increased, more open Japanese interest in security arrangements with other Asian nations, from South Korea to India. Interacting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been an objective of Tokyo since the 1977 Fukuda Initiative, whereby the then–prime minister announced a policy of increasing ties with Southeast Asia. By 2008 Japan was ASEAN’s second-largest trading partner.

Closer relations with India in the maritime security sphere were signaled in 2009, when an Indian navy task group conducted an exercise with the JMSDF in Japanese waters. In late 2011 the Japanese and Indian defense ministers agreed on further cooperation between their two navies.

Japan is pursuing similar, closer security relationships with both Vietnam and Australia. Tokyo and Hanoi signed a Memorandum on Defense Cooperation Enhancement in 2011. This agreement is aimed specifically at keeping “in check China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and East China Sea.”

Prime Ministers John Howard of Australia and Shinzo Abe signed a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in March 2007; this was reinforced in 2010, when the two governments signed an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, which pledged closer military cooperation and provided for the “reciprocal provision of supplies and services between the Self-Defense Forces of Japan (JSDF) and the Australian Defense Force (ADF).” These agreements with Hanoi and Canberra demonstrate Tokyo’s increasingly active foreign policy. This development reflects Japan’s attempts to overcome further the still-present memories of World War II, concern about Chinese and North Korean activities, and perhaps a perceived weakening of U.S. military capability in East Asia.

These foreign-policy initiatives and the new defense guidelines will become effective only if the JMSDF is funded for the modernization and expansion required if the nation is to maintain its status as a major Asian maritime power. This funding is at issue, particularly for two reasons.

First, the 2011 Fukushima disaster is leading Japan rapidly away from reliance on nuclear power, a change that will increase the nation’s reliance on the seaborne import of fossil fuels from the Middle East. Second, Japan faces growing naval prowess on the part of South Korea and China, two countries with which it has sovereignty and maritime-resource disputes. A corollary to this second reason may be the shrinking U.S. fleet, with attendant major defense-budget reductions looming in Washington, a popular focus on economic problems, and the strong links between the U.S. and Chinese economies. This situation has the potential to turn American public support away from a Cold War–era defense treaty seen as no longer necessary.

Tokyo has set out in the DPG three security objectives: (1) to prevent external threats from harming Japan; (2) to contribute to improving international security so as to prevent threats from emerging; and (3) to contribute to global peace and stability and to human security.

The guidelines lay out steps to reach these objectives, including cooperation with the United States and with the international community. Defense will continue to form “the basic principles of defense policy,” as will the “three non-nuclear principles.” These were stated by Prime Minister Sato in 1967 and formally endorsed by the Diet in 1971; they are that Japan will neither possess nor manufacture nuclear weapons and will not permit their presence in Japanese territory. The objective of more participation in international peace cooperation activities is stated, as is an active role in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation efforts.

The “security environment surrounding Japan” is described as comprising a “number of so-called ‘gray zone’ disputes,” which are characterized as “confrontations over territory, sovereignty and economic interests” that do not pose a danger of escalation into wars but that are “on the increase.” The security environment is further marked by a “global shift in the balance of power,” as a result of “the rise of emerging powers and the relative change” of U.S. influence.

Although invasion of Japan’s home islands is not considered a viable threat, the guidelines identify issues of concern. These are “sustained access to cyberspace,” terrorism, piracy, North Korean nuclear and missile threats, China’s military modernization and lack of transparency, and increased Russian military activities.

The guidelines’ section on issues of concern is followed by a discussion of four “basic policies to ensure Japan’s security.” First are the nation’s own efforts, including improved capability “to collect and analyze information, while strengthening the information security system.” Second is the effort to enhance rapidity in decision making, to ensure a “coordinated and integrated response to contingencies.”

Establishment of an organization similar to the U.S. National Security Council is a third issue; the fourth is participation in international peacekeeping activities “in a more efficient and effective manner,” with “consideration of the actual situations of UN peace-keeping operations.” This caveat indicates the ongoing domestic political discussion about the depth of Japan’s participation in international security affairs. Most interesting of all is the shift in basic defense philosophy expressed in the resolution that Japan will build a “dynamic defense force,” superseding the current “basic defense force concept.” The decision means deploying military capability for purposes beyond the needs of deterrence, enabling the country to play “a more active role” in international security activities.

“Cooperation with its ally” is then emphasized, because the alliance with the United States is “indispensable in ensuring Japan’s peace and security.” Cooperation will include continuing strategic dialogue and collaboration, with a new emphasis on cyberspace security. Increased regional cooperation is noted, with specific mention of South Korea, Australia, India, and the ASEAN nations, as part of creating “a security network” in the Asia-Pacific region.

China, the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and other European countries—even Russia—are mentioned as possible partners in addressing “global security issues.” This broadening of intended international cooperation seems to reflect two decisions: first that a more proactive posture is required to ensure Japan’s security, and second that U.S. military capabilities, especially in the maritime realm, are in decline. The first point reflects loosening of constitutional and psychological limits imposed in the post–World War II period.

Domestic political concerns are again addressed, in the point that “Japan will reduce the burden on local communities where U.S. military bases are located.” This step is couched in terms of maintaining the U.S. contribution to deterrence, the subject of the fourth major point. This is deterrence to ensure “security in the sea and air space surrounding Japan,” to include “responding to attacks on Japan’s offshore islands,” while trying to increase a stable security environment in the Asia-Pacific and globally.

The guidelines discuss the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF), but not in detail. They note the importance of enhancing capability but acknowledge a “drastic review” of the defense budget. This has meant a continued stagnation of that budget, just as the nation is trying to improve military efficiency through increased joint capability and focusing on defense of offshore islands. A list of steps to increase efficiency—to “maximize defense capability”—is provided, but even if such general measures are taken, the thrust of Tokyo’s determination to reduce military expenditures cannot be overcome by more verbiage.

In sum, Japan’s 2010 DPG and 2011 DPG reflect a perception that the nuclear threat that was the focus of the Cold War has ended, replaced by conventional security threats. China is the center of this concern, with North Korea its acolyte. The latter’s ballistic-missile tests in 1998, 2006, 2009, 2012, and 2013 have reinforced this perception of Pyongyang. The guidelines’ emphasis on building a dynamic instead of a defensive force indicate an intention to enhance the JSDF’s proactive capability, especially with respect to the Senkakus and Takeshima; this capability is also reflected in the aim to exercise a greater international role, a notable change from the 2004 DPG’s focus on deterring external threats from reaching Japan.

Tokyo’s concerns about China as a military threat to Japanese security interests are clear. They are most evident in the goal of increasing the ability to defend the Senkakus, but they are also notable in the complaint about Beijing’s lack of transparency regarding the composition and missions of its military. Tokyo’s concerns are based on experience, such as the fact that in fiscal year 2010, 80 percent of the emergent flights by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) were in reaction to Russian or Chinese incursions into the nation’s airspace.

Concerns with China’s growing military strength and naval operations have increased in recent years. In mid-2011 the Japanese government expressed its unease with “China’s growing assertiveness and widening naval reach in nearby waters.” This sentiment was repeated in Japan’s 2011 defense guidelines and has been followed by direct actions.

Japan is renaming many of the privately owned and other, previously unnamed, land features in the East China Sea, sovereignty over much of which is disputed by Beijing. Also, additional monitoring facilities are reportedly planned. This move is intended to strengthen Tokyo’s sovereignty claims over not just the Senkakus but also the Shirakaba/Chunxiao gas fields in the area.

North Korea’s threatened development of nuclear weapons and missiles capable of reaching Japan certainly concerns Tokyo, but China’s increased military capability and pugnacious attitude is viewed as even more threatening. A third, if less intense, threat is perceived from Russia, with the considerable reduction of Moscow’s military forces in Asia offset by its refusal to discuss returning to Japan control of the southern Kurile Islands it occupied at the end of World War II.

These various threats are not simply perceptions. North Korea in the past few years has engaged in hostile activities, including sinking the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March 2010 and shelling the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong six months later. Numerous incidents involving North Korean and Chinese fishing boats have also occurred, during which neither Pyongyang nor Beijing has evinced interest in compromise.