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Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Should the UK government continue with 2 aircraft carriers, being started in Scotland, costed at £5 billion, when government spending & in particular the military budget is being significantly cut? This is a major question in Scotland - or rather it isn't since all the Holyrood parties & the Scottish media are untied in saying they should. At £5 billion to keep 4,000 jobs going for a few years it may seem a very expensive jobs creation programme but shipbuilding has an iconic status in the socialist movement & probably still a status out of proportion to its size among ordinary Scots.

On the other hand the prime purpose of government defence spending is supposed to be effective national defence not job creation. Such defence is the prime duty of government. Are such carriers cost effective?

I have previously argued that they aren't. That the ability of a Chinese submarine to surface in the middle of a US carrier fleet indicates that they can nowadays be sunk almost at will & that the fact that mobile lasers can shoot down shells & therefore aircraft also renders them obsolete before they are completed.

2 other vulnerabilities;
China is developing an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) based on a variant of the CSS-5 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) as a component of its anti-access strategy. The missile has a range in excess of 1,500 km and, when incorporated into a sophisticated command and control system, is a key component of China’s anti-access strategy to provide the PLA the capability to attack ships at sea, including aircraft carriers, from great distances.
the Thor system
The system described in the 2003 United States Air Force (USAF) report was that of 20-foot-long, 1-foot-diameter tungsten rods, that are satellite controlled, and have global strike capability, with impact speeds of Mach 10, and strike 25-foot accuracy...

The weapon would be very hard to defend against. It has a very high closing velocity and a small radar cross-section. Launch is difficult to detect. Any infra-red launch signature occurs in orbit, at no fixed position.
Personally if I had responsibility for UK military capacity & "You could have 40 "Rods from God" orbiting for the cost of" $0.5 bn) ((£300 million) I would be doing that instead & making sure that new naval combat vessels were submarines.

Of course politics being what it is sometimes money gets spent on marginal constituencies whatever the official story. On the other hand Glasgow Govan, or even Scotland, isn't exactly a Tory marginal so it is difficult to see them getting thanks for this - indeed it might just encourage people to vote Labour come the next election when these contracts will be winding down.

However there is a quid pro quo the government could do which makes infinitely more sense in economic & if successful, electoral terms.

I have previously discussed Ocean Thermal Energy Convertors (OTECs) & the floating island concept. The cost of 1 x 100MW OTEC has been given at $1.573 bn. This is a relatively high tech oceanic construct to which Scottish shipbuilders would be well suited. An OTEC, with accompanying floating equatorial deep sea community (where bad weather is unknown) would be able to produce power using the heat differential between surface & deep water. As a side effect it brings up enormous quantities of nutrient rich waters allowing the growth of plankton, fish, e in the near future oil producing algae. Since plankton growth absorbs CO2, some of which is bound to sink, it provides the only CO2 negative method of power generation. Because OTECs have to be very large to be efficient this is the sort of breakthrough that requires the sort of money government has for an initial investment but would be self sustaining after the seedcorn has been planted. The total number of such settlements feasible are in the 10s of thousands since there is a lot of ocean out there. It would certainly be in Britain's & indeed Scotland's interests to have a commanding lead in this.

If the technological assessment as described here is correct there seems no downside either financially or, in anything but the very short term, electorally to putting a small part of the resources for these carriers into something more constructive. This much smaller investment would be likely to produce at least as many short term jobs & infinitely more long term ones. It has been suggested that cancelling the contracts will be expensive (though it can also be suggested that the official price may rise, as indeed it already has & thus the comparison invalid). I have seen no serious dispute of the overall concept though it has been subject to rigorous investigation which suggests manufacturing the parts of the floating island would be best done from conventional materials ashore,

If it is done the lead it will give Scotland in this technology will be an enormous economic advantage & it is difficult to see any patriotic Scot being opposed to that.

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Couple of points, I'm not sure the UK defence planners envisage using the carriers to take on sophisticated foes, more likely to project air support against less technical enemies.

Sadly obselete-ness does not mean naval ships don't get built, I believe the stupid French completed the battleship Jean Bart in 1955, whereas the era of these vessels substantially passed in 1941.

I think a whole naval re-think is called for quite along the lines of the one which produced Dreadnought.

Defence spending soaks up lots of cash for comparatively few jobs. For better national defence, just arm the citizenry like the Swiss and damn all comers. It kept the Nazis at bay.
UK defence planners may indeed be relying on our military never having to face a non-obsolete enemy. I think this is rash.

Wars are won more by the technologically most advanced rather than by the big battalions (Alexander gthe Great & Stormin' Norman proved that). Our military should be doing new technology. If not then the military is only for changing the guards & other shows & we could use the money more usefully to build our future.
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