Thursday 2 February 2006

A retreat from defence

So it came to pass that yesterday, 18 months behind schedule and hugely over cost, that the first of the Type 45 Destroyers HMS Daring was launched on the Clyde, to fanfares and applause, in front of an audience of 11,000.

But, if the most expensive white elephant in the history of the Royal Navy has just been launched, you would have got no hint of that from the media, and especially from The Times, which headlined, "Navy launches deadliest and most expensive warship". And, according to The Times, it was "on time and within budget".

Even within the framework of its own story, The Times could not manage to be consistent, declaring in the first line that HMS Daring was "the first of the Royal Navy's £6 billion fleet of six Type 45 Destroyers", then stating further down that it had "a price tag of £605 million".

It then went on to state that the Type 45s "will be the most powerful, advanced and deadly warships in the world when they come into service in 2009", something which is simply and demonstrably not true.

For sure, it will have a highly advanced anti-aircraft system, based on the costly French-built PAAMS missile and British designed Samson radar, but very little else. It will have only a very limited land attack capability, mounting a 4.5 inch gun, and – apart from its single helicopter - an anti-submarine capability that amounts to no more than a self-defence system, and no anti-shipping capability.

Compare and contrast with the US equivalent, the DG Arleigh Burke class, which, in addition to its perhaps not quite as effective anti-aircraft capability (with nearly double the number of missiles) has a significant land attack capability - being able to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles - an anti-shipping capability and world-beating anti-submarine warfare equipment.

And not only is it truly a formidable, multi-purpose warship, it comes in, as the Australians found, at £400 million less than the £1 billion price tag for the Type 45.

But if The Times report was useless, it was matched in fatuity by the BBC, although it did manage to confine its hyperbole to describing HMS Daring as the UK's most powerful destroyer – which, when it comes into service, will be true, as it will be the only type of destroyer we have. The BBC too bought the "price tag of £605 million" line, but later giving the total programme cost for the six ships as £5.5bn.

The Sun, totally out of its depth, reported the cost as £6 billion – but for eight ships, not six, describing HMS Darling as "the deadliest ship ever built".

Even the dour Scotsman described it as "one of the world's most advanced warships" and then went on to call it a "multi-role ship", which it clearly is not in any realistic sense of the world.

As for The Telegraph, it called the ship, "the most powerful frontline warship since the Second World War", but at least limiting the description to "the world's most advanced air defence ship," then – for heaven's sake – calling it a boat, claiming that, according to BAE Systems, its builders, its "hugely powerful radar and missile system, has left American visitors to the yard 'shaken and shocked'". I think not.

It took Jane's to point out that this class of ship should have been in service in 2000, delayed by the abortive French-Italian co-operative venture, which cost us a small fortune when we had to refit the obsolescent Type 42s which should have been replaced.

The average MSM reader, however, will walk away thinking that Britain has been well served, not realising that, in a Navy that is shrinking faster than a bank balance in the hands of a shopaholic, we cannot afford the luxury of overpriced, effectively single-purpose ships. We could have had far more capable, multi-purpose ships, for a saving on six vessels of £2.4 billion – the price tag for a new carrier.

If we had a grown up media, these issues would have been raised but instead, in its infantile, pathetic way, all it has been able to do is affirm that its has retreated from reporting intelligently on defence issues.