Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Slipping away

In terms of strategic alliances, it is a given that one of our most steadfast allies is Australia, tied by bonds of blood and Empire, having fought alongside us in two World Wars.

However, as the UK turns more and more to the inwards-looking EU, with its "European defence identity", and its European Rapid Reaction Force – a European Army in all but name – things out in the big wide world are changing. And one of those changes is the forging of a strategic alliance between the United States and Australia, leaving to UK out in the cold.

We saw some of this during the Tsunami disaster earlier this year, when Australia and the US were two of the main players in the immediate relief effort, with the UK nowhere to be seen.

Now, in a move that is being seen as the latest chapter in the deepening strategic partnership between the Royal Australian Navy and its US counterpart, the Australian government has ordered an upgraded version of the US Navy's Arleigh Burke-class anti-aircraft destroyer to become the Australian Navy's new front-line warship for the 21st Century.

For a navy that traditionally bought British warships – and flew the White Ensign – this is a significant development which marks increasingly cleavage between the UK and Australia.

The British taxpayer might also wish we had followed the Australian example. With the new ships to be built in Australian yards, safeguarding jobs and bringing high-tech industry to the country – the British government is also embarked on a programme of building new anti-aircraft destroyers – the Type 45 class.

However, while the Australians are procuring three warships at a price of £600 million each, we are paying (including development costs) the eye-watering sum of £5,475 million for six ships, effectively £1 billion each.

Furthermore, our ships are smaller, with slower top and cruise speeds, carry significantly fewer missiles (48 as against 90) and are relying on an untested European-built PAAMS missile as against a proven US design.

All of that is the price of distancing ourselves from the US, and going it alone – after the ruinously expensive failure of the tri-nation Horizon project – between the UK, France and Italy. But the bigger price, perhaps, is that while we spend substantially more for less on our defence equipment, old allies are slipping away.

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