25 Sep 20
Posted by: Dr James Bosbotinis

Aiming to provide a history and analysis of the connections between, and the evolving strategies, technologies and geopolitical environment guiding the US Navy and Royal Navy between 1960 up to the present, the title, A Tale of Two Navies, pointed to a promising read ahead. All the more so as the author is ostensibly well-placed to provide such an analysis. Anthony Wells holds the distinction of having served in both the Royal Navy and US Navy, and for the intelligence services of the UK and US, due to his dual nationality.

The span of the book is undeniably ambitious, ranging from discussions on strategy, technology development, organisational structures and changes, and the evolving geopolitical environment from the Cold War through to the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of China and Russia’s resurgence. This challenging span is accomplished across twelve chapters, following a broadly chronological approach: with one complete chapter being dedicated to the Falklands War.

Throughout, Wells has decided against footnotes or endnotes.  Rather he relies on a section entitled ‘Source Notes’ and a bibliography, which helps the reading flow but, perhaps, avoids more exacting scrutiny by the reader.   That said, aspects of the text are fascinating, in particular, Wells’ account of Fleet Battle Experiment Echo held in March 1999 under the auspices of the US Navy’s Third Fleet in and around the San Francisco Bay area.

Unfortunately, doubt is sown in the reader’s mind regarding such vignettes, by a number of factual errors; for instance the author refers to the Special Boat Service as the Special Boat Section; confuses the Russian Alfa-class SSN with the Akula-class; and refers to the head of the Argentine Navy during the Falklands War, Admiral Jorge Anaya, as Admiral Anyana. The current Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is also mistakenly referred to as the president.

Such errors are compounded by, in places, debatable analysis. For example, in the chapter on the Falklands War, Wells suggests the Argentine carrier 25 de Mayo remained in port, and states with regard to US concern over the potential loss of one of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers, that “These plans, which are still not in the public domain…”, although John Lehman, US Secretary of the Navy in the early 1980s, wrote in the RUSI Journal in December 2012 that “…I was authorised to prepare a US helicopter carrier (USS Iwo Jima) for use by the Royal Navy should Invincible or Hermes be lost”.

Later in the book, the assertion that the destruction of Iraq’s integrated air defence system in Operation DESERT STORM was achieved solely by US Navy ship and submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, one suspects is also open for debate.  Regrettably Wells’ case is weakened again by obvious inaccuracies, where he erroneously refers to the air campaign as DESERT SHIELD and the ground offensive as DESERT STORM. This use of questionable fact continues to corrode the credibility of the discussion made throughout the book – again, for example, the author states the UK established a Joint Rapid Reaction Force in 2002, whereas it in fact declared an initial capability in 1999 and was fully operational in 2001.

In sum, a title with much promise was diminished by incorrect or debatable fact that impacted on subsequent analysis in the book. This is ‘half penny of tar’ moment where this particular ship was spoiled for the want of better editing.  Regrettably, therefore, this book cannot be recommended to readers of The Naval Review.