4 years campaigning for a stronger Royal Navy, the story so far & the way ahead…

Jun 1, 2011   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  Be the first to comment
Originally published on the Phoenix Think Tank website May 2011


My ‘day job’ is a web designer and as I looked around online there seemed to be few independent voices on the web talking about the state of the RN other than a few forums mainly inhabited by experts and defence professionals. It seemed that there was an obvious need for an independent voice highlighting the situation in layman’s terms and trying to engage the wider public. Launched in 2007, Save the Royal Navy is a website (not an organisation) campaigning to reverse the decline in the RN aiming to educate about Britain’s need for a strong navy. Written in an accessible style, the site aims to engage the general public not just the naval expert. There are 2 main themes: 1. to highlight the good work, achievements and importance of what is being done by the RN today, despite its dilapidated condition while countering the government spin that claims everything is ‘just fine’ despite the massive cuts. 2. To push for the RN to be properly funded and for the cuts to be reversed (and this will only happen if there is significant public and media pressure on our complacent politicians).

Initially it was hoped the site would attract regular contributors and grow as a community as it was never intended it to just be a personal or vanity project, rather a ‘hub’ for naval campaigners. It didn’t quite happen that way (more on the ‘community’ later). There have been a few other contributors but the site is essentially run on a shoestring in very limited spare time. Visitor numbers to the site have always been relatively small (unfortunately this is very much an obscure subject for most people) but continue to grow steadily and number several thousand per month. However the site has gained a certain authority and there’s regular contact from journalists researching the RN. The site also receives many positive emails, interesting and sometimes bizarre suggestions and occasional donations. However it is the Twitter feed (www.twitter.com/NavyLookout) that has really taken off in the last 18 months and this is where most effort is now devoted. Tweeting a mix of general RN news and comment with (currently around 1500 followers and rising daily), most of the tweets get re-tweeted so the number of people being kept informed on a daily basis and taking an interest in the RN is growing exponentially.

What future for the RN?

HMS Cornwall Alongside RFA Diligence

HMS Cornwall Alongside RFA Diligence in the Gulf. Image by Defence Images via Flickr

It’s hard to be really optimistic about the RN’s future as successive governments have always reduced the RN’s size and we are heading for a tiny fleet of very expensive vessels so there really is nothing left to cut or ‘trim’ without massive loss of capability which would reduce the RN to a coastal force or a minor US/European ally. Whether 1 or both the aircraft carriers will actually make it into service with a fully functional fixed-wing air group remains to be seen, (there is still plenty of time for politicians to screw it up further). The Type 26 programme is also pretty critical to the shape of the future fleet and it will be interesting to see if the trend of ever-more expensive and complex vessels can be broken so the cost can be kept down and a decent number of ships get built. However by going for top quality warships such as the large carriers, Astutes and Type 45s, the RN should soon have some of the best naval assets in the world, if very few in number (when the many ‘teething problems’ are finally resolved). What we can be sure of it that we should “expect the unexpected” In the next 10 years governments will find they want to place more demands on the RN than it can possibly meet. (In fact the current government, after the recent ill-advised naval cuts, has already found it now has limited options to intervene in Libya.) Sadly it will probably require a significant armed conflict or even military defeat before our forces are funded properly. Ironically defence is the easiest target for cuts from a political perspective as the public simply doesn’t know or care enough about what is going on to make much of an outcry. The more preferable alternative would be to raise public and media awareness of the situation that would create political pressure to make politicians fund the RN properly.

The naval campaigning scene

The community of campaigners trying to promote the RN are currently small, rather splintered and have achieved very little. The task of changing public and government attitudes to the RN is a huge task. To have any hope of being an effective lobby will require people to work together with concerted and focused action. The fiercely tri-service approach of UKNDA (who’s campaigning efforts I mainly applaud) has achieved some recognition in media and political circles and is having a small impact although internal struggles and funding problems seem to have limited its progress. The ‘services united’ approach to campaigning is superficially appealing and avoids sometimes painful and destructive inter-service rivalry, but it takes the position that the defence ‘pie’ should just be bigger but remain divided into roughly the same sized 3 slices. It does not look at the overall needs of UK defence. Something is clearly wrong when despite the UK being an island nation who’s defence has historically rested with the RN, global sea trade being more important than ever and most of the world’s population living in coastal areas, the RN receives the smallest slice of the shrinking defence budget!

The RN is also rather backward in coming forward when it comes to PR and rather ineffective when fighting for proper funding. While the culture of modesty, sang-froid, understatement and a ‘can do’ attitude are great assets in naval combat and operations, this way of doing things can be a hindrance when dealing with government and media. The RAF has a powerful and organised PR machine and maintains a high visibility to the public with the Red Arrows looping the loop all over the UK, together with the enduring ‘Battle of Britain myth’ that suggests the RAF won the war single-handed. Understandably the Army currently has a good deal of media’s attention and the nation’s support with its operations in Afghanistan. Meanwhile the RN is largely out of sight and out of mind with much of it’s best work done over the horizon. The RN could improve its own PR but of course is powerless to resist the cuts to its budget as it obviously can’t make open criticisms of is political masters. Only independent bodies can put the case for the RN is clear terms and be outspoken, honest and take on the political fight.

Blueprint for a single voice?

I would broadly support the proposal for the creation “Naval institute” or some kind of umbrella organisation of some kind to co-ordinate the efforts of all those concerned about the state of the RN. I would suggest its main aim would be to campaign for a stronger RN but it could also have other arms that could cover academic study and possibly co-ordinate the various naval welfare and charity groups. The institute would need some funding but at least initially could be run quite inexpensively as a collection of individuals who communicate primarily online and could avoid costly premises, full time employees etc.

To be truly effective the campaigning work needs to be:

1. Blunt, accurate and timely.
When needed use honest and clear language to raise the alarm about government cuts and under-funding counter mis-information from other services to highlight the damage being done to the RN.

2. Engaging everyone.
Communication needs to be in layman’s terms, avoiding excessive use of acronyms and jargon and giving clear explanation in understandable terms. Ideally the style would be witty and straightforward, avoiding over-wordy ‘broadsides’. Unfortunately the UKNDA was sometimes perceived as a ‘club for Ruperts‘ – ie something just for senior officers and any new campaign must not fall into that trap. Stiff letters to the Daily Telegraph and lengthy ‘papers’ by retired Admirals are not the only way forward. Media friendly and more ‘tabloid’ and less ‘broadsheet’ is what is needed so anyone can engage and immediately understand the debate.

3. Exploiting social media
With the rise in social media and web communication, clever exploitation of the web can be both inexpensive and very effective and should be the main focus of campaign efforts initially. Powerful visuals, info-graphics and video could all be used to get the message across in a simple and understandable way. The aim would be to make the Institute’s web site and its social media feeds THE independent authority on RN issues for public and media and provide timely comment and analysis of current events.

So can the naval community work together to bring our politicians to account? I would happily let savetheroyalnavy.org be taken over or absorbed into a new umbrella organisation’ and co-operate with anyone who can get the message out there and be more effective.  I would challenge all interested parties to get in touch, get involved, put aside private agendas and see what we can do together in the defence of the Royal Navy.

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