A maritime-centered defence strategy for Britain makes sense

Mar 20, 2013   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  11 Comments

With the fight against the Taliban drawing to a close in Afghanistan for better or worse, those planning the future of UK defence will be at something of a crossroads prior to the 2015 Strategic Defence Review. (Assuming there is actually some real strategic thinking in government!) As usual it looks likely there will be less money for defence in 2015, given the chronic weakness of the UK economy. The debates are already beginning and although there are a few back-bench MPs finally speaking out against further defence cuts, the majority will probably support the soft option of defence cuts in preference to cuts to ballooning welfare and NHS budgets. In a climate of further austerity it is imperative that the little money available is spent the right way. Here we argue that a maritime-centered strategy will best prepare us for the coming challenges. For most of the 20th Century Britain was committed to a more ‘continental’ strategy but the end of the Cold War and long-term European peace has removed the need for this. The concept is not something new, rather a recognition of the lessons from history that a strong navy that has served us well over hundreds of years and is the way forward in the 21st century.


Although it is hard to predict the future, what is certain is that rapidly growing industrialised global populations will be competing harder and harder for food, materials and energy. This is why the 21st Century has often been called the ‘Maritime Century’ as the sea itself will not only continue be the world’s ever-busier main trade route, but will increasingly be harvested, mined and drilled for its riches. Hopefully peaceful and sustainable means can be established for the fair sharing of resources but conflict does grow more likely. The pressures of population growth and climate change add more temptation for nations to ignore international law and treaties and take whatever they can from the oceans. Therefore the ability to enforce the law, and if necessary, protect our resources, will require naval forces, far stronger than we have now. With a large, internationally agreed Exclusive Economic Zone of nearly 300,000 Sq Km around the UK, our home waters alone represent a considerable challenge to protect. Those nations best equipped to exploit and defend their seas will be best placed to meet 21st century challenges. Many nations, particularly in Asia are waking up to this and acting accordingly. It is ironic that Britain, once the leading maritime nation, is so now so muddled about this issue.

Because 95% of our physically traded goods and much of our food and energy is dependent on ships arriving and departing from the UK and then safely navigating the worlds oceans, we simply must have more contingency options to protect these ships rather than hoping for the best. Two world wars showed that the UK could be brought almost to the point of starvation by submarines attacking this shipping. Today the merchant ships are far bigger and vulnerable and carry cargoes worth hundreds of millions of pounds - the loss of even one could have serious economic impact.

The first role of our armed forces should be to deter & prevent conflict in the first place and navies are particularly well suited to this. In a general sense the “fleet in being” is a deterrent to other nations but also in a specific region warships can be deployed for extended periods loitering off a coast with an implied threat but without firing a shot. Warships can also become mercy ships almost overnight and can deliver aid, medical support supplies and manpower assistance quickly when needed. Navies offer politicians a persistent and flexible tool for measured response that can be easily ramped up or backed down without the commitment of troops on the ground or the very temporary presence that aircraft deliver. Mobility is the key element of a maritime strategy. It is far easier and cheaper to transport large amounts of weaponry, men and materials over long distances by sea than over land or by air.

Naval strategy theorist J. S. Corbett said that a decisive sea battle is not always a requisite for victory, rather gaining sea control for a period of time. Naval power is about control of the sea (and the air over the sea) which then allows:

  • the free passage of vessels carrying goods
  • the ability to mount an amphibious landing or attack adjacent lands
  • protection of vessels & installations gathering resources from the sea or sea bed. (Increasingly important).

What happens on the land, not the sea is ultimately decisive but what happens at sea will heavily influence the outcome. Without men on the ground no victory is possible but without control of the sea it will usually be very hard to get meaningful numbers of properly supplied and equipped men there in the first place. The ‘unseen’ economic and financial impact of what happens at sea should also be considered as a part of naval strategy. It should also be noted that sea control was a pre-requisite for almost every major successful operation conducted by Britain in World War II.

Maritime warfare is always a joint in nature but the environment adds another layer of complexity when operating aircraft or landing men. The Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Marines do not exist to be the Navy’s private airforce and private army, rather they exist because they have the expertise specific to the maritime environment and both deserve much greater investment.

Who are the threats?

When arguing the case for defence spending one must answer the questions “who are the enemies we could be fighting? and why must we be involved in further conflict anyway”. Public opinion in the UK is hardening against the use of our forces in the wake of the disasters in Iraq and bloody stalemate in Afghanistan. It is hard to see much political will for significant interventions in the near future. Although some would like the UK and others to intervene in Syria to prevent a slaughter of civilians the truth is we don’t have the military strength, the stomach for more casualties nor can we afford the financial cost. UK forces have been in action almost every year since WII and an extend rest, recuperation and restructuring period, particularly for the Army would be desirable. (But one suspects it probably won’t be like that) When short-term threats are reduced it is much harder to argue the case for defence spending to politicians who generally are only thinking ahead for the next 5 years or less. Warships generally require at least a decade to be agreed, funded, designed, built, trialled and worked up but are key to the long-term defence of UK interests. Failure to invest in appropriate skills, infrastructure and research will mean loss of the ability to generate an effective fleet. Just because there is no specific threat today does not mean one won’t develop quickly in future, certainly much faster than we can build warships and train men.

Our trade routes remain threatened by piracy and this needs to be address with suitable numbers of simpler patrol ships to police the sea lanes but NOT at the cost of more capable warships. There is also a small residual terrorist threat but merchant shipping is most vulnerable to rogue states using mines, mini submarines, swarm attacks or land-based missiles particularly in key ‘choke’ points such as the Straits of Hormuz.

For now we must remain concerned about Iran, North Korea, and in the longer term China and in particular Russia. War with any of these states would be awful to contemplate and to be avoided but we need credible forces in order to both be taken seriously in negotiations and to protect our interests and support our allies. There are also ‘failed states’ that may become stronghold for terrorism and crime and may destabilise their neighbors A strong navy would give us choices and the option to defend ourselves at arm’s length, without a navy we are simply subject to the whims and will of others. The UK remains committed to protect the people of the Falklands indefinitely. Fortunately for now the Argentine military is a shambles but we cannot become complacent. Although in theory the garrison on the islands could be re-enforced with troops and aircraft by a precarious air bridge in an emergency, it is upon the RN that defence from a determined attack on the Falklands mainly rests.

Where might we have to fight?

Lets hope we don’t have to fight anyone, but any conflict involving the UK in the foreseeable future it is most likely to be outside Europe (although retention of proper homeland defences are prudent). The very fact that we may fight from distance means it will probably directly involve the Navy or at least transport of forces by sea. It is perhaps partly because Afghanistan is land-locked that we were unable to use our ability to control the sea (as in many times past) to gain a decisive advantage. There will be occasions when events occurs that are beyond the reach of naval forces but the majority of the world’s population lives within 500 miles of the coast and two-thirds of the globe is ocean so this is statistically going to be infrequent. In Mali the French re-enforced by air but were still reliant on supplies and armoured vehicles shipped in by sea to a port on the Ivory Coast. The UK made a token show of support by lending a couple of C-17 transport planes but it requires vast numbers of transport aircraft to support even a small army in the field compared to what can be transported by ship. Recent conflicts involving UK forces in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, the Gulf Wars and Libya all had a very significant naval dimension.

“The Army should be a projectile to be fired by the Royal Navy” Lord Edward Grey

Is an all-round defence capability indispensable?

Many argue the UK should continue to divide its ever-shrinking defence budget into 3 equal slices spread between the services to retain a supposed ‘broad range of capabilities’ to meet a variety of scenarios. While this approach was just about credible when the defence budget was over 4% of GDP with Soviets bearing down on us, at less than 2% of GDP, we have to accept we can’t be ‘all things to all men’ anymore. We have 3 services that are so diminished they are becoming capable of only token efforts without the depth to become involved in serious conflict or without total reliance on allies. The intervention in Libya was only a success because we were not up against serious opposition and it only lasted a conveniently short time. If we were to divert resources into a naval build up we could forgo some capabilities such a RAF ‘deep strike’ and Army main battle tanks & heavy artillery. We can take advantage of our island status and accept we are not likely to need to engage in a full-scale nation v nation land battles and if we really need to bomb something, then let us use the vastly superior reach of sea-launched Tomahawk missiles or carrier-based aircraft. The Army needs to keep up its infantry numbers but could become focussed on short & light-weight intervention or long-term peacekeeping operations, rather than large-scale frontal assaults. The RAF would be responsible for defence of UK airspace and develop niche skills such as cyber warfare .

Let us be clear, naval forces are not a complete panacea and there will be a loss of some capabilities by prioritising the RN. However by trying to maintain too many capabilities, some of which are almost redundant or at least luxuries, we are simply over-stretched in all areas to the point where they are too weak to be effective against any serious opposition. Too many in Europe have fallen into the trap of thinking that advances in aircraft, missile, satellite or even IT technology render lessons from history irrelevant or have somehow sidelined naval power while there rest of the world can see otherwise. The maritime-based defence strategy is a natural fit for the UK and will give us the best ‘punch per pound’ and the most effective range of options for our limited budget.


  • Very good article, which sets out clearly what all our politicians need to understand. Some interesting comments as well.

    Will there ever be a single EU defence force(including an EU Navy)? I think it inevitable, but not for some years. At some point in the future, Europe (including the UK if we have not exited) will need to be able to stand firmly on its own feet as the USA & China increasingly look to the world as their own.

  • Yes maritime security needed but is britain fit enough to do it? Divided and destroyed by the women they are sending off today. She suceeded were hitler failed. It will take decades to repair the damage if at all.

    • What utter nonsense. Clearly you have an opinion based on opinion over actual fact. The post cold war settlement was obviously required. Why imagine we have a weak Royal Navy when there are so few that could compete in the world? In 2020+, we’ll have the most powerful far reaching navy we have ever had, hulls are important, but when you have massive sensory and weaponry range you don’t require as many hulls.

      • If there is anything we should learn from history it is that we are spectacularly bad at predicting future threat scenarios. The forces require planning for the next 50 years, not the next 5. The Navy provides strategic standoff capability that the RAF and Army simply cannot. It provides the ability to transition from diplomacy, to diplomacy with the threat of a big stick without having to actually land or fly over the disputed area.

        The fleet in being is essential, and the loss of CAP capability is the single biggest threat to this nations security in generations.The UK can no longer safely put a fleet to hostile sea without aid. Lord West will be poorly judged by history I suspect, when he sold his service for a peerage and a place at Gordon Browns table.

        • Yes, I broadly agree with you there. However, we haven’t had real CAP capability since the Wilson cuts. The FA1/2 was great as it was, but it was never a real contender for blue water CAP sorties. Too slow, not enough armoury, and not remotely enough range. We lucked out with the Argentines, who would have kept the Sea Harrier largely out of the fight without Operation Black Buck by the RAF. The carriers wouldn’t have been able to safely get within range to us Sea Harrier in my opinion. And Black Buck, although the longest bombing run in history, wasn’t successful because of planning or equipment, it was hanging by a thread, seat of your pants, typical Crabfat activity. But congrats to those blokes all the same, they did us and the Militia a massive favour there.

          Also, a special mention must go to Sharkey. His tactics and foresight in planning were pure genius. He should have been knighted long ago, but like so many of the unsung, he’s too rebellious to gain the appropriate recognition.

          But, post 2020, we’ll have the most devastating conventional weapon on the planet, which has scope most don’t have the foresight for. Fully integrational into the Network Centric Warfare environment, it’ll have code written for drone ferry missions, even the possibility of pilots using drones as outriders, so pilots can stand off and attack in real time without lagging issues. There’s even talk of specialised drone carriers that will have a range of autonomous and remote control vehicles from subs to aircraft.

          I see this period very much as a Jackie Fisher moment, where legacy programmes are cut back to focus on new technology. The Russian’s focused on numbers over tech, and look where they are now compared to where they once were.

  • good articles and I on the whole agree on all but one thing. Reducing the Army to a Light stike force. Making the Army like the RM sounds good but is very limiting. If we want expeditionary warfare which justifies CV LPD, LPH etc and hence the Fleet it must be able to deliver something. Trust me fighting tanks without tanks is non starter as is breaking into any urban environment even if lightly held. Note that even small states such as Uganda has modern tanks ( T90s), Tanzania has upgraded 120mm equipped T55s and that Sudan has just opened a chinese tank production facility.

    The response to one prominent Para general when he lambasted his Briagde for focusing on the armour threat remains valid.
    Tanks bl**dy tanks we didin’t have them at Goose Green

    ‘No sir you didn’t, but I bet you would have used them if you had.’ came the response from an uncowed Lt.

    • @IsleofWightShoreEstablishment

      Thanks for your comments. I dont profess to be an expert on the Army deployment and tactics but the main problem with tanks is getting them to the battlefield in the first place. They are so heavy and require such a complex logistic tail they must fall into the “would be nice to have” category for the UK rather than “we really need them”. As an Island nation contemplating occasional “light” interventions or counter-insurgency they don’t seem relevant. Despite 13 years in Afghanistan tanks were never used and as you so neatly point out they couldn’t make it to the Falklands either. Tanks are limited to certain terrain and extremely vulnerable to aircraft and even a single man with a missile. In the current climate surely they’re a luxury we can’t afford, would probably never need them and are becoming a liability anyway. Lets bin the lot and spend the money on relevant, useful assets.

      • We did have tanks in AFG. We relied upon Danish Leopards to support our Warrior IFVs and our Scimitar Recce ‘Tanks’ to deliver a combined arms effect. The alternative was costly and often inaccurate airpower. (The loss of Harrier was very noticable by the way). likewise we used Scorpion Recce Troops as light armour in the Falklands ( post Goose Green) as we realised the limitation of light role infantry fighting without all arms . Tanks are not a cold war relic, you need armour and lots of it defeat ATGW, mines etc. Whilst we might be able to reduce them below the 227 we now have ( yes there are more horses in the British army than tanks) they are required in any expeditionary force. The fact that that they are heavy means they go by sea and so are mutally supporting the need for combined service co-operation. We lost the plot when we were told to scale everything to fit in the back of A400M and we would deploy our forces principally by air. Heavy eqipment wasn’t needed as strike was the preserve of air delivered munitions, and recce by Umanned Air Vehicles. It took a lot of unpleasent lessons to re-learn that this was a little foolish.

  • With the potential for an energy crisis ever rising, many nations have looked towards Antarctica, often with envious eyes. Many nations hold overlapping territorial claims, and few so pronounced as those involving the British Antarctic territory, very likely with good reason. Conflicts of interest.

    With the Antarctic Peninsula, and the large basin it overlooks affront the Ronne Ice Shelf, we see all the right conditions in geological, and in micro-organism terms for healthy hydrocarbon returns. Thus the claims and overlapping claims will of course at some point raise tensions between nations as energy demand increases, and mature hydrocarbon fields start to yield less. Early surveys suggest this could be one of the largest hydrocarbon finds for several decades, but by agreement have been left largely pushed to one side, and surveys have remained limited. No agreement is forever, and thus the demand for energy will open up exploration as price creates more viable extraction plans.

    May 13th of 2009 marked the deadline for “states to stake their claims in what some experts are describing as the last big carve-up of maritime territory in history,” Reuters reported in October of 2007. At the time the British Foreign Office announced that it was submitting a claim to expand the nation’s Antarctic territory by a million square kilometers and would also submit “four other claims…for Atlantic seabed territory around South Georgia and the Falkland Islands and also around Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, near the Bay of Biscay in the North Atlantic, and in the Hatton-Rockall basin off Scotland’s coast.”

    In October of 2007 the Russian foreign ministry responded to Britain’s Antarctic plans by stating, “Being one of the nations that made the biggest contributions to the development of the 1959 [Antarctic] Treaty and studies of Antarctica this country has consistently worked against the idea of dividing Antarctica on the basis of unilateral territorial claims and has not recognized them.” Of course the Russian’s would never do anything of this nature would they, so this can only be seen as a ‘wedge statement of intent’.

    Of course we have all heard a great deal about the much heralded oil and gas reserves around the Falklands, and potential for other British held islands in the region, (a great year round foothold for the UK). But the tension over these small fields will be as nothing in comparison with the potential of the British Antarctic Territory, as it’s likely to be the prime slice of Antarctic territory. As in this area we see some of the richest seas of micro organisms that go onto produce oil and gas, and the fact that 180 million years ago Antarctica was an ice free world hot enough for dinosaurs to roam. This untapped world logically must contain hydrocarbons and minerals of high value, and as Antarctica is largely un-surveyed, the potential must logically be high compared to any cursory thoughts.

    So how might the tensions be mitigated, or even protected from envious eyes, not just from regional powers, but those that may seek to use regional tensions as a proxy for their own ambitions?

    We’re talking about trillions of Pounds Sterling here, nothing to be sniffed at. So the ‘opportunity cost’ must surely be of a high nature.

    What might a potential enemy be able to muster? And who might they be? Argentina being the most obvious, with the potential for Chile and the wider South American alliances, possibly fueled by Russia or even China. Even the USA could put a squeeze on us for a sympathetic ear in South America.

    Argentina. Currently, the Argentine military capability is relatively limited. The Fuerza Aérea Argentina have several C130′s, around 50 combat aircraft, mainly 2nd and 3rd generation, with only around 10 of those being air interceptor. And a mix and match of old support aircraft, but nothing substantial. But interestingly, they have several Su-29′s that they use as an aerobatic display team. Interesting choice wouldn’t you say? Most likely a pointer to co-operation with the Russian’s, and strong military aid can’t be discounted. Russia has a history of proxy war just as the rest of the world, and a hydrocarbon feast is all the encouragement required. The Armada de la República Argentina, has a limited ability with aging surface fleet, and only a few old submarines. However, with a concentrated force, not too far from it’s own coastline, they carry a large amount of ship-borne Exocets. The Royal Navy can largely counter the Exocet with it’s defence systems today, however, the Exocet is still a fearsome anti-ship weapon. The Ejército Argentino is although far more professional since conscription was abandoned, budgetary cuts have led to combat units being under-manned, and obviously they aren’t as battle hardened as the British Army or Royal Marines. However, they have started purchasing Chinese hardware, and for the same reason as the Russian’s could proxy the Argentine’s for a cut.

    Russia and China. The prospect of Russia or China directly intervening militarily seem remote. They know action by them would provoke the US to involve itself, and the ‘opportunity cost’ would seem out of the question. It can’t be discounted in the future, but the outlook is unlikely. More likely would be either or both using South American nations as a proxy. But galvanizing the South American powers together militarily would be no mean feat. Although there is military co-operation between the larger states, it’s limited, and exorcises have been exploratory with little serious statistical analysis. So, Russia and or China would clearly have to make it a medium term mission to produce an effective co-operative force. But, if Russia or China, or both decided to arm say Argentina in a bid to use them to get a grip on British territory, a ten year period could see a far stronger Argentine military, and I would expect their neighbours to have upgraded also. This could create a perfect storm for the British.

    The USA. The chances of the USA making a military effort against the UK for these hydrocarbons is highly unlikely, however they could very easily use the situation to advance their own interest. If South American nations did strengthen, the US could become the traditional mercenary force it benefitted from so much through the 20th century. Loaning support to the UK for support. They would demand a high price, that could mean halving the UK interest, maybe even more than that. A very high price to pay for the sake of maybe a couple of billion Pounds.

    Future Force 2020. With limitations on budgets, decisions have been made that on the surface seem both good and bad for the longer term. However, with the T-45 being stopped at 6 ships, and the T-26 when it comes on stream being limited to 13 and replacing the T23, the escort fleet looks rather thin. The capability of each ship will be far more than the ships they have replaced, but in refit rota’s and global commitments, ships can’t be in two places at once. However, the SSN fleet is fairly healthy, and to be feared for the most likely threats. But, a combined South American situation would stretch the RN to breaking point, and the loss of any ships would be extremely difficult.

    So how could we possibly reduce costs? The obvious answer for me is drones of various nature. Buoys with HD sensors, serviceable sensors covering the ocean floor to build a real time integrated network and all encrypted with an upload to the Network Centric Warfare hub. The RN knows full well, Knowledge is power, information is key. If your resources are spread thinly, then use information to know where you are most needed in order to maximise the use of force in a timely manner.

    Sorry it’s such a long one, when I got going those thoughts kept a coming.

    • @Anthony Webb

      Interesting points and I broadly agree with most. Personally I would be very happy to see a cast-iron international treaty to protect Antarctic from all mineral & hydrocarbon extraction as I think it should be preserved as the last great wilderness. Maybe I’m naively optimistic about that given the potentail riches there. However I’m keen for UK to exploit resources around the Falklands and we need many more patrol vessels based there. Personally I think we should try to reach some form of resources-sharing agreement with Argentina – this would not only be fair, but would help diffuse tensions and allow the difficult extraction to proceed in an atmosphere of co-operation rather than conflict. (Maybe I’m being naive again??).

      As you alluded to, the RN simply must get more hull numbers. We need to build a squadron of at least 12 helicopter capable OPVs or Corvettes. This would not cost a great deal and most agree this would be logical but the Naval Staff rightly worry that orders for OPVs will be an excuse to cut more capable ships and therefore have always prioritised Type 26.

      I believe UAVs are a big part of the future for the RN (mainly for surveillance) but are not a complete solution in themselves and will always require manned aircraft and ships to act on the intel the provide. The USN is developing an unmanned long-range UAV that will eventually be capable of delivering weapons but it requires a catapult to launch off a carrier – a capability the RN wont have. RN UAVs are therefore likely to be lighter and shorter range. I guess a few based in the Falklands would be handy.

  • Well!….

    Yet another excellent article NavyLookout. I only wish more people, especially politicians, would read this and try and grasp the enormous consequences of their short sightedness and danger not only to us but our children who in the future may or may not have the security we have enjoyed for many years.

    Unfortunately i fear that this sick and disgusting act of cutting homeland security as a back door route to building a European Armed Forces. Once our forces are so weak that WHEN, NOT IF, a threat does come along we will have no choice but to rely on support from the EU (as they will from us!) this as you can imagine brings a few problems. It would create a problem if you can imagine another conflict such as the Falkland Islands; having to put your case to Brussels for use of the EU navy. Or we could have it the other way where we find OUR troops being ordered to fight AND DIE in some foreign country where we have no business or interests! For those that say this is just crazy talk look at Mali now, where we are helping to transport troops and materials…how long before it is aircraft refuellers or army engineers, gradually being sucked into yet another war?!


Leave a comment

Comment Spam Protection by WP-SpamFree

follow us on Twitter