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.
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.
Further online reading
- Britain has to decide upon the Royal Navy’s role. (Rear Admiral Chris Parry)
- UK Armed Forces Future Force Structure: An Outline for 2025 (Dr Harry Bennet)
- A Maritime Strategy Without a Navy – A Review of the Government’s Strategic Thought Since 1998 (Gary Blackburn, MA)
- Maritime Strategy And British National Security (Professor Colin Gray)
- Economics and Maritime Strategy: Implications for the 21st Century (USN War College)
- What’s the point of the RAF? (Daly History Blog)
With HMS Ocean and HMS Bulwark acting as command ships and bases for security surrounding the Olympic events in the UK this summer, the Royal Navy’s role defending UK territorial waters and providing ‘local’ defence within the UK has emerged for a rare appearance in the public consciousness. The seas and ports around our coast are vital to our economy and require policing for our safety and to ensure international law, treaties and agreements are upheld. With 17,820 Km of coastline and the world’s 5th largest Exclusive Economic Zone, one of the UK’s greatest natural resources and environmental responsibilities, is the sea. While high-profile controversies about aircraft carriers are important, the RN’s less glamorous but key role in UK maritime protection should not be forgotten.
The terror threat from the sea
The UK is heavily reliant on imported energy. There are just a handful of ports that can handle large oil and gas tankers and their volatile cargoes are potentially vulnerable to a devastating attack by terrorists using mines or suicide craft. Any disruption to the flow of oil would case serious problems. (Even the potential interruption of our petrol supply can cause panic). More than 50% of the gas that we rely on for heating and cooking now arrives by sea after a lengthy journey from the Gulf in Liquid Natural Gas carriers which are potentially giant floating bombs. Without these regular shipments of fuel, the economy would grind to a halt in days, food distribution would quickly collapse, rationing would be introduced and we would have to rely on meagre locally grown supplies. The majority of consumer goods imported into the UK arrive at a few large ports in ever-bigger containers ships and an attack at one of these mega-hubs would quickly result in shortages in the shops because little is kept in reserve in the delicately balanced supply chain. Even the threat of mines in the water could be enough to close one of these ports. Britain’s nuclear power stations are mainly situated on the coast and are vulnerable to sea-borne threats. The 2008 Mumbai surprise attacks which were launched by terrorists arriving suddenly, landing on beaches from small boats demonstrated the vulnerability of installations close to the shore.
Protecting economic resources
The Exclusive Economic zone (EEZ) which extends up to 200 miles from the coast is the internationally agreed area in which a country can use resources from the sea bed. As the world’s population grows and resources become more valuable, there is increasing pressure to make use of the seas. There are approximately 290 offshore oil and gas installations in the UK EEZ and added to this are an increasing number of offshore wind farms proving electricity. There are 600 turbines offshore today, with a 10-fold increase in capacity forecast for 2020. It is also important to watch for illegal dumping of waste and toxic substances at sea that threatens both the environment and our health. Fish are an important part of our diet and the fishing industry is a mainstay of many small ports around UK. Protecting fish stocks from over-fishing, preventing plunder by foreign vessels and enforcing fish quotas and regulations is actually the oldest task performed by the RN. The RN fishery protection squadron (FPS) and Marine Scotland Compliance polices the fishing areas with just 6 ships (3 RN, 3 Marine Compliance) supplemented by satellite tracking of fishing vessels and 2 privately operated light aircraft. Although FPS might be seen as something slightly removed from its primary role as it is mainly funded and tasked by the Marine Management Organisation (part of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs – DEFRA), it should be remembered that the Navy is the only service directly protecting the nation’s resources 365 days a year.
Policing and life-saving
The RN is just a part of a matrix of agencies involved in protecting the coastline. Supporting the Coastguard, UK Border Agency (UKBA) and Police in the fight against terrorism, crime, drug smuggling and illegal immigration are occasional additional roles for RN vessels on our doorstep. In addition to vessels, the Navy contributes M Squadron, SBS (Special Boat Service), are the RN’s special forces responsible for maritime anti-terrorism and ship boarding operations. The Fleet Diving Squadron comprises specialists in diving and bomb disposal. They are relatively high-profile as the media loves stories about disposal of unexploded ordnance that washes up on beaches or found in fishing nets. These experts are mostly based in the UK although deploy to support the RN overseas. The UKBA operates 5 ‘cutters’ which patrol territorial waters searching vessels to detect prohibited and restricted goods, prevent tax fraud and illegal immigration and people-trafficking. Reflecting the sea-blindness of government, 8 Coastguard Stations are being closed (thankfully fewer than the hatchet-job initially proposed) This will undoubtedly put lives and shipping at risk, whatever ‘efficiency’ benefits the government may claim. Currently the Royal Navy and RAF provide search and rescue helicopters that cover most of the UK coastline and occasional perform rescues far out to sea. The Sea King helicopters currently used will have to be retired by 2016 and government plans to privatise the service. We would question whether a corporation aiming for a profit would be as instinctively flexible as the services in providing helicopters for emergency non-SAR tasks, and in their freedom to take operational risks to save lives. Another key player is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RLNI) which does excellent work rescuing mariners and saves an average of 450 lives in a typical year. What is more astounding is this service is entirely funded by £150 million per year of public donations and staffed by 40,000 volunteers. In addition the Maritime Volunteer Service (MVS) train for emergencies at sea, supplement the work of the RLNI and are a valuable advocate for maritime affairs. Finally, HM Coastguard’s parent, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is also responsible for pollution response and the emergency towing of vessels, a role also carried out by the navies of other countries. The Navy’s survey ships also provide a first line of defence by charting shifting underwater hazards to maintain safe routes for vessels.
The RN fights on… but can’t make 1+1=3
As mentioned above, the 3 FPS ships and the single designated Fleet Ready Escort (The FRE, a destroyer or frigate can be tasked to go anywhere in the world in response to events) are the only armed ships specifically tasked to patrol UK waters. At any given time there will be RN vessels training or exercising around the UK and they can play their part. (During the 2011 Libya campaign the RN was unable to provide even the single FRE due to desperate shortage of ships) Recently Russian warships were seen dumping waste overboard close to UK waters off Scotland and the FRE had to be sent from Portsmouth, a clear demonstration of the need for ship numbers. The RN’s minehunting force has dwindled to just 15 vessels – their secondary role is as general patrol vessels but with 3 permanently deployed in the Persian Gulf and other regular deployments overseas they make a limited contribution in UK home waters. Mines or even underwater IEDs are cheap and would be difficult to lay. With more than 600 ports and harbours in the UK, the RN’s mine warfare resources are spread thin. Until the late 1990s the RN has a fleet of 12 River Class minesweepers. They were cheap to build and were operated by Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) units around the UK. Although their Cold War minesweeping role became obsolete, they could operate in all weathers, were excellent home waters patrol vessels and provided valuable experience to RNR personnel at minimal cost. They were all snapped up by overseas navies for valuable patrol roles without replacement here, all for a tiny saving on the defence budget. It is this kind of penny-pinching that has left the RN lacking the necessary hulls to do its job. There are also a “fleet” of 16 P2000 Archer class harbour / inshore patrol boats mainly operated for the University Royal Navy Units (URNU) which give students and junior officers useful sea experience. They are only very small boats but could mount a couple of light machine guns. However they are usually are unarmed (apart from 2 which are dedicated to security at Faslane). These 50-ton boats are often counted in lists of RN surface ships and have ‘HMS’ names thereby conveniently giving an inflated idea of warship strength.
The flawed decision in the 2010 Defence review to axe the Nimrod Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and its replacement from the RAF has removed the UK’s main asset for surveillance of its seas. These aircraft could remain airborne for long periods, equipped with radar and advanced cameras could search large areas of ocean and perform anti-submarine and search & rescue missions. (Strangely operated by the RAF and not the RN, the result of a historical anomaly arising from the traditional RAF attitude that “if it flies we should own it”). There have been rumours that the RN is very keen to purchase some MPAs but finding the funds & avoiding RAF interference present difficulties. The lack of MPAs leaves a big hole in UK homeland security, puts greater pressure on the already threadbare RN surface fleet (and also potentially endangers the ballistic missiles submarines carrying the nuclear deterrent). If we must do without MPAs then the case for increasing the number of RN patrol ships and equipping them with unmanned air surveillance drones (UAVs) becomes even more pressing. Even with MPAs, satellite tracking or other airborne surveillance, maritime security implies boarding vessels for inspection and this requires a minimum number of suitable ships.
The Royal Navy is the primary defender of our seas and our seafarers, starting with the home ‘perimeter’ and then beyond to the oceans of the world. Like most of its other tasks, the RN lacks sufficient resources, and above all, ship numbers to do this job as well as it could. Patrol and surveillance can be dull, endless and the results may seem hard to quantify, until something goes wrong. Some have mocked the heavy military presence there will be in London for the Olympics claiming there is no terror threat other than suicide bombers on foot and the military are just showing off (although posturing is actually meant to deter). Unfortunately the threat is still very real and several major terror plots in the UK have been foiled since the July 2005 bombings. It would be negligent of government not to ignore 17,000km of open coastline and secure this perimeter at all times (not just for the Olympics). As the nation’s primary (and only armed) maritime agency, the Navy could play an even more useful role by providing coordination and leadership as part of “joined-up government” to maximise the effectiveness of the UK’s ever more limited maritime resources. Helping the public to grasp the breadth of the Navy’s and other maritime agencies diverse contributions with a strong and clear message is essential to help counter our national sea-blindness.
- Military provide security for Olympics (Daily Telegraph)
- The carrier debacle is clouding real maritime security issues (Defence Management)
- FPS ships’ Solent exercise (Portsmouth News)
- This was a great result for my ship (Portsmouth News)
- Reflecting on the life and times of the Type 42 destroyers
- A maritime-centered defence strategy for Britain makes sense
- Examining the options for increasing funding for the Royal Navy
- Royal Navy 2012 News Round-up
- Making the case for the Trident replacement
- The Type 26 Frigate – Key to the RN’s future surface fleet
- Say no the closure of England’s last complex warship builder