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)
1. Protecting ships that carry the food you eat, the stuff you buy and the fuel you need.
Most of the oil used by the UK arrives by sea.
Global maritime trade relies on the free and lawful use of the sea. The UK is an island nation and most of the food and goods you buy in the shops has arrived from overseas on a ship. The same goes for the oil that powers your car (and just about every kind of transport in the country) has arrived in vast, vulnerable oil tankers. Even a slight disruption to this flow of oil would case massive problems for the UK, just remember the serious effects of the short-lived fuel protest of 2000. Without fuel, food distribution would quickly grind to a halt, rationing would be introduced and we would have to rely on meagre locally grown supplies. More than, 50% of the gas that you heat your house and cook with will arrive by sea from abroad (aboard the even more vulnerable ‘floating bombs’ that are Liquid Natural Gas carriers). 92% of UK trade by volume (586 million tonnes) is moved by sea. The health of the already fragile UK economy depends on this. Your job may well depend directly or indirectly on the free flow of imports or exports by sea. Sea transport is a significant part of the economy and is the UK’s 3rd largest service sector. These ships are obviously vulnerable to attack by a foreign country, terrorists or pirates. The only effective way to protect merchant shipping is with naval forces. During 2 World wars in the 20th Century Britain came close to starvation because her merchant shipping was being sunk by submarines. Today there are fewer merchant ships but they’re generally much larger and in open conflict would make fat and easy targets for today’s sophisticated submarines. Just a few well-handled submarines could wreak havoc on world trade. 95% of global trade passes through just 9 narrow ‘choke points’ (such as the Straits of Hormuz ) where it is especially easy for a belligerent nation or even a terrorist group to attack shipping.The RN is particularly short of escort vessels needed to protect merchant shipping from submarine, air or missile attacks. The Tory government of the 1980s was committed to maintaining 50 frigates and destroyers (escorts). There are now just 19 active surface escorts in the Royal Navy. (As an interesting comparison Japan, an island nation of similar size to the UK, although more populous and richer, but with far fewer global commitments operates around 50 escorts.)
2. Operating the nuclear deterrent that helps keeps the peace.
Whatever you think about nuclear weapons, it is hard to disagree with the fact that the threat of their use has prevented world war for over 60 years. The Royal Navy has quietly helped maintain this deterrent which ultimately helped win the Cold War. While unstable nations around the world continue to acquire nuclear weapons it would seem wise that Britain retains this ability. It would be great if the world was entirely rid of these horror weapons but that’s really an unlikely utopian fantasy. They are expensive to build and maintain but not as expensive as a world war. It does not bear thinking about how the effects of nuclear war would impact on the lives of every individual in almost every part of the world. The UK government is committed to replacing the current generation of nuclear-armed submarines although work needs to start urgently. In addition to the actual RN submarines that carry these weapons, there is a need for trained and experienced personnel to man them and other attack submarines and ships to protect them at times. The RN is now down to just 6 attack submarines.
3. Helping in the fight against terrorism.
The causes of terrorism and what the responses to it should be are complex and controversial. However what is not in doubt is that it is an increasing threat to the world and in most cases terrorists need to be confronted by force. Britain is second only to the US on the list of countries that insane Islamic militants want to target with indiscriminate murder and mayhem. Everyday, largely out of sight and out of the public mind, the RN is part of the complex array of forces trying to combat terrorism. Whether contributing personnel, and aircraft to Afghanistan, or conducting maritime search of suspect vessels, the RN is helping police the seas and disrupt terrorism. For more urgent action RN submarines carry very accurate long-range Tomahawk missiles which have been used in the past to target terrorist training camps. As with trade protection, the RN simply does not have the number of ships needed to patrol the large areas used by terrorist traffic.
4. Maintaining British influence in the world.
The ships of the RN are a key component in projecting Britain’s influence. (whether this is for good or bad is of course dependent on the integrity of the incumbent government). Visiting RN vessels are a great way to promote relationships with friendly and neutral nations around the world. The size and ability of the RN (and other UK forces) is a significant factor in how much influence we have over global politics and in particular the actions of the United States. The presence of a warship can send a powerful message of deterrence without a shot being fired. The concept of a ‘fleet in being’ is a cornerstone in the defence of the UK and its interests. The knowledge that we possess a fleet and are able to use it can make potential aggressors think twice. For example, in could be argued that cuts in the RN fleet lead directly to the Falklands conflict. Argentina interpreted the weakening of the navy as a lack of resolve by the UK to protect its overseas assets.The tangible benefits for you as a UK citizens of this influence is both economic; helping UK business, and moral; UK values and UK people receive greater respect and attention abroad. The United Kingdom has 13 Overseas Territories and, in the last 15 years the RN has provided direct support to 6 of them. There are also 5.5 million Britons living overseas. The RN is the most important tool the UK possesses when diplomatic avenues are either exhausted or need backing with force.
5. Supplying humanitarian aid and helping with disaster relief around the world.
The RN not only trains for war but for humanitarian missions. Every year RN warships are involved in providing aid, comfort and relief of nations that have suffered natural disasters. In the Caribbean where islands are regularly devastated by hurricanes RN vessels have often been the first on the scene providing help to the local authorities. In the aftermath of the devastating tsunami in 2004, RN vessels went to the relief of Sri Lanka. There have been many other examples going back decades where trained men, well equipped ships and the ‘can-do’ attitude of the RN has been a huge help to struggling communities across the globe. On a smaller scale it is common practice for RN warships visiting foreign ports to send small teams to help local charities in various practical ways such a repairing an orphanage or decorating a school. In addition ship’s companies regularly raise considerable sums of money to donate to charitable organisations. In these kind of efforts the RN is a great ambassador for the UK and a force for good in the world.
6. Protecting UK waters and the fish stocks.
Fishing remains an important industry,
particularly in the more remote parts of the UK.
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. In addition to fishery protection, supporting the Coastguard, Customs and Police in the fight against terrorism crime, drug smuggling, illegal immigration are occasional additional roles for RN vessels on your doorstep.With 10,500 miles of coastline and 600 ports one of the UK’s greatest natural resources is the sea. The current government has allowed the RN’s fishery protection fleet to fall to a laughable 3 vessels dedicated to patrolling UK waters.
7. Disrupting the flow of illegal drugs.
The RN regularly patrols in the Caribbean region and has made seizures of large amounts drugs grown in South America intended for Europe. The RN has also sized drugs from suspect vessels across the worlds oceans. Disrupting the trade in narcotics that are a major cause of crime, mental health problems and misery on the streets near you is very worthwhile. Money from the sale of drugs is also a source of funds for terrorism and criminal empires. As the drug smugglers become more sophisticated, even building crude submarines to transport drugs, then a global response is needed and only the RN can contribute to this in partnership with local civilian agencies.
8. Carrying out search and rescue missions.
RN aircraft are on standby to perform
rescue missions around the UK 24 hours a day.
Many mariners, climbers and holidaymakers owe their lives to the Royal Navy. RN and RAF helicopters provide search, rescue and urgent transport to those in danger or injured, usually at sea or on around the coastline of the UK. Many RN aircrew have received bravery awards for risking their lives to save others in hazardous conditions. In addition, RN ships and aircraft regularly go to aid of sailors in danger across the oceans whenever they are in a position to offer assistance. As a ‘cost saving measure’ the government plans to privatise search and rescue cover from 2016 and replace experienced RN and RAF crews with private contractors.
9. Supporting manufacturing, industry, research and science.
Designing, building and maintaining the vessels and equipment needed by the RN employs thousands of people in the UK and helps maintain cutting edge industrial skills which benefit the economy as a whole. Manufacturing is a key part of a good economy and we can’t just rely on the service sector. Although it is hard to argue the taxpayer has received good value for money recently as so many projects have been mis-managed and gone over-budget, never the less, these skills and capabilities are important to keep as no one knows when the UK may need to expand it’s forces to meet future threats.Through a lack of steady placing of equipment orders, this government is allowing much of the industrial infrastructure that supports the RN to wither and this valuable skills base, built up over decades is hard to re-build in a hurry, if at all. While generally trying to stimulate the troubled economy by public spending, no extra money has been given to defence projects.
10. Training and employing people.
The RN has approximately 30,000 people and it provides employment for them and many others indirectly supporting them. RN personnel are trained to a high standard and as their lives may depend on each other, develop an ethos of loyalty, discipline and teamwork which is often lacking in civilian life. When they leave the service they are attractive prospects to many employers and ex-forces personnel and generally a valuable labour resource for the economy. The RN teaches leadership, resourcefulness and teamwork, together with a certain under-statement and a ‘can-do’ attitude. The occasional mis-deeds of sailors get plenty of media coverage and obviously not all ex-RN personnel are paragons of virtue but in general the RN produces rounded individuals who contribute to society. Pressure on the RN to do too much with too few people means the average sailor is over-worked and not getting enough time in shore jobs. Regularly breaking their own ‘harmony’ guidelines, the government’s lack of investment in the service is leading to a vicious circle as experienced people resign, tired of too much time away from home serving on under-manned ships.
- UK’s top admiral faces world of new demands with an austerity fleet (guardian.co.uk)
- The case for building a British hospital ship
- Happy 350th birthday Royal Marines, but mind the gap
- Review: the Royal Navy 2013 – 2015
- Maritime Media Awards 2013: Securing the Seaways
- Mercy mission to the Philippines – in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy
- We will remember them – Remembrance 2013
- A story that needs telling – Royal Navy Submarines in the Cold War