The Royal Navy and the growing importance of securing UK home waters

May 22, 2012   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  9 Comments

HMS Tyne

The 3 ships of the Royal Navy fishery protection squadron; HMS Tyne, HMS Mersey and HMS Severn Image: Defence Images, Via Flickr

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.

UK Exclusive Economic Zone

Click for full size version
*Note UK EEZ also includes overseas territories
not shown on this map

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.

In conclusion

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.


  • I agree with everything written above, and according to the Royal Navy’s own 2020 Reserve Forces review “The National Security Council should examine the breadth of roles which Reservists undertake. We recommend that Reservists should play a greater part in Homeland Security (for example, maritime coastal protection) and UK Resilience.”

    Furthermore it has also been suggested that a more joined up approach in terms of civilian and military resources similar to the approach taken in Australia (Coast Watch) may help improve the current situation, with a multitude of agencies such as the Royal Navy Fishery Protection River Class, the three vessels of the Scottish Fishery Protection Agency, the five Border Agency Cutters, local coastguard vessels and police marine units all operating independently. The National Maritime Information Centre may also help in this respect, as will better Pan-European Intelligence through closer EU Collaboration.

    There are some positives though, the National Coastwatch Institution has since 1994 seen the opening by volunteers of some 40 old Coastguard Look Out Stations, with more planned according to their website. Whilst other Volunteer Groups such as the RNLI and Maritime Volunteer Service do superb work. Whilst there is also the real possibility of new maritime patrol aircraft being including in the 2015 Defence Review according to some recent reports, with Boeing eager to interest the British Government in it’s P-8 Aircraft.

    In terms of the recent review of reserve forces, we can only hope that the Royal Navy Reserve are given a greater role and better equipment in relation to Counter Terrorism, Civil Contingency and UK Resilience, as part of a renewed effort to increase our maritime security and homeland defence.

  • Agreed that the navy put on a brave display for the Olympics, but the fact remains there is little it could do against a serious asymetric attack at home but especially abroad. I would like to see it building up its coastal forces before my WW2 veteran from the Clyde minesweeping squadron is volunteered for service again; or is that the future?

  • What is required along with boats is a maritime patrol aircraft which the British did have but scrapped in haste (Nimrod MR4). With out one to act as high flying eyes for the RN all the people/arms smugglers and terrorist will find their jobs a lot simpler to do.

    2 choices are available:
    The Boeing P-8 or a quick conversion to some Airbus A340s. Or if you are prepared to wait a roll on /roll off facilty for the A400. The A340 has 4 engines.On long patrols shut down 2 and cruise. To avoid long redesign work to give it a weopons bay strengthen the wing to take weopons pylons and eqiup the fusilage with a FLIR turret. Add wing tip sensors/counter measures.To increase duration add a inflight refueling probe.To quicken reloading time torps/antiship missiles/marker buoys and AA missles could be loaded up in streamlined pods for rapid arming /rearming(think Boeings Silent Eagle).

  • When I joined the RN in the early 60s, it was pounded into us that the UK as an island nation depended on the Royal Navy to defend our sea lanes and the Fleet we had at the time was enough to carry out the task.
    However over the years, I have watched the Naval decline to the point we are at now.
    At 276 ships the US Navy is now operating at a tempo that is overstreching crews and equipment. and Senior US Naval Leaders have been saying nfor some time that the current force in terms of personell and platforms is inedequate and could not simultaneously handle extended conflicts in two different theatres.
    A similar numbers shortfall, but on a different scale afflicts the Royal Navy. With a total force of 30 + ships our Navy currently ranks below France, India, and Japan not to mention China whos Navy outnumbers the combined navies of all three countries. So it has become very clear that Britains ability to act independently with a major Naval Force – as she did in the Falklands in 1982 and will surely have to do again at crisis points in the future – has almost disappeared ship by ship and squadron by squadron in the past 25 years.
    Both countries have rich maritime pasts and dramatic histories that demonstrate the critical role that Navies play in National Security, the lessons learned at great cost are being ignored, along with the Myth and popular wisdom that a larger Navy is not affordable. Affordability is not the real issue. The truth being that both countries have chosen politically not to support a larger Force.
    The evidence that makes this case is not measured in Pounds or Dollars, the critical common denominations are the respective percentages of GDP devoted to National Defence, in the case of the the US it is roughly 4% and in Britain it is 2.5%.
    To fix the value of National Defenceat figures like that is absurd and dangerous, each nation could and should be devoting at least 5% of GDP to its Defence. If the politicians and Media Establishments took hold of this reality, it would be a start towards what should be Goverments first priority ” A Naval Rebuilding Programme” and a proper defence.

  • It is amazing that there is so little regard for the ‘inshore squadron’ in the RN. Especially with the terrorist threat but also with a resurgent threat in the Falklands and possibly from other sources closer to home it should be a priority to get this sorted out.

    One can always make excuses for doing nothing, but I see little or no leadership or appreciation from the top brass.

    The inshore patrol craft are old, slow and are too small. A new design and construction of at least 25-30 metres is long overdue. Endurance cannot be provided in ribs or the existing craft.
    There are no maritime patrol aircraft. This is a role that should be firmly placed with the Fleet air arm or coastguard. The USA are far more savy
    and are reported to be building up their inshore flotilla.
    Vosper Thorneycroft and Brooke Marine used to do this sort of thing but with Bae the whole thing has gone to pot as far as I can tell and they are thinking of scrapping Portsmouth construction facility entirely.
    There seems to be no direction from the Government or anyone else.
    This is a shambles.
    If a reasonable investment was made it would be self financing in terms of export.
    In days gone bye, the inshore squadron was the seed bed of seamanship, initiative and training.
    One wonders if all the recent RN groundings could have been avoided if the RN placed more emphasis on acquiring basic skills in seamanship and small ship handling via taking a greater emphasis on coastal patrol and surveillance.
    This need not be expensive but to ignore it could be very costly indeed.

  • I have just finished reading “The Battle of the Atlantic” by John Costello and Terry Hughes. It showed how initially a small number of U Boats played havoc with the conveys bringing supplies across the Atlantic. At that time the Royal Navy was the world’s biggest navy. The Home Fleet alone had around 100 destroyers. There were a number of times when the U Boats almost won the battle. Thank goodness for the breaking of the Enigma Code. Today Britain would be quickly overwhelmed in an attack. The new super destroyers(only 6 being built) would be a drop in the ocean(pun intended). Why do we have to have such expensive warships. Would it not be better to build a number of lower tech ships to do general work

    • Yep- John Costello was a friend of mine and dedicated to the Royal Navy and Britains Maritime heritage. Unfortunately nowadays all the main political parties and especially the BBC seem asleep in this department.

      Books such as the Battle of the Atlantic should be compulsory holiday reading for the likes of Cameron.

      All this should start with education. I was lucky to have a school master who took it upon himself to give us a course on Britain’s Maritime (Naval ) History. Maybe Cameron could start with a home studies course for his kids. He might learn something in the process.

  • Check out the Norwegian Navy ship list on Wikipedia:

    Their 5-frigate blue water navy sits at the pinnacle of a balanced base of 6 missile patrol boats, 7 minehunters and 13 armed Coastguard vessels Coastguard is part of the Navy) – plus 6 long-range patrol aircraft.

    If the public is to support strategic extra-territorial defence efforts they need to see that the basics of home defence are being covered, and see the practical benefits of a Navy/Coastguard that delivers fishery protection and search and rescue.

  • No disrespect, but do you really believe all the bullshit, these so called experts tells you, or a corrupt incompetent government, with military top brass who are just as guilty to covering up things,
    Some of these guys would tell you we are fully capable of protecting all UK assets with only one multy , triple quadruple roll dingy .
    Laugh as you may, but this is typical a British disease, a case of we see nothing , do nothing , say nothing , until we are hit, then and only then we will talk about it, to little to late,
    But it all boils down to money,, yes money money money,
    All you get from the incompetent and the do gooders, is we have no money, , and yet these same people waste billions each year,
    And we all wonder why we have nothing,. No point in telling us how great the subs are and the type 45, and the tridents, ect ect , but these will not be used to patrol our coasts will they,

    The whole point is simple, yet difficult to explain to incompetent politicians,
    Either you spend the money to defend yourselves properly, or just disband the bloody lot,
    We need 3 navy out stations, one on the east coast around Yarmouth, one up north, and one in west Wales, each with a compliment of a minimum 12 ships, consisting of patrol , and mine sweepers ,
    Protection search and stop boats, well armed by the way,
    And proper coast guards boats, , between them you would have a minimum of say 48-50
    Ships ranging in size from 50 tons through to 1,000 tons, well defended and protected patrolling our coastline, and our recourses,
    This back up with a minimum 12 maritime patrol aircraft, ,
    A good idea , or a silly comment , you choose, but somewhere in that little idea is a fully funded strong patrol protection ships, to defend our coast,
    It only takes money,
    Even your ideas, only take money, and this and previous government have wasted billions,
    Just a simple idea ,

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