A maritime-centered defence strategy for Britain makes sense

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.