Britain needs to re-discover its understanding of sea power

This is an article by guest writer Christian McLean-Mair who recently completed a Masters degree in military history. You can read his blog here or follow him on Twitter @ChrisQF

In recent years it appears that much of the British public has lost their passion for the sea; there is far less interest in the Navy than the Air Force, and Parliamentary approaches to funding have reflected this trend. Yet it must not be forgotten that it is sea power that has remained the arbiter of British policy throughout our nation’s history, and that it is upon the seas that the fate of nations are decided. 

Britain, it must always be stressed, is an island nation. The English Channel was to serve as a moat throughout our early history, and allowed the successive rulers of the country a greater degree of flexibility than their European neighbours who were forced to maintain sizeable armies to deter potential threats. It was indeed this lack of standing forces that was to allow the early development of accountable rule in the British Isles; as the lack of standing forces left the monarchy without the means to violently put down dissent, and created a more receptive form of leadership. The lack of a large army did, however, ensure that control of the seas was doubly important – for Britain to survive it was vital that no enemy should be able to land upon her shores, a role served by the Royal Navy since its inception in 1660.

Whilst Britain has long needed to place a greater level of trust in sea power than other nations, all are dependent upon the seas for their continued survival. The majority of the world’s trade is still transported by sea, as is much of its food. Since the economic and population booms of the colonial era and industrial revolution, vast amounts of resources have been moved by sea to sustain the nations of the world, yet the interconnected nature of global trade creates a great vulnerability. Commerce raiding has long been a staple of war, but came to a head with the development of the submarine in the World Wars – an early lack of effective tools against the U-Boat menace was to see Britain face starvation in two major conflicts, and should demonstrate just how important control of shipping lanes and global trade is to national survival.

The raiding of commerce is a powerful tool to a nation without naval supremacy, as isolated ships can inflict major material damage without risking an open battle, but what of major naval powers? A control of the seas allows for another means of forcing an enemy to submit without the risk of open battle: blockade. The threat and imposition of blockade were the main means by which Britain was to exert her power throughout history; without a strong army to launch offensive operations British naval power was employed to starve an enemy into submission. From the time of Napoleon to the rise of Imperial Germany, the threat British blockade was to prove a deciding factor in war and maintaining the protracted period of peace known as the Pax Britannica.

Beyond blockade, seaborne forces offer a variety of offensive options to a commander. Whilst air power is lauded as the fastest means to deploy force, it is through control of the seas that lasting gains can be made through the seizure of territory. A naval force can crucially carry enough supplies to sustain itself in operations for a protracted period of time, allowing for more expansive operations to be launched. Over 40% of the global population lives within 100 kilometres of the coast, leaving them vulnerable to direct influence by sea power. Naval forces can extend this reach even further by bringing their own air field with them in the form of carriers; these greatly enhance the capacity of a navy to not only defend itself, but strike hard at an enemy.

Since the invention of the aeroplane, there have been theorists predicting that it will dominate future conflict, and they were correct in this prediction. However, air power is not a means to an end in its own right; recent interventions from Kosovo to Libya have proven that air strikes alone cannot win wars. Attempting to influence events from afar has often proven counter-productive; by refusing to commit fully to a conflict its conclusion is left to the ability of the enemy to endure the strikes, whilst the attacking power is left appearing weak and cowardly; unwilling to risk lives for their goal.

To achieve victory in modern warfare, all arms of the military must act together, but it is naval force that provides the backbone: a strong navy allows for force to be projected and supported across the vast majority of the globe.

Within the modern world, Britain faces a large number of defence commitments, all of which require the capacity to project power overseas. Whether joining NATO to contain Russian aggression in the Baltic to aiding in the policing of the Mediterranean and the Gulf there is a clear and present need for capable shipping. Beyond alliance commitments Britain is responsible for the wellbeing of fourteen overseas territories, the vast majority of which are primarily accessible by sea. Beyond regular patrolling, and the need to continue training with allied nations, the navy is also the primary means of delivering aid to the needy overseas. With such extensive peacetime obligations alone, the need for a greater volume of surface ships should be apparent.

In its current form the Royal Navy is stretched to meet its regular commitments and would be unlikely to be able to sustain a major campaign. The last great success of British sea power that was fully understood by the public was the Falklands campaign. Since then our capacity to sustain forces overseas has declined but we still managed to make a significant contribution to the ultimate defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, both Gulf Wars and to many other operations right up until the present day. Even now the RN presence in the Persian Gulf plays its part in ensuring the steady flow of oil and gas so critical to the UK economy. Unfortunately the steady hollowing out of the Royal Navy has left Britain’s ability to control the seas a partial, or even token capability. We can still project power round the world but the forces are too small in number, lacking the depth and reserve for a sustained presence and quite unable absorb combat losses.

It is not enough to hope for peace when planning the future of the armed forces; a nation must be ready for any eventuality, and if we are to retain our position within the world a strong navy is essential. Warships allow for the exertion of influence and power in times of peace and war, serving as a powerful symbol of might and intent.

The arrival of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers provides an opportunity for Britain to properly rebuild its navy. The carriers are a strong core that could one day take their place as the centrepiece of a powerful fleet. At present the RN is without the manpower, the escort vessels, the aircraft and the submarines in sufficient numbers to fully support the carriers and be considered a true global sea power. With the political will to substantially increase funding over the next decade, the UK could once again be able enjoy the security and influence that befits its history and status as an island nation and the 5th largest economy in the world.


Main image: HMS Cardiff, HMS London and HMS Manchester at sea during the first Gulf War, 1991. @Crown copyright. Imperial War Museum