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

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.

UK Exclusive Economic Zone

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

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.

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.