Gwythian Prins, Emeritus Research Professor at LSE, welcomes the opportunity Brexit will provide to plan a naval strategy that reflects ancient reflexes, true alliances and national temperament
The Royal Navy is about to experience a once-in-a-generation opportunity to retrieve itself from the morale-sapping and strategically incoherent dismemberment that it has experienced in recent decades, especially since Cameron’s 2010 defence cuts. In so doing, it can be true to its motto – Si vis pacem para bellum (‘If you want peace, prepare for war’) – and it will be able to resume its historically familiar role: central to the rebuilding of the United Kingdom’s global credibility and influence, the essential underpinnings to maximising national advantage after leaving the EU.
A historic moment
This opportunity is now possible because, for a brief moment, events have combined to lift the veil of ‘sea blindness’ which dims public understanding of the realities of naval power. The British public are beginning to pay attention. Ancient reflexes are becoming engaged. A dismissive political class can be confronted. In a historical context, this is a moment that resonates like two previous episodes of similar magnitude.
The first of these was during the late 1880s, when the Victorian navy, under the leadership of Admiral ‘Uncle Geoffrey’ Hornby, began to recover from its post-Crimean torpor. Hornby was the first admiral to conceive of a modern fleet combining different classes of warship for mutual support. The Salisbury government’s Naval Defence Act of 1889 formalised the Two Power Standard, and mandated hypothecated expenditures in a five-year building programme whose centrepiece was 10 battleships and 42 cruisers. This began fleet recovery, both in size and in technological advances: the Royal Sovereign class battleships were the world leaders of their day. They in turn paved the way to the Grand Fleet of Jacky Fisher’s dreadnoughts and Beatty’s battle-cruisers 20 years later, which enabled the peculiar victory of Jutland. Jutland was peculiar in that it was a negative victory; nothing came of it immediately, except that the German High Seas Fleet was successfully bottled in, and any idea of a seaborne invasion à la Riddle of the Sands with it. In Britain it was seen as a strategic victory nonetheless. It is the usual fate of seapower not to be noticed: except when it fails.
The second comparable moment came in 1933–35 when, under the skilful and firm leadership of Admiral Ernle Chatfield – Beatty’s flag captain on Lion at Jutland – the military sub-committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) defeated its most formidable enemy: the Treasury. Assisted by the secretary of the CID and the cabinet secretary, Lord Hankey, its Second Defence Requirements report of 1935 was drawn up without reference to cost. From it came the many programmes – the Chatfield carriers and cruisers, the King George V battleships, accelerated fighter programmes, and so on – which were ready just in time for the Battle of Britain and to sink the Bismarck.
Our current opportunity is of this order of magnitude. It is created by two convergent dynamics. The first, negative, is the consequence of two serious strategic blunders made by Mrs May during the dying days of her government. But the second, in contrast, is immensely exciting and positive, as it will be the consequence of the UK’s recovery of full sovereignty and geopolitical autonomy upon leaving the EU.
May’s first blunder was her seriously reckless overriding of the advice of her Secretary of State for Defence by authorising the detention of the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar without simultaneously ordering adequate deployments pre-emptively to the Strait of Hormuz to accompany British tankers through one of the most consistently inflamed of Admiral Jacky Fisher’s nine choke-points – in his words, ‘the keys that lock up the globe’. Those choke points are a geopolitical fact, as true now as at the beginning of the last century. Her blunder led to the Iranian seizure of a British-flagged tanker, Stena Impero, on 19 July 2019, and to national British humiliation.
For such deployments to be made routinely possible without stress on the RN, along with the other standing tasks prescribed by Fisher’s choke points (which as I see it are necessary for the RN to resume as soon as possible) requires a minimum blue water surface fleet not of 19–24 vessels but a minimum of 32 destroyers and frigates, plus RFA support, plus an SSN fleet double that currently envisaged, plus accelerated resumption of RAF MPA capabilities – all with commensurate re-recruitment. Such numbers are also required in order to provide bare-bones (minimum crew) formations for the two Carrier Task Groups to which the country is in any case committed. The force of 32 destroyers and frigates was the goal set in the last strategically literate defence review, that of July 1998 by Secretary of Defence George Robertson and Chief of the Defence Staff Charles Guthrie.
Business not as usual
As in 1889 and 1935, this renewal cannot be accomplished by business as usual. It will require special legislation for hypothecated funding, and a root-and-branch reform of procurement processes grown too complex and too dominated by civil servants. As the fleet once again grows in number, a reverse application of Parkinson’s Law is in order: the number of civil servants should shrink in inverse proportion to the size of the fleet! A good start would be to reconstitute the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors, with teeth, as an RN-owned and controlled executive composed of and led by experts, to oversee ship procurement.
May’s second blunder was that in the July crisis, although the USN had substantial naval forces near the strait, when they offered her help she declined it. Why? A credible FCO-type reason arises from its ingrained Europhilia and anti-Americanism.
The positive dynamic that creates this moment of opportunity for the RN is that when the prime minister announces that we have left the European Union, this country will then execute a geopolitical pivot of epic importance; the UK will revert from the ever-awkward continental commitment of the last 40 years to our natural alignment, which fits our temperament, our interests and our true alliances.
The United Kingdom will pivot back to the open seas, the Commonwealth at large and the anglosphere. This will correct the error of the 1970s when the declinist establishment under Edward Heath drew this country into the European Project on false pretences. The British people were told that the project was simply about trade when it never ever was.
Once our pivot is made, I do not expect it to be reversed; certainly not in my lifetime.
But in the most comprehensive audit of the geopolitical capability of the major powers, by the Henry Jackson Society, the UK continues to rank second after the lone superpower, the USA. The declinist narrative was never remotely true. In any contest, and especially if that contest is a trial of strength as Brexit is, it is as foolish to underestimate one’s strength vis à vis one’s adversary as is the opposite.
Since the Suez debacle of 1956, the declinist British establishment has both harboured a resentful anti-Americanism and fostered a myth of British helplessness and relative weakness.
Indeed, we hear echoes of this self-abasement in the repeated iterations of ‘Project Fear’.
The audit summarises the UK’s position in 2019 thus:
- The UK – for all the difficulties thrown up by the intricacies of withdrawal from the EU – is still richly endowed with geopolitical capability across many different sectors.
- ‘Because of its well-developed national structure and instruments, it still remains the world’s second-most capable power. Combined with its strong national resolve, it has the potential – at least – to be able to weather whatever political storms that come its way … it has the largest diplomatic leverage [after the USA] and second-biggest military might [in Europe, after Russia].
It has the largest military budget in the EU, while the Royal Navy, in terms of total displacement of large warships and auxiliaries, is larger than the navies of France, Italy and Germany combined.’ [emphasis added] 1
This, then, is the real-world context in which the RN’s moment of opportunity is occurring. So come, cheer up, my lads, ’tis to glory we steer! n
Professor Gwythian Prins is Emeritus Research Professor of the London School of Economics specialising in geopolitics, security and defence, with a long-standing interest in naval and maritime affairs.
- UK Defence Journal, 4 January 2019: https://www.ukdefencejournal.org.uk/uk-ranked-second-most- powerful-country-in-the-world-in-audit-of-major-powers/