Towards a more secure maritime future

The main areas of focus for the Royal Navy and its partners over the coming years

Vice Admiral Sir Philip Jones KCB, Fleet Commander and Deputy Chief of Naval Staff

As an island nation, the United Kingdom has always been dependent on the sea for its prosperity and security. This is particularly true in the era of globalisation, as almost all of our international trade, including energy and food, is carried by sea, and most digital traffic reaches us through undersea fibreoptic cables.

But the international system at sea can be fragile too. Failing states, terrorism and piracy all have the power to affect global maritime trade directly, while in the longer term, population pressures, environmental change and competition for natural resources pose challenges to the stability of the international system at sea and in the coastal regions which account for most of the world’s major population centres.

This connection between defence and our economic interests helps explain the particularly close relationship between the Royal Navy and the UK’s maritime sector. At any one time, over 7,000 sailors and marines are on operations around the world, working either independently or with our allies, to contribute to the security of the shipping routes and the maritime infrastructure upon which we rely.

Maritime security

The UK’s economic security begins in our home waters, where the Royal Navy regularly works alongside government agencies in support of a range of constabulary tasks, including fishery protection, counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics operations. However, it is often at range where the Royal Navy has greatest effect, working to prevent problems before they reach our own shores, or threaten UK interests abroad or British citizens overseas.

Nowhere better demonstrates the Royal Navy’s support to trade than the Middle East. The Royal Navy, in concert with our allies and partners, plays a vital role in contributing to the stability of the region. Currently, the Gulf represents our largest overseas commitment, and the UK will shortly re-establish a permanent naval base in Bahrain. This will serve as a home port for our warships, and will also allow us to project forces beyond the Gulf into the Asia-Pacific, as the economic and strategic importance of that region grows in significance.

As well as physically protecting trade and patrolling shipping lanes, the Royal Navy’s economic responsibilities extend to engagement and diplomacy, often in support of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or UK Trade and Investment. Here the Royal Navy is both the symbol and instrument of the UK’s strategic global ambition: quietly underlining our military and economic credibility; subtly reinforcing the prestige of the UK maritime sector, and our nation as a whole.

Royal Navy recapitalisation

The Royal Navy’s ongoing recapitalisation will ensure our continued global presence. The centrepiece will be our two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, which are currently under construction in Scotland. These ships, the largest in our history, will allow the Royal Navy to project power at sea and from the sea. They are at the centre of a much larger equipment programme that includes new submarines, patrol vessels, frigates and tankers, and a new generation of helicopters and jet aircraft, that will secure our maritime future for the next half-century.

However, even though the Royal Navy is enjoying sustained investment, it is clear that public spending restraint is going to continue, despite the Government’s welcome decision to meet the 2 per cent NATO defence spending target.

This is not a UK problem, but a challenge faced by navies around the world, in part as a consequence of the rising cost of sophisticated technology and the global proliferation of weaponry.

Working more effectively

For these reasons, the Royal Navy, and our partners, must seek out better, more effective ways of working to maintain our advantage, with a particular focus on four areas of action.

Firstly, like-minded navies must work more closely together. We learned this lesson from a decade of counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. The solution was built on a persistent presence, together with a strong partnership. It involved intelligence sharing and coordinating ships and aircraft to maximise our reach and capability. As a result, whenever a suspected report of piracy was received, the nearest ship, irrespective of nationality, could be sent to respond.

The number of successful pirate attacks has reduced significantly over the past couple of years, which shows what can be achieved when navies and commercial maritime interests coordinate a joint response. However, it would be wrong to conclude that the problem has gone away. Although Somali piracy has been suppressed, it has not been eliminated, and all those with an interest in maritime security must continue to work together.

Secondly, there must be a greater focus on capacity building. The Royal Navy trains alongside navies and coastguards around the world, particularly those of developing nations, so they can better protect their own waters and contribute to regional security. Not only can this help prevent threats to maritime security from getting out of hand, but it also provides a stable and secure foundation upon which coastal nations can develop their domestic maritime industries.

Thirdly, we must continue our efforts to improve information sharing between all users of the sea. The Royal Navy contributes to this objective through the UK Maritime Trade Operations cell in the Gulf, which has been an integral part of the voluntary reporting service for this high-risk area. It is a proven way of increasing our situational awareness for the benefit of the entire maritime community, and is a pattern for future cooperation.

Over the last few years we have also put in place the means to allow better information sharing within the UK, notably the National Maritime Information Centre, which brings together government departments and agencies to better coordinate their activities. Meanwhile, the Shipping Defence Advisory Committee continues its longstanding role of bringing together key industry members to discuss threats and security risks.

The fourth approach is technological. As the maritime sector seeks to work more closely together, and to share information more effectively, it becomes increasingly crucial that navies develop the equipment and connectivity that make this possible.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, for instance, are already employed by commercial maritime industries to inspect offshore infrastructure and improve safety at sea, while the Royal Navy has been using the Scan Eagle remotely piloted aircraft to undertake aerial surveillance and reconnaissance from our ships in the Gulf region. The benefits include reduced cost, lower risk, greater endurance and persistence and more capability, and these advantages cut across both military and civil use.

That’s why the Royal Navy is working with our partners in UK academia and in industry, to push the boundaries of existing technology, including a project with Southampton University to test the world’s first experimental 3D-printed drone in a maritime environment.

The ability to produce and operate cheap, recoverable, or even disposable drones at sea could vastly extend the eyes and ears of the captain of a merchant vessel, for instance, as a navigational tool and for safety at sea. If this insight was shared and disseminated amongst lawful users of the sea it could also increase our collective situational awareness within the maritime community.

However, we will only be able to maintain our technological edge if we have the necessary expertise, which is why the Royal Navy is working with government, the education sector and our industrial partners to develop the training and skills that both the Royal Navy, and the UK, need for the future.

This includes sponsorship of five University Technical Colleges, together with regular outreach activity, particularly with a science or engineering focus. We want to play our part in supporting the development of these skills nationally, because the Royal Navy leans on industry and academia to give us our technological advantage.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the relationship between the Royal Navy and the UK maritime sector has never been closer, nor more important, than in this age of global opportunity. As our economic recovery continues, we want to continue to work together, because with a strong and credible Royal Navy comes global influence, greater security and the stability on which military and trading alliances are built.

Vice Admiral Sir Philip Jones KCB joined the Royal Navy in 1978 and saw action in the Falklands conflict. He has held many seagoing and senior staff appointments and was appointed Fleet Commander and Deputy Chief of Naval Staff in 2012.