Defender of the Realm

The role of the Royal Navy in protecting and promoting trade

A RIB from the frigate HMS St Albans takes freshly cooked food to the coalition forces

Commander Sue Eagles QVRM, RD, RNR, the Maritime Foundation’s new Director, on the meaning of the Long Arm of Defence

Photo: Crown Copyright

The Royal Navy plays a major role in meeting the United Kingdom’s international requirements and responsibilities worldwide, from the Arctic to the South Atlantic and the Caribbean to the South China Sea. Its purpose is to deter war, or interference with our maritime trading systems, to defend the realm – and of course to defeat the Queen’s enemies if it has to.

Throughout history international trade has flowed to the UK from all corners of the world, and preventing any disruption to that flow of vital resources is just as great a priority for the nation and the Royal Navy today as it has ever been. The UK is totally dependent upon the freedom of the seas for its prosperity, and the Navy’s clear and distinct role in protecting global lines of communication provides direct support to the security of our economy.

Emerging maritime threats

Our naval forces, however, face particular challenges. The plethora of emerging maritime threats, including actual or threatened attacks against merchant shipping and gas and oil infrastructure, piracy, smuggling and illegal immigration, ultimately affect us all. These threats ignore national boundaries and have the potential to severely disrupt international security. Unlike the other Services, the Royal Navy is also routinely called upon by various government departments and international partners to fulfil other tasks. The Royal Navy doesn’t just work for the Ministry of Defence.

Counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics operations, offshore protection, embargo and maritime interdiction operations, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, fishery protection, hydrographic surveying, Antarctic patrol, escort duties, monitoring and intelligence gathering, and promoting partnerships overseas, are all current operations carried out by the Royal Navy.

Protecting energy supply

The UK is also becoming increasingly reliant on energy imports, oil and liquid gas, coming from distant sources. By 2020, eighty per cent of the nation’s energy needs will come from overseas resources. ‘Maritime security’ goes well beyond UK territorial waters. If the supply line of tankers going through the Straits of Hormuz is sabotaged, for example, we run out of petrol within a few days.

The UK’s assured economic wellbeing depends on the continuing free and unimpeded flow of maritime trade. The multifaceted nature of the risks and sheer size of the task requires a high degree of responsiveness, information sharing and close cooperation among international organisations. It is not an option for international shipping companies committed to operating in a global market to trade only in politically stable areas, or to avoid choke points that potentially might be exploited by hostile forces. Ipso facto, the Royal Navy has to maintain a presence off the coast of Somalia if we are not to be outflanked by Somali pirates with the most rudimentary means terrorising shipping many miles off the coast.

Policing maritime law

Just like the man in the street, unarmed merchant ships need a police force at sea to deter crime on the high seas and to enforce maritime law. The Royal Navy’s critical role in the protection of trade routes is likely to become greater in the future, not less. Our geographical location and shortage of natural resources have long determined that, in order to survive and prosper, the UK must play an active and international role in the world. The Navy is the instrument by which we fulfil that role and project power and influence, building cultural and business partnerships with our dependencies and territories worldwide.

The economic recovery of the country and the future role of the Royal Navy go hand in hand.