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Defending the British way

Naval priorities in the 21st century

Type 22 frigate HMS Chatham on patrol off Al Basrah oil terminal in the Persian Gulf

Maritime Media Awards 2008 Brochure
Michael Codner, Director of Military Sciences, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies

Photo: Royal Navy / Crown Copyright / LA(Phot) Chris Winter

The recent Georgian military action in South Ossetia and the subsequent Russian invasion, occupation and disarmament of Georgia have been in the forefront of world news. There has been much talk about the re-emergence of a ‘Cold War’. It would be a mistake, however, to clutch at historical models, and it is too early for considered judgement. As for the kind of Royal Navy the United Kingdom needs, and its future purposes and roles, there are immediate and obvious conclusions that the military capacity and intentions of large states remain hugely significant, uncertainty as to the longer term continues, and the best course for the United Kingdom’s security will be one that addresses the widest range of futures.

Inherent deterrence in an international context

The first misconception we can set aside is that there has been a ‘paradigm shift’ from the threat of interstate war to ‘war amongst the peoples’ – the two are intimately related, and always have been. There will continue to be complex emergencies on land which, where they are outside the United Kingdom, will affect British security indirectly. There will also be an enduring need for inherent conventional deterrence by benign powers.

Who are these benign powers? From a British viewpoint they are our allies and the friends with whom we have robust and enduring diplomatic and military relationships – not exclusively NATO members and the European Union, but these provide the geo-strategic context for British military strategy and force development. The questions for the United Kingdom are broadly, what should the British military contribution be, and what degree of military autonomy should we sustain for specifically national responsibilities and for international influence?

‘Expeditionary’ or ‘maritime’ strategy?

The United Kingdom, as an island nation in the eastern Atlantic, is just about safer from territorial encroachment or aggression than anywhere else in the world. Its short- and medium-term insecurities are, on the one hand, a dependence on trade and financial markets, and on the stability of the world economy, and on the other hand indigenous terrorism, born perhaps of a sense of dispossession in marginalised groups but also related to military activity abroad. There is nothing new here.
It would be blindingly obvious to any objective observer that Britain’s principal military contribution to world stability and security would be ‘maritime’ in the traditional sense of maritime versus continental. In this sense ‘maritime’ means delivered from a relatively secure island base across the seas, rapidly by air but predominantly by sea, selectively, proactively as necessary, and with long-term factors in mind. These considerations include sustained alliances, friendships and cooperative relationships, deterrence, and benign influence in helping to shape the world security environment though diplomatic and military competence. ‘Expeditionary’ has somewhat supplanted ‘maritime’ in this broad sense in the popular language of British strategy. However, there is a problem here. ‘Expeditionary’ implies that the military is not doing its job properly if it is not actually engaged on land expeditions. The larger the capacity for these expeditions, the more commitments politicians will undertake in a violent world.

The 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) confirmed that Britain had moved away from its ‘continental’ entrapment of the Cold War, which involved huge garrison commitments to Germany and a large field army to sustain this presence. SDR was supported by a broad political consensus. Although it prepared for a possible large-scale military commitment to the Middle East, it did not envisage enforcement of multiple regime change in this theatre and the attendant moral and legal occupation responsibilities, for which in the future there will be absolutely no national appetite in this country for a very long time.

British defence policy

With the prospect of a general election in the next couple of years, a sound assessment of what the electorate would support in defence policy is as follows. The UK should be out of Iraq – a job well done in its military conclusion if not in its political initiation – through a deal with a new, clean, US administration that would allow concentration of British land and air effort in Afghanistan. There the British contribution should be properly equipped and supported, politically and materially, but contained and proportionate to Britain’s role in NATO and the European Union. The task must be seen through, and there can be no talk of exit strategies because this weakens military effectiveness. But the nation’s strategic vision for the longer term must not be clouded by arguments that our forces should be tailored for garrison commitments to global counterinsurgency for ever. The public will not stand for this.

The SDR model remains the right one for the United Kingdom, provided there remains a broad national consensus that Britain should support its world-power status and relative economic capacity with a military strategy of international influence. We might call this strategy maritime in the traditional strategic sense, rather than expeditionary. What is needed are highly agile specialised medium and light ground forces where the emphasis is on competence and adroitness rather than scale and sustainable presence. Similarly, agile air forces deployable from sea as well as from land bases of opportunity, and naval forces that can exploit what Alfred Thayer Mahan referred to as the great common that is the sea – not only in controlling military access and delivering capability but in the fundamentally important roles of naval diplomacy and contributing to global maritime security. It is specifically in these two roles that the Royal Navy is not merely a supporting force to the Army.

The SDR’s Joint Rapid Reaction Force, planned and shaped to deliver these capabilities, can of course be brought home if more local threats were to become the priority – but a ‘Little Britain’ defensive force could not be sent abroad and would not contribute robustly to the requirements for inherent conventional deterrence which warfighting intervention capability reinforces.

One problem for the Ministry of Defence is to allocate defence resources. In the naval context, funding of capabilities is justified by their contribution to the fourteen standing and contingent Military Tasks. The force structure is designed principally to address contingent tasks – meaning tasks that may or may not happen. These tasks predominantly involve operations of choice (the meaty ones being peace enforcement, power projection and focused and deliberate intervention), but there is one military task in the contingent category that, in the view of the average British citizen, would be an obligation of government and not elective – and that is the ‘evacuation of British citizens overseas’, a task that would probably be urgent and very difficult to plan, and one that would very likely be dependent on naval capability, and carriers in particular.

Naval diplomacy

The role of naval diplomacy is split in the framework of tasks between ‘power projection’ and ‘defence diplomacy’. The language of naval diplomacy indicates a continuum of activity from prevention of conflict at one end to sustained combat at the other – inherent deterrence, presence, precautionary and pre-emptive deployment, reassurance, support, coercion in the forms of directed deterrence and compellence, and finally the pursuit of coercion into warfighting itself as the component that can deliver preferred but high-risk outcomes. Navies have a dominant role in much of the early part of the continuum. Yet ‘defence diplomacy’ as defined in policy documents focuses on arms control, ‘outreach’, and education and training. The effects of prevention and deterrence are notoriously difficult to measure.

Maritime security

Strangely, maritime security does not feature amongst the SDR’s Military Tasks. There is reference to ‘support to counter drugs operations’ under defence diplomacy and ‘integrity of UK waters’ as a standing task, but that is all. In view of Britain’s dependence on maritime trade and resources delivered by sea one might presume that protection of merchant shipping in ungoverned waters would be a standing task of obligation to the government. The broad contradictory arguments are threefold. Firstly, the shipping, finance and insurance sectors assess maritime trade as highly agile and with sufficient redundancy to cope with challenges to economies. Secondly, the majority of the industry that sustains the British economy in this respect is not now British-owned or controlled, and so there is no sovereign responsibility. Thirdly, the task of securing the sea lanes for Britain is so huge that it would be unachievable and unaffordable. With a general election looming, what would the average member of the electorate think? It is an obligation for the government, and should be a standing military task for the Royal Navy, to make a sufficient contribution to maritime security outside territorial seas to show leadership and to influence the development of an international system of maritime security that is appropriate to Britain’s dependence on the sea and self-evident status as a maritime nation.

An affordable future

At present, the critical issue for the British government is of course affordability. Carriers and submarines are expensive. Maritime security and naval diplomacy need large numbers of vessels. There is talk of a new Defence White Paper to be published towards the end of the year, and this would be particularly timely bearing in mind that there is now a National Security Strategy and the government should at least publicly demonstrate the coherence of its military strategy. There is also an urgent need to rebuild a broad national and inter-party consensus on defence that will inform party manifestos for the next election and support British military personnel in theatre.
The force structure envisaged by SDR is not fully affordable. So in the longer term the United Kingdom needs to specialise strategically in the context of NATO and the European Union, concentrating on a robust early and agile intervention capability, the obligations of maritime security and the ability to evacuate civilians, all of which are coherent within a maritime strategic approach in the traditional sense. In the NATO context of European capability defined on the presumption that the United States will from time to time be busy elsewhere, the United Kingdom would be the largest European contributor of maritime capability, and this will be important for inherent conventional deterrence. Clearly, operations in Afghanistan should be properly resourced at present levels of commitment. There may therefore be a need to accept that the numbers of surface fleet (typically destroyers and frigates) will be lower in the short and medium terms than ideal for the purposes of maritime security and naval diplomacy, but the longer-term vision would include a force of surface combatants that would be adequate for a refreshed list of Military Tasks.

At last the government has signed the contract to buy two new aircraft carriers. One suspects that a British electorate, well informed by politicians of all parties seeking consensus on security and defence policy, would be looking to the longer term. It would see this decision as the continuation of a wise and pragmatic evolution of policy from the early 1990s, rather than as a legacy capability irrelevant to the present strategic environment, as some pundits would advocate.


When we look at these distant and varied commitments, and consider the reduction of the number of people employed in naval facilities, then the naval presence in maritime diplomacy becomes less evident to the people of the United Kingdom. It remains a vital ingredient of political process that the population understands the importance of their maritime services. Some excellent analyses in the media have given an insight into naval operations, but, as Desmond Wettern would have proclaimed, much more needs to be done.