Naval Policy in an Era of Defence Cuts

 

You’d have to be a certified hermit not to know that we live in an age of austerity, and with the
exception of the Department for International Development and our EU contributions Government
budgets are being cut across the board, and the Ministry of Defence is no different. Huge numbers
of service personnel have been made redundant and entire capabilities have been wiped out. To
do this in the middle of a war in Afghanistan is irresponsible, but is excused by the Government as
necessary to restructure the military to balance the defence needs of the UK with restricted budgets.
Personally I believe that the Government has completely misjudged our defence needs and that
the military is being left dangerously ill-equipped to meet the tasks that may be required of it in the
future.

First of all, I believe that our overall military strategy should be defensive. We’ve seen the huge cost
in blood and treasure of New Labour’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which despite having
noble aims (to free oppressed people and tackle terrorists) have led to long, drawn out and bloody
counter-insurgency operations. We’ve also seen, in Libya, the result of the Coalition’s continuation
of this policy, where we violated the terms of a UN resolution authorising a no-fly zone in order to
oust the Gadaffi regime, only to see it replaced by a regime backed by anti-Western Islamists. It has
been shown time and again that intervention, no matter how well meaning, does not work. Most of
the countries in which we intervene do not want us to do so, and even when they do we never send
sufficient men and equipment to do the job properly. No, our focus should be on defending the UK,
our territories and our interests abroad. Now there’s the key part of our military strategy as I see it –
“defending our territories and our interests abroad.”

Let’s start by looking our territories. No, we don’t own a quarter of the world anymore, but we do
have overseas territories that need defending, namely the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar. Neither
are at imminent risk of invasion from Argentina or Spain respectively, however both are fiercely
British and both find themselves getting harassed by their neighbours on a regular basis. Argentina’s
hostility to the Falkland Islands Government is well publicised, and the Spanish are frequently
violating Gibraltar’s territorial waters with fishing boats, Guardia Civil boats or even Spanish Navy
warships. Each time the Royal Navy manages to turn them away, but they only have a small patrol
boat, and there’s only so many times that one can turn away a heavily armed warship with a small
boat armed only with a single machine gun and a couple of sailors with SA80s. True deterrence will
only come from the presence of a major Royal Navy warship such as a Type 23 Frigate. The Spanish
Guardia Civil will think twice about sailing into Gibraltar’s waters if a 6000 tonne, heavily armed
frigate (or her helicopter) were to arrive to escort them away. To keep a warship in Gibraltar would
be costly and would require ships to deploy on a rotation from the UK, which will prove difficult with
the Government reducing the number of available warships and sending those we do have off to do
counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. Similarly, the Falklands, in my view, should have
more protection than a single ship doing a South Atlantic patrol. The South Atlantic is a big place and
those patrols have a lot of territory to cover. In my opinion, there should be one ship patrolling as is
the current practice, with another in the Falklands ready to respond to any harassment of Falkland
Islands flagged vessels by the Argentine Navy. Again, this strategy would be costly, but necessary if
we are to adopt an entirely defensive military policy.


I’d like to point out here that I am not advocating we open fire on Spanish or Argentine boats. The
deterrence value of a Royal Navy warship is massive and the appearance of one of our frigates
of destroyers would be enough to make even the most determined Spanish or Argentine captain
reconsider his actions. That said, the threat should always be there. We must be prepared to open
fire should the need ever arise. That is the essence of deterrence and that should be the essence
of our new defensive strategy. What is clear, however, is that our current fleet of six destroyers
and thirteen frigates is not sufficient to maintain this defensive posture and allow for contingency
operations. This becomes even more apparently when we expand our policies to look at our
interests.

In my opinion, “our interests” consists of the Anglosphere (the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand
etc.), the Commonwealth and our trading partners around the world. The EU and the Eurozone are
in a downward economic spiral and the proportion of our international trade that they account for is
decreasing year-on-year. In contrast, the economies of the Commonwealth are growing, particularly
in the developing world, and the economies of the Middle East are all looking to diversify in order to
provide jobs for their young people and reduce their dependency on oil. Rather than being shackled
to the Titanic, we should realign ourselves to build trade partnerships with these countries and
open up new markets for British goods and services. We should also build alliances and defensive
partnerships with these countries, with a policy of mutual support to protect our mutual interests in
trade. This doesn’t mean interventionism, but it does mean that we need to be prepared to support
our trading partners and allies militarily, should they request it, in the event of an emergency. This
includes both humanitarian aid in the event of a disaster and direct military action in the event of
hostile aggression.

This does not mean we should be acting as the lone defender of our partners around the world,
but it does mean we need to have sufficient resources in order to support them alongside other
partners such as Canada and Australia. Our new aircraft carriers will go some way to supporting
this goal, however there remains the issue of escorts. Aircraft carriers require not only aircraft to
operate them (the debate around which is a subject for another blog) but also ships and submarines
to protect them. To be effective, a Royal Navy surface action group that is centred around an aircraft
carrier will require two, possibly three of the new Type 45 destroyers to provide air defence, along
with three or four Type 23 (or in future Type 26) frigates to provide anti-surface and anti-submarine
protection and probably two of the new Astute class attack submarines for additional defence. If
you add in a requirement for amphibious warfare using either landing ships or a helicopter carrier,
then the requirements will increase still further. It is clear that an effective surface action group
will absorb half of our available destroyers and a significant number of frigates. Combine that with
the need to defend our territories as detailed above, and with the need to perform anti-piracy
operations off Somalia and Aden, we can see that the Royal Navy is too small to meet the needs of
the United Kingdom.

What is needed, therefore, is not only a realignment of our foreign and defence policy, but also
a fundamental review of our strategic defence needs; a review that is driven not by the demands
of the Treasury but by the needs of the nation. For the Royal Navy, we need to rebuild our escort
capability by building new ships. We need more destroyers to provide adequate air defence both
for our aircraft carriers and for other operations around the world. We need more frigates to allow
us to defend our overseas territories and provide anti-submarine and anti-surface protection to our

task forces, and more attack submarines to protect our ships and our nuclear deterrent submarines.
Not only that, but we need a new class of ship to handle tasks like the anti-piracy operations in the
Gulf. Frigates and destroyers can do this work, but in naval terms this is like using a sledgehammer
to swat a fly. What is needed is something smaller; something that can operate just as easily at sea
as in shallow coastal waters and has the speed and firepower to handle the threat of small, fast
attack craft used by pirates. Traditionally this role was performed with corvettes, however corvettes
have been absent from the Royal Navy for some time (although we do still build them for export).
The US Navy is developing a new class of warship known as the “Littoral Combat Ship”, which fulfils
the same purpose. A small fleet of similar ships can be developed for the Royal Navy from existing
designs and built here in the UK, protecting British jobs and freeing up our larger escorts to do the
job that they were designed to perform while still permitting us to protect vital trade routes and
deal with the threat of piracy.

Many libertarians and proponents of small Government will balk at the idea of increased defence
expenditure; however I believe that it is vital. Yes, Great Britain is a small island nation, but our
interests stretch across the world and we need to be prepared to protect those interests and to
assist in the defence of our partners, particularly in the Commonwealth. Much of the money to
fund this can come from ending our operations in Afghanistan and through reductions to our
overseas aid budget. Trade will do more to develop the economies of the developing nations of
the Commonwealth than direct foreign aid, and through trade we will actually see a return on
our investment and growth here in the UK. This is the key to future British success, not shackling
ourselves to the EU, however to ensure that it is a success we need the Royal Navy to be more than
just a shadow of its former self.

 

 

Born in Yeovil, Bob Foster moved to the West Midlands, and following a brief spell in Dublin after university now lives in the North West. When pushed he describes himself as socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-military and anti-Government. His passions are American history, military history and defence policy, and when he doesn’t have his nose in a book on air power or a political memoir he can be found building model aircraft and warships. He works in the defence industry, but speaks for himself. He tweets as @Bobski1984

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