Anthony Sloggett examines the salient points of a hard-hitting report by the UK National Defence Association (UKNDA) into the state of Britain’s military, in which the damage done to the Royal Navy and serious threat to the Anglo-American ‘Special Relationship’ is laid bare.

UNLESS the Royal Navy is given additional funding and support then Britain will be unable to meet national and global commitments, according to a report commissioned by the UK National Defence Association (UKNDA). Furthermore, the report, which is entitled ‘A Compelling Necessity - the Case for Increasing the Defence Budget Despite the Present Severe Economic Crisis’, claims that for Britain to remain a global power, and specifically to maintain the much vaunted ‘Special Relationship’ with America, then the government ‘must sustain a credible “rounded” navy with a worldwide expeditionary capability.’

The report, by Andrew Roberts, a respected UK-based historian and journalist and Allen Sykes, a retired international businessman, argues that there is ‘widespread lack of understanding’ concerning the global role of the RN in preserving British security. Their report draws much of its inspiration from what the report authors’ describe as a ‘balanced and objective’ speech given by recently retired First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathon Band. The UKNDA report argues, quoting Admiral Band’s speech in the centre of the following excerpt: ‘The United Kingdom is pre-eminently a maritime nation “whose people rely on the unburdened use of the sea for their security, prosperity and well-being…the global sea lanes are the arteries along which the economy of this valued nation flows.” Our security for imported raw materials, goods, food and increasingly energy, depend on our ability to guarantee the security of these sea lanes. Our imperial legacy has bequeathed us not only unique international contacts and obligations but our place at the “top table” - a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.’ Roberts and Sykes place naval forces at the crux of British defence policy and yet, so they claim, too many people do not recognise the central role that they continue to play. Roberts and Sykes point out that, despite its vital role, the size of the navy has halved to 36,000 personnel since 1982. The report warns of an even more catastrophic decline in critical mass: ‘On present trends, by 2020 the Fleet could be half its present already-shrunken size.’

The report argues that any debate questioning the importance of the two new aircraft carriers to UK defences must cease. Roberts and Sykes observe: ‘To sustain our international position and any real capability and value as a military ally, particularly with America, this country must sustain a credible “rounded” Navy with a worldwide expeditionary capability. That means Britain must provide appropriate land, sea and air forces, which in the Royal Navy’s case means aircraft carriers (and sufficient F35 and 35B aircraft) and the appropriate escorts and support ships to sustain and support them.’ The carriers are ‘crucial to Britain’s defence needs.’ The authors even advocate that a third carrier should be built, so that at least one could be available at any time to contend with a maritime crisis. They acknowledge that the current financial climate will limit this idea to a long-term objective. The production of the carriers has already been delayed and the report warns of further postponements: ‘What is certain is that to delay the programme any further would be to increase the maritime threats to this country and reduce significantly our international credibility. To cancel the carrier programme or to reduce it to just one vessel would effectively destroy any pretence that the Royal Navy is a rounded maritime force with any realistic reliable expeditionary capability.’


To bolster their argument for the Royal Navy to be kept strong, Roberts and Sykes deploy the following quote from Admiral Band as a pullout within their report: “To meet its tasks the Royal Navy needs a broad balance of maritime capabilities, including Carrier Strike and Littoral Manoeuvre. We shouldn’t, for example, have a force solely comprising frigates because, while they are effective, versatile work-horses, when it comes to high end operations, they need to be backed up with high end capability, the sort of sea power that can influence friends as well as deter enemies.” Roberts and Sykes agree that the RN can be as essential to preventing wars as it is in winning them. The report promotes the idea that the surface fleet requires greater numbers, such as those envisaged by the Strategic Defence Review of 1998 (SDR 98). They reinforce this argument by quoting US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who argued that: “Mass of numbers has a quality all of its own.” SDR, which was conducted prior to both the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, recommended the UK’s surface fleet should, in addition to the two aircraft carriers, have 32 escorts of which 12 were meant to be Daring Class (Type 45) destroyers. SDR also proposed the UK should field 10 attack submarines (SSNs). However, only six Type 45s are to be built while there will probably be just seven Astute Class SSNs. The UKNDA report suggests the Future Surface Combatant (FSC) - which aims to replace the 13 Type 23 and four Type 22 frigates - will not be available until 2017 ‘at the earliest’. Furthermore the Fleet’s escort total is already down to 25 (from the 32 SDR envisaged). The UKNDA report even suggests: ‘As ageing ships have to be withdrawn the escort fleet/flotilla could fall to 17 or 15, and the average age of the remaining ships will rise substantially. Indeed, recently the originally planned lifetime of our [the UK’s] escorts has been extended by two or three years to up to eight years more in an attempt to cover the otherwise inevitable lack of enough escorts to meet all of the Royal Navy’s commitments, responsibilities and ever changing tasks.’ The paper also stresses: ‘…the Royal Navy urgently needs a firm commitment to provide replacements for its rapidly ageing and still reducing force of frigates and destroyers and smaller warships. Decisions must be made and firm commitments given to provide the required number of “Future Surface Combatants”, failing which ageing ships will necessarily have to be withdrawn without replacement, thus reducing the Royal Navy’s capabilities still further.’ Roberts and Sykes warn that the early withdrawal of the Sea Harrier FA2 - probably Britain’s, if not Europe’s, best air defence fighter at the time it was retired, in 2006 - has left the RN with a critical air defence gap. It therefore must rely on cover from American strike carriers with air-superiority/fleet defence fighters, or on land-based aircraft. This amounts to a severe handicap, virtually negating the advantages of strike from the sea. Only the future carriers Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, and their F-35 Lightning II strike fighters, will solve that particular problem.


Despite defence spending only representing 2.2 per cent of Britain’s GDP - around half of what it was in 1989 - a recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) claimed up to £24 billion could be cut. Most of the future navy was highlighted as being ripe for the chop by the liberal-left leaning think-tank. The IPPR suggested the Trident replacement scheme and the future aircraft carrier programme should be discarded. Sykes and Roberts disagree profoundly with that notion. The UKNDA report repeatedly emphasises its authors’ belief that Trident must be replaced. Roberts and Sykes point out: ‘With nine countries already possessing nuclear weapons, including endangered Pakistan and rogue state North Korea, and with a belligerent and unstable Iran about to create a nuclear capacity, Britain clearly must maintain a nuclear deterrent capability.’ Furthermore, despite some proposing the possibility of extending the lifetime of the current system, or alternatives such as cruise missiles, the UKNDA report authors put their faith in the wisdom of the new First Sea Lord (and submariner by trade) Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope. The report explains: ‘There are three phases to the £20 billion Trident replacement decision. This September requires the “Initial Gate” decision for a full five-year design contract for the new class of submarine capable of launching the new Trident D5 missiles. In 2014 there follows the “Main Gate” decision to build the new submarines due to be completed in 2022. This allows for two years of tests and sea trials before entering service in 2024 to enable Britain to maintain a continuous deterrent presence at sea. Some experts have said the life of the existing four Vanguard submarines could be extended beyond 2024. The new First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, considers such an extension is impossible. Finally, it should be noted that all three Services strongly support the maintenance of the nuclear deterrent.’


The UKNDA report draws attention to the vast scope of the tasks facing the RN. It explains: ‘Sudden international crises could require the Royal Navy’s urgent presence at international straits, “choke” points such as Gibraltar, Suez, the Gulf of Aden and the Straits of Hormuz in the Arabian Gulf, where the Royal Navy has traditionally always patrolled. In addition the Navy must at all times be ready to police piracy, to evacuate British citizens (e.g. in the Lebanon in 2006), to carry out international relief work, to police the seaborne drugs trade and illegal immigrants and to assist in security, flood relief, etc. in mainland Britain.’ When faced by possible operations in these regions, in conjunction with the naval efforts that have been undertaken in the recent Iraq conflict and the ongoing Afghanistan war, the report observes that the RN can do no more. ‘The Royal Navy is now overstretched, has no “spare resources”,’ claims the report, ‘and frequently has to shuffle ships between their various operational duties.’ For example, the authors note that the RN cannot commit a single vessel to preventing arms smuggling into the Gaza strip - a role the UK government said it would devote a warship to. Furthermore, last year the RN had to withdraw a frigate from tasking as the Falkland Islands Guard Ship. The frigate was needed to conduct anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean, another role the UK Government has committed the depleted RN to. Its replacement was a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel, which presented less of a military deterrent to Argentina. The UKNDA report also observes: ‘For the first time in perhaps 300 years the Royal Navy seems almost powerless, even in conjunction with other NATO nations, to rid the sea of what should be a trivial threat by less than a thousand Somali pirates.’ If the Royal Navy is not adequately equipped with an appropriate number of vessels and manpower to match, Sykes and Roberts argue, then it will no longer be able to preserve the UK’s global interests.


Irwin Stelzer, a respected American economist and journalist, writing the report’s Foreword, raises the issue of Britain’s ‘Special Relationship’ with the United States coming under threat. There is a feeling gaining momentum in America that the current Labour government simply does not want to invest in the scale of military capabilities, or commit enough of what is left, to major operations alongside the USA in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Stelzer writes in his Foreword: ‘There is no question that the Pentagon is engaged in a reappraisal of the extent to which it can look to Britain for support in any effort involving the deployment of military assets, and therefore the extent of its obligation should Britain need assistance.’ In the main report Roberts and Sykes say the UK-US bond must not be shattered. However, they point out ‘undeniably, this vital Special Relationship is at the greatest risk in its 60-year history, as President Barack Obama needs dependable allies to confront the huge and growing global risks he must confront.’ The UKNDA report lists potential belligerents that could disrupt international order, including Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan and a resurgent Russia.


The report calls for the UK to make sure it is not ‘another free-rider’ on US military capabilities. The authors observe how both major political parties have acknowledged that defence of the realm is the primary priority of any government and yet Defence, unlike Health and Education, is still seen as a valid target for further budget cuts. Defence policy, Roberts and Sykes argue, must be: ‘Threat-driven as opposed to Treasury-driven, and to give all three Services the means with which to discharge the heavy current and future responsibilities placed on them.’  The publication promotes the concept that if the threats of today are more dangerous and unpredictable then defence spending should rise accordingly, and yet it has fallen - from over four per cent of GDP at the end of the Cold War (1989/91), to three per cent in 1997 and now just over two per cent.


The UKNDA report goes against the grain of what some, including the IPPR, are suggesting, in that it recommends defence spending should be increased, rather than cut as part of government cost savings in a severe economic crisis. It also sees the UK as an important global player, second only to the USA in safeguarding international security, a perception that does not chime with Euro-centric liberal-socialist ‘post-military’ thinking which regards ‘soft power’ as the chief instrument of foreign policy. The UKNDA report suggests that Britain must increase spending on defence to secure its status as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as to underpin the ‘Special Relationship.’  Roberts and Sykes argue that, as a maritime nation with ‘the greatest proportion of seaborne trade of any nation’ (92 per cent) it is vital for there to be investment in the sort of navy that will achieve defence of that trade and safeguard UK interests around the globe. Furthermore, Stelzer suggests that a failure to heed the report’s advice on the UK’s defence relationship with the USA, and its counsel on other strategic consequences of defence under-funding, will make the world ‘a more dangerous place.’

A US Navy sailor studies one of the Royal Navy’s frigates, HMS Westminster, during a US-UK joint deployment in 2008.  Photo: US Navy.

A US Navy sailor studies one of the Royal Navy’s frigates, HMS Westminster, during a US-UK joint deployment in 2008. 
Photo: US Navy.

A computer-generated image depicting one of the future Royal Navy carriers alongside at Portsmouth, revealing the sheer size of the ships. Without the carriers Britain will lose its place in the world, according to the UKNDA’s report, which also recommends building three of the vessels instead of just two.  Image: BVT.

A computer-generated image depicting one of the future Royal Navy carriers alongside at Portsmouth, revealing the sheer size of the ships. Without the carriers Britain will lose its place in the world, according to the UKNDA’s report, which also recommends building three of the vessels instead of just two.
Image: BVT.


As part of his ongoing series Dr Lee Willett, Head of the Maritime Studies Programme at the Royal United Services Institute in London, considers the US Navy’s ballistic missile submarine force, its continuing relevance and plans for regeneration.  Photo: US Navy.

As part of his ongoing series Dr Lee Willett, Head of the Maritime Studies Programme at the Royal United Services Institute in London, considers the US Navy’s ballistic missile submarine force, its continuing relevance and plans for regeneration.

Photo: US Navy.

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