Odin's Eye: Royal Navy Commentary


The answer is simple: Britain has no effective foreign policy that it can call its own and that is why the Royal Navy - which has for centuries been the British state’s most powerful instrument - is a sword that is sheathed and rusting. In place of a coherent foreign policy in the national interest, the disastrous Labour Government that Britain has been cursed with for a decade has a fragmented single issue security policy that is disconnected from the true Defence of the Realm.

It is on the brink of discarding the expeditionary-orientated Strategic Defence Review, which placed the Navy at the forefront of national defence, at the exact moment it is most relevant, in favour of what? Landlocked campaigns that have slim chance of success due to circumstances that Britain, through its lack of diplomatic and political strength, cannot materially shape. In the past the UK acted as a useful counterweight, a cautioning hand on the USA, but Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have given all that influence away, choosing to spout empty words on the world stage. In Afghanistan and Iraq the United Kingdom has committed its underfunded, overstretched Armed Forces to an aggressive, transatlantic war-fighting stance in support of the so-called War on Terror. Currently approaching 60 per cent of the ‘troops’ in Helmand Province belong to the Royal Navy, making up for the shortcomings of British Army force levels. It also devotes a sizeable amount of the ships, submarines and aircraft it has left to demanding operations not only in the northern Gulf and elsewhere East of Suez, but also in the Far East, Atlantic, Caribbean and European waters. Meanwhile, back in the corridors of government in Europe, Britain has muffled its voice and subordinated national defence policy to a wishy-washy collective European Union approach to security. After French President Sarkozy’s inept diplomatic mission to Moscow, the EU was unable to deliver more than a pathetic slap on the wrist to the Kremlin, in response to the latter’s jackbooted, crafty campaign to destroy a democratic Georgia. Russia gained toe-holds in Abhkazia and Ossetia from which it can threaten oil and gas supplies to the West. Economic superpowers in the troubled 21st Century, where the scramble for resources - from water to oil and gas - and control of global trade is gaining momentum, are matching their need for political influence and security with ambitious naval construction programmes that dwarf the stunted regeneration of the Royal Navy. It was reported last month that the Indian Navy will by 2013 have surpassed the British fleet. India’s great rival, China, is also expanding its maritime capabilities, while across Asia-Pacific an estimated US $108 billion is being spent on naval forces. The Americans are rising to the challenge as the planet’s foremost naval power. Europe’s defences, meanwhile, wither on the vine due to chronic lack of investment and force levels that could not survive for long in any serious clash with an aggressor state. The UK today is an inward looking nation, because what dominates the agenda of the current government, and probably any future Tory administration, is the provision of generous cradle to grave welfare, education and health services. Defence of the Realm and effective combination of foreign policy and Armed Forces to match - in other words hard power of the kind preferred by Putin’s Russia and the other rising powers - comes a long way behind The Great Socialist Project, as this magazine has pointed out before. Indeed, the EU is a collection of over-bureaucratic states that prefer ‘soft power’ and social democracy/welfare to getting dirty in the new ‘Great Game’. Neither Russia, nor China or India is hampered in the pursuit of national interest by such an inconvenience as a crippling financial provision for a cradle to grave Welfare State. They do provide help, but real dirt-poor poverty is a feature for millions of those nations’ people.

And, to a major extent neither is the United States burdened with a Welfare State provision that is so expansive it saps the ability of the State to defend itself properly. Of course, it is not right to pursue an arms race at the expense of social justice. In an ideal world, the Liberal-Socialist model followed by Europe would be the template all nations should aspire to. However, Britain and the rest of Europe will have to eventually deal with the reality of the way the global system is rapidly evolving - for the worse. They must make a choice between proper Defence or appeasement of bullies and tyrants in the vain hope that they will go away and let Europe carry on with its Liberal lifestyle. Having said that, EU members Spain, Germany and Poland were at least there in the Black Sea this summer as part of Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1) providing a presence, however coincidental, that the Kremlin had to bear in mind when calculating how and when it might make its next powerplay, most likely against the Ukraine. How long before Russia invades the Crimean Peninsula in defence of ‘Russian nationals’ and to ensure that its rights to use Sevastopol as a naval base remain inviolate? There was no Royal Navy ship in SNMG1, nor was one even later sent by the nation that just a few years ago stood shoulder-to-shoulder at sea with America in any, and all, similar crises. Instead the UK reduced its frigate and destroyer force to just 22 vessels, potentially enabling at most just eight for global commitments that stretch from Antarctica to the Gulf and Caribbean. The aftermath of the Georgia conflict shows that there is absolutely no political will to exert Britain’s sovereign right to defence via presence on the oceans. Instead, the UK has discarded its ability to prevent wars and save lives as well as the means by which it can provide vital underpinning for the maritime trade Britain STILL depends on for its survival. This is an astonishing turn of events in a country with just two days worth of food in reserve and only seven days worth of oil to fall back on. The Labour government is therefore guilty of reckless disregard for one of the fundamental duties it must fulfil: defence of the State.

The Russians get what sea power is all about and they know that naval forces offer mobility and flexibility and are prepared to use them. In the past when such events as the invasion of Georgia happened the British would send in the fleet. When the Royal Navy acted it was to show real intent. Certainly there will be those that argue that this is reaching back too far into history. You can hear the Liberal establishment moaning about a return to gunboat diplomacy. But it is not so long ago that a Labour government, under Tony Blair, a very different style of leadership if nothing else, mobilised a task group to sail off the coast of Sierra Leone. The message to savage militias ashore was simple: Come on down if you think you are hard enough. The threat of force worked and prevented a slaughter of innocent civilians and the collapse into complete anarchy of an African country. Evil people respect strength but take full advantage of weakness.

There are those who mock the Russians for their posturing on the international stage by, for example, sending Blackjack bombers to Venezuela last month (Sept) and the despatching of a naval task group to the Caribbean next month (November). They scoff at the Russians’ elderly ships and aircraft. But, excuse me dear reader, but are not some of the West’s ships and aircraft equally elderly due to the lack of defence spending over the past decade? Last month it was reported that, for all the hollow boasts of investment in the Navy from Labour, by 2017 the British fleet will be in an even greater state of decay, hollowed out and reduced to a rump force of too few new ships, submarines and aircraft. Labour itself said a decade ago that the UK needs a destroyer and frigate force of 32 ships, but it has been so incompetent at managing Defence - in particular the frigate replacement programme - that in nine years’ time there could be just 15. Instead of cracking on with the orders for new ships it eagerly plays the ‘terrorism is the only threat’ card to ensure that it does not have to put taxpayers’ money into Defence, but rather into The Great Socialist Project so beloved of Prime Minister Brown and his left wing acolytes.

History shows us the Russians and others who might one day pose a threat to the survival of the UK, respect those who understand the need for hard power. This is where sea power scores. Presence and deterrence in places like the Black Sea cannot be achieved by land or air forces. That is simply not viable or politically feasible. Presence at sea requires hulls. Simple enough you would have thought even for the United Kingdom’s current government to figure out; a single ship no matter how high-tech cannot be in two places at once. Too few ships means too little presence and no deterrence. Potential foes, whether they be Somali pirates, Caribbean drug-runners, the Iranians, Russians or North Koreans find great succour in the absence of the White Ensign from all the oceans. Of course, as already mentioned, the real issue today, so the argument from Whitehall goes, is terrorism and we must concentrate on that. It is this that poses the most clear and present danger to the United Kingdom. There is no doubt that despite its setbacks in Iraq Al-Qaeda is far from finished. It is possible to argue that such organisations are even more dangerous when they are in trouble. But the real fact remains that the world is actually, in many ways, a less safe place than it was when the Cold War was in full swing. The UK’s foreign policy is long overdue an overhaul. It does not suit a 21st Century world. Fix the foreign policy and the rest will follow, including a regenerated and suitably capable and numerous Royal Navy fleet. Don’t fix the foreign policy and the UK is in real danger, for it means that its government no longer believes it has a place in the world as a confident, modern state that can influence events for the benefit of mankind. In short, a nation that no longer believes in itself.  With no coherent independent foreign policy to speak of, the United Kingdom signals that it no longer understands the vital importance of sea power.

The modernised Type 23 frigate HMS Westminster with a Merlin helicopter embarked. It is a potent, but all-too rare, sight. The Type 23 frigate force has been reduced to just 13 and even then there are rarely enough Merlins available.

Pictured: The modernised Type 23 frigate HMS Westminster with a Merlin helicopter embarked. It is a potent, but all-too rare, sight. The Type 23 frigate force has been reduced to just 13 and even then there are rarely enough Merlins available.
Photo: Nigel Andrews