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Shaping the international maritime discourse: the Royal Navy’s role

Commentary, 17 February 2010
Defence Policy, Maritime Forces, Technology, Europe
The use of the sea remains fundamental to international security. At a time of increasing public spending constraints, what is the significance of naval force – and of the Royal Navy in particular – in supporting national and international defence and security.

The use of the sea remains fundamental to international security. At a time of increasing public spending constraints, what is the significance of naval force - and of the Royal Navy in particular - in supporting national and international defence and security?

 SNMG2 NATO Maritime

By Lee Willett for

Because of the international nature of the high seas, navies have an established history of preventing conflict, delivering security, and working with other navies and stakeholders to protect national and international interests at sea and ashore. Today, the contribution of navies to global security is under scrutiny. The difficulty in establishing effective economic and political metrics for measuring the values of navies are raising questions about the UK's ability to generate affordable and relevant naval capability, particularly, when set against a backdrop of fiscal restraint and a focus on land operations. Yet the Royal Navy continues to demonstrate its ability to support many of the key defence policy principles set out in the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) recent Green Paper. It will need to reinforce this ability in the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review (SDR) debates if the UK is to retain a robust maritime contribution to its joint defence effort.

Navies and national interests

Defining national interest is an imprecise science. Such interests can be intangible and subject to change, and there is risk of creating hostages to fortune. For the UK, a nation which relies on the use of the sea to protect its interests and fulfill its global responsibilities, a navy of appropriate size and fitted with adaptable capability remains essential.[i]

Some have argued that the Royal Navy should concentrate on developing a greater number of less capable warships, instead of a restricted number of high-end capital ships , to enable the UK to deploy more ships in more areas. Such analysis seems linked to inter-service rivalries about the cost of the UK's two new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, and ignores current fiscal reality - which would see the £5 billion recouped by cancelling the carriers allocated to repaying the national debt and not to building more surface ships. It is notable that the £5 billion cost for two ships which will deliver global influence and value until 2050 and beyond is the same sum that the UK will be spending in 2011 in Afghanistan alone.[ii]

With their ability to deliver adaptable capabilities to support tasks across the operational spectrum - and from a sovereign platform sailing on the high seas - aircraft carriers remain vital in supporting the UK's perceived future strategic circumstances. Destroyers and frigates will continue to be the workhorses of the fleet, providing the bulk of the UK's global maritime presence. However, the UK faces particular challenges in its current and future destroyer and frigate programmes - namely the Daring-class Type 45 destroyers and the Future Surface Combatant (FSC). Affordability and flexibility remain critical issues. The Type 45s are state-of-the-art air defence platforms, but the UK cannot afford ships with one primary role costing £1 billion each. The message for the FSC is that the MoD must deliver to the Navy ships that have the appropriate flexibility - yet still remain affordable within the present budget restraints - for current force levels to be at the very least maintained. Surface warships will continue to play a vital role for the UK, especially in securing the free use of the high seas. The Royal Navy requires an appropriate number of ships - primarily surface ships, but also aircraft carriers and submarines - to ensure that the sea lines of communication and maritime choke points remain open. Several examples demonstrate the importance of this role.

First, the current prominent role for naval forces in delivering maritime security is to deter pirate attacks on international shipping in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. So far, there has been demonstrable success in securing the safety of shipping in certain areas, and there is hope that such success can help to buy space and time to develop stability ashore in Somalia and Yemen. The Royal Navy has made a fundamental contribution to the success of the various international coalitions - namely the US-led Coalition Maritime Force (CMF), the regular NATO Standing Naval Maritime Group deployments and, in particular, the European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) Operation Atalanta - by providing staff and command structures. Yet a lack of ships has meant that it has been unable to contribute at sea as often as the UK might have wished.

Second, climate change is opening up the Arctic seaways. This has significant implications for shipping and access to resources throughout the High North. It also raises  the question of how the UK - which sits in a key geostrategic position at the Eastern point of the North Atlantic's Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap (GIUK) - will wish to and be able to address regional security issues. Especially, when the region's strategic geography means that the sea provides the most likely - or often the only - means of access.

Third, the UK's recent cold snap saw a significant increase in gas usage. This sparked a focus on the vulnerability of the UK's policy of holding only a few days' gas supply onshore. The UK does have gas storage facilities, but a significant part of these facilities are the container ships which deliver the Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) supplies by sea. The Iraqi Al-Basrah and Kwahr Abd Allah oil terminals and the UK's own Milford Haven LNG terminal, not to mention the sea lines and choke points in between, are all elements of critical national infrastructure that require a naval presence as a key component of their security.

State on state conflict

However, it should not be assumed that maritime threats come from asymmetric sources alone. Iran's ability to close the Straits of Hormuz remains a key strategic issue. China's growing global naval presence is leading many to question what it is doing and why. China's natural resource dependency is causing it to invest in areas well outside its traditional spheres of interest and operation, such as the Indian and Arctic ocean regions. It is also building a blue-water navy to support this requirement. The Russian Navy recently has deployed significant naval power to three different oceans, despite enduring financial questions about Moscow's ability to build and operate its navy. Russia remains the world's second largest nuclear power, is potentially an energy superpower and in 2008 launched an air, land and sea attack on a sovereign nation.

Thus, while the UK envisages no direct, state-led threat to UK territory at present, major states retain the ability to challenge UK interests. The UK relies on a global presence to protect resources and territories and to project influence. High-end naval capability remains critical to this, particularly in preventing state-on-state conflict.

The flexibility of naval forces

With political questions lingering about the viability of liberal interventionism, the ability to use naval forces to project influence from the high seas at the time and place of choosing remains a core strategic option for the UK. As the UK balances its investment in operations today with those of tomorrow, it appears unnoticed that UK naval power has played a significant role throughout the Afghanistan campaign. When operations commenced in 2001, UK aircraft carriers fired ashore both fast jets and ground troops (including both Royal Marines and Special Forces) while nuclear-powered submarines struck inland with Tomahawk cruise missiles. This demonstration of carrier, amphibious and submarine power - reinforcing the strategic significance of the Navy's core capabilities - underscored the Royal Navy's '2:1' position behind the US Navy.[iii] Today, while Royal Marine Commandos undertake every fourth Herrick rotation, a significant percentage of the close air support for UK troops in Helmand - whether of naval or Army service - comes from fast jets deployed from large-deck US carriers. In the future, with the Queen Elizabeth carriers, the UK could do this itself.

A 65,000-ton Queen Elizabeth-class carrier is, in the words of the former First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, more than just a spare airfield.[iv] In recent years, US carriers have acted as the centrepiece of relief operations in the wake of the Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake, natural disasters where access by sea was the primary option. From the UK's perspective, even if the current fiscal consolidation shrank the defence budget to the point where the Royal Navy could only conduct small scale operations, carriers would remain a key asset. In two such operations - Sierra Leone in 2001 and Lebanon in 2006 - the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was the centrepiece of the relief and evacuation efforts.

The Green Paper raises several core questions for the SDR to address - questions to which there are strong maritime answers. From its operations off Somalia to its support for the Haiti relief operation, the Royal Navy continues to demonstrate its ability to adapt its forces and to work in partnership to support UK policy. However, the core challenge it faces remains one of how to make this case, reinforcing its joint contribution to UK national and wider international defence and security, while reflecting the fiscal reality of the next two Parliaments.

Forthcoming RUSI events on the shaping of the International Maritime Discourse

The issues raised above, and many others, will be addressed in several RUSI activities which are taking place in the coming months.

First, on 24 March, First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope will give a Members' Lecture, speaking as a Defence Board member and commenting initially on current UK defence priorities before expanding on the maritime contribution. For further information, please visit:

Second, on 30 March, RUSI's Middle East Naval Commanders Conference - taking place in Doha, Qatar alongside the DIMDEX international maritime exhibition - will bring together a high number of senior naval officials to discuss the strategic challenges facing the international maritime community, with a particular focus on issues relating to the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian Ocean region. Confirmed speakers include Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, Admiral Noman Bashir (Chief of the Naval Staff, Pakistani Navy), Admiral Luciano Zappata (Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, NATO) and Rear Admiral Bruno Nielly (Commanding Officer, French Naval Forces Indian Ocean). The conference will look at policy priorities, technology developments and maritime security challenges. For further information, please visit:

Finally, RUSI's annual Future Maritime Operations Conference will, on 7-8 July 2010, examine the Royal Navy's contribution to future British defence and security. Supported by the Royal Navy and opened by Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, the conference will provide the first high-profile opportunity after the Election for senior military personnel, officials, academics, industrialists and analysts alike to engage in the debate about the maritime contribution in the context of the developing FDR debates. For further information, please visit:

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

[i] In a report published in 2009, RUSI defined the UK's national interests as: defence of the realm, including overseas territories; relations with key allies - notably the United States (US); support for alliance commitments and interests; maintaining the status quo of an international rules-based system; maintaining political leverage and influence; protecting trade and resources; and improving the well-being of the nation and its people (see Lee Willett, 'The Maritime Contribution to the Joint Campaign and the National Security Strategy. Occasional Paper. June 2009. pp.7-8).

[ii] At a recent press briefing in advance of the publication of the MoD's Green Paper, Defence Secretary Ainsworth stated that the cost of UK operations in Afghanistan in 2011 would be £5 billion.

[iii] The term '2:1' or 'Upper Second' (drawing on UK university degree awards) was coined in relation to the Royal Navy's position relevant to that of the US Navy by Professor Eric Grove (Professor of Naval History and Director of the Centre for International Security and War Studies, University of Salford). See, for example, Eric Grove, 'Medium Navies and Organic Air', in David Wilson (ed.), (2001) Maritime War in the 21st Century: the Medium Navy and Small Navy Perspective. Papers in Australian Maritime Affairs, no.8. Canberra, ACT, Australia: Sea Power Centre - Australia. p.91, incl. n1

[iv] Admiral Sir Jonathon Band GCB DL ADC (then First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff). Keynote address to RUSI Future Maritime Operations Conference, 'The Maritime Contribution to the Joint Campaign and the National Security Strategy', 3 June 2009.

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