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The Government must remember Britain’s naval traditions


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The defence cuts proposed by the Government are deep and strategically incoherent. The Prime Minister has said that 'we need to be more thoughtful, more strategic and more co-ordinated in the way we advance our interests and protect our national security' but the cuts to the Royal Navy will ensure that it is less flexible and less able to defend our global interests. It is not a more thoughtful or strategic review; it is one that misses an opportunity to reform British defence to face global challenges from hostile states or non-state terrorist organisations. Nor are the problems we face today that different from those in the 1950s and after.

In 1957 it was recognised that the Royal Navy's amphibious forces (and indeed naval airpower from aircraft carriers) were actually more flexible than UK based 'light' army units that were air portable as the Middle East formed an 'air barrier' to fights from the UK. Such a barrier still exists and still can hamper operations today and in the future - air to air refuelling will only go so far if over flight rights are not granted. Now it has been announced that of the seven amphibious ships that form Britain's ability to project land power from the sea, the purpose built commando carrier might be scrapped (or replaced by the less suitable HMS Illustrious), one of the two assault ships will be placed in 'extended readiness' and one of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary manned 'Bay' class assault ships will be disposed of. The current aircraft carriers will have their Harrier aircraft scrapped immediately and the replacement carriers will not enter service until 2020, a gap not just in the ability to project airpower where it is needed over land but also in the ability of the fleet to defend itself in the event that it has to meet the tier one threat: 'An international military crisis between states, drawing in the UK, and its allies as well as other states and non-state actors.'

The 1966 decision to scrap the CVA-01 aircraft carrier replacement project showed how difficult it was for the navy to operate without organic air support. In many exercises to test the ability of land based airpower to fill the carrier gap, the aircraft could not keep the fleet secure or deliver strikes against land or sea targets when needed. The direct result of this was the development of the Invincible class and the Sea Harrier in the 1970s to give the Navy a very limited ability to operate jet aircraft. Having achieved a limited 'Harrier carrier' capability, the 1981 Nott review proposed to weaken the Royal Navy - both in terms of amphibious capability and naval airpower, both of which were desperately needed in 1982 to recapture the Falkland Islands.

The need to recapture the specifically Falklands again may well be questionable - but the Argentineans are getting increasingly bellicose at the moment and what Britain might consider an irrational choice could for them be very rational. More importantly, the Falklands conflict shows the strategic mobility and flexibility of naval forces. Neither the RAF or the Army can move a self supporting force, including two reinforced brigades of infantry and support units, nearly 8000 miles and then conduct high-intensity operations to secure a lodgement on enemy held territory at the end of it. This is a capability that the UK requires to meet its current and future security needs and to add value to Britain's membership of the alliances on which so much trust is placed. If Britain does not contribute capabilities like these that these alliances need, then those alliances may not be there to support the UK when needed.

Presented with an opportunity to choose between two alternative visions of Britain's future defence; a maritime posture, reliant on projecting force from the sea, or a land counter-insurgency posture to allow the British army to refight elsewhere in the world wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, the Government chose the latter with a bit of 'salami slicing' thrown in. Such a decision, although one that will please many as it will 'protect operations in Afghanistan', is not one on which a long term strategic posture should rest. The use of armed force or the threat of it by a democratic government depends greatly on the support of its electorate. Just as the Suez debacle in 1956 fundamentally changed the way Britain interacted with the world, so too will the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been hugely unpopular and more interventions along similar lines as the British army is being configured to fight are likely to be just as unpopular. Therefore, will any future government actually carry out such interventions? Probably not; so why base strategy on it?

For hundreds of years Britain relied on a maritime posture - using the sea to project power over the land - to secure its interests. Air power, soldiers and missiles may make people think that maritime power is less relevant today than in the past, but the reality is that post Cold War we rely even more on the flexibility and mobility of sea power. Britain should remember its history and started to believe in the Royal Navy.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.
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