The Maritime Dimension of UK Defence Strategy

First published: 9th December 2012 | Capt. Alan Hensher MBE RN

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1. The Threat

2. The Strategy

3. Military Responce to Crisis

4. The Maritime Option

5. Political Values

6. Maritime Experience

7. Command and Control of Maritime Air Operations

8. Conclusion


The Threat

In today’s world the threats to our security, global interests and indeed our way of life have become more complex and less predictable than at any time in our history. Interwoven with the conventional and nuclear threats from rogue states is the terrorist threat, of which piracy is just one aspect, with yet another layer of complexity and uncertainty. All these threats have been enhanced by the advent of the Internet and satellite systems bringing instant communications and cyber warfare.

The UK faces no immediate conventional threat but there is a need for strong anti-terrorist homeland security with a link to the Armed Forces. However, it remains a maritime nation totally dependent on trade by sea. In one vital area alone, for example, the UK’s chronic shortage of energy is met by the importation of LNG carried in large and vulnerable vessels that must be protected against pirates and a hostile state’s conventional naval force.


The Strategy

The National Security Council’s (NSC) UK Defence Strategy that was the basis of the 2010 Strategic Defence Review (SDSR) established two fundamental drivers for the Review: Global Reach and the Ability to Intervene. Intervention should be with allies as available, but alone and coercive when necessary: in other language, we must have an expeditionary capability. Issues also addressed included protecting sea lanes, Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories, besides our commitments to NATO, the EU and other agreements.


Military Response to Crisis

It is axiomatic that Governments of all political persuasion need to have effective military options to counter any crisis or unexpected threat that may arise. A visible capability that sends a clear diplomatic and political message of government policy and intention can often deter unwanted actions. It is here that the unique qualities of Maritime Forces come into play. The ability to deploy ships while remaining in international waters, to poise and to operate aircraft at a place of the government’s choosing is at the heart of maritime power. Operating in international waters confers independence of diplomatic clearances, and over-flying rights. The carriers and the afloat support system provided by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) obviate or reduce the need for host-nation assistance for airfields or other logistic support. A Carrier/Amphibious Task Group can project a military force ashore by helicopter and landing craft and then give air and logistic support to all land forces ashore. Carriers, amphibious ships, escorts and submarines have an extensive flexibility of roles ranging from high-intensity warfare to defence diplomacy, prevention or deterrence, with the added resources for co-operation with allies, humanitarian support or disaster relief. Aircraft carriers have high a level of command and control capability that can extend far inshore and gives flexibility of choice in the transfer of command ashore or retaining command at sea, an option that may be more technically efficient and reliable and is probably politically desirable.


The Maritime Option

The Response Force Task Group (RFTG) represents the expeditionary capability required by the NSC. It possesses most or all of the assets that can give effect to the maritime stance that have been outlined here. It is reasonable to believe both from the UK’s history of conflict since WWII and the recent experience of Sierra Leone and Libya, let alone the South Atlantic campaign, that, for an expeditionary mission, maritime forces deliver the optimum military option to the Government. With a wide range of military weapon systems led by air power from the sea and amenable to a high state of readiness, a maritime Task Group is often more cost effective than a land based option. Vide the massive costs of in-flight-refuelling for air strikes launched from the UK against targets in Libya.


Political Values

There is a valuable political asset inherent in the maritime modus operandi that allows a broad perspective and more time for making overt decisions on the commitment of land forces or carrier air power by virtue of remaining in international waters, yet within effective range of potential objectives or targets. The presence alone of a maritime Task Group with significant air power, cruise missiles and an embarked military force can have an important even critical deterrent or preventive influence to defuse a crisis situation before it ignites.

The essence of an effective Defence structure able to respond to such a sea of uncertainty and to fulfil the UK Defence Strategy is seen to lie in four key capabilities: Power, Presence, Projection and Flexibility. All these elements are embodied in maritime forces: aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, submarines, RFA logistic ships and associated naval assets.


Maritime Experience

When fixed and rotary wing squadrons of any Service embark in a Carrier or Assault ship there is a well-recognised need for the squadrons to integrate with the parent ship organization. This involves an awareness at least of the operating conditions unique to embarked aviation. These include the fact that an aircraft carrier is mobile and may not be able to launch or land on aircraft at a time of their choosing, whereas an airfield is static and, bar an accident, is always open but prone to infiltration by the enemy. Limitations of space and the associated intensification of safety factors, radhaz on the flight deck and conflicting demands on flight deck space for non-aviation activities such as training for embarked Royal Marine/Army units or replenishment at sea (RAS), all add to the different operating conditions. Such integration flows from a mindset that accepts there are factors outside aviation that can dictate the ship’s actions in both combat and peacetime conditions. This maritime orientation is inherent in Naval air squadrons. For RAF and Army squadrons a period of familiarisation is important for safety and proficient operation.


Command and Control of Maritime Air Operations

The Commander of any military operation must reasonably expect a full and unquestioning support to his concept of operations. A joint approach to maritime air activity is well established in concept but less so in practice. There are some problems to be overcome in resolving basic differences in aviation culture, particularly between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Essentially the RN increasingly uses aviation as an integral part of a Task Group albeit as its most powerful and flexible supporting arm. The RAF tends to regard an aircraft carrier as the mobile airfield entirely dedicated to its air squadrons whose roles are often seen as independent of an overall operational concept.

Although of mainly anecdotal origin, there is evidence that the RAF does not accord naval aviation much priority and the aircrew and squadron personnel are less than enthusiastic to embark in ships. These differences make for an uneasy application of command and control, especially if any form of joint command is attempted. There is of course a strong case for command and administration residing with the organisation most experienced in the required roles and expertise of ship air operations. This involves many of the ship’s company’s highly trained people other than aircrew.



The pragmatic answer to operational command and control is for it to remain in the hands of the Service with ownership of the main military assets deployed and the expertise of aviation in its familiar maritime environment. The Navy should (always) command ship-borne aviation.

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