The Right Honourable Lord West of Spithead Addresses the House of Lords

First published: 16th May 2013| Admiral Alan West GCB DSC PC

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This speech to the House of Lords, from Wednesday 15th May, 2013, is reproduced with the kind permission of its author.

My Lords:

“It is upon the navy under the good Providence of God that the safety, honour and welfare of this realm do chiefly depend”.

Thus ran the preamble to the Articles of War, written more than 300 years ago. There is no doubt that naval dominance of European waters was the longest, most complex and expensive project ever undertaken by British state society. As a result a small, weak, insignificant offshore island was able to develop into the world’s greatest power. More recently, the prime reason we survived the German wars of the first half of the 20th century was the strength of the Royal Navy.

We remain the sixth wealthiest country in the world; world shipping, which is the sinews of our global village, is run from London; we are responsible for 14 dependencies worldwide; we are the biggest European investor in South Asia, South-East Asia and the Pacific Rim, where stability is crucial if we are to get the return we need from our investments; and we are a permanent member of the Security Council. We are, like it or not—and I know that many do not like it—a world power. We are of course an island, but the Government seem sometimes to forget that. The maritime sector was worth more than £10 billion in 2010, and 90% by value and 95% by volume of our imports and exports travel by sea.

How are we safeguarding this today? The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, rightly said that there was hardly any mention of defence in the gracious Speech. The Prime Minister has stated on a number of occasions that defence and security are the first responsibility of government. These are fine words but I fear that they have not been backed up by actions. In the 2010 strategic defence and security review we took measures that severely weakened our ability to project power, yet within months our forces were being committed to action in Libya. There have been further cuts since, and further indications that the Government would be willing to commit British forces if we are not careful.

Similar cuts are being made by our European allies, and the USA is finding itself carrying more and more of the defence burden of looking after the military interests of the western democracies and other nations worldwide. The US, too, is having to find savings and is now looking across the Pacific rather than towards the Euro-Atlantic region. Europe will have to take on more responsibility for its own security. The US has consistently supported us in the European, African and near-eastern area. Are we really not going to support them in the Far East and Pacific if the call comes? Those areas are increasingly important to the UK as well as to the US.

None of us can predict the next crisis. It may happen tomorrow, and from my experience of the intelligence world I know that we have a very bad track record of predicting crises. In an increasingly chaotic and dangerous world we must carry our share of the burden. Simply and starkly, we are not carrying our share. I do not have time to list all our shortfalls that impact on the critical mass of the Navy. Manpower has to be one area of concern. We had 75,000 sailors in 1982, some 30 years ago, and have 26,500 today—a cut of two-thirds in naval manpower, with all the effects that that has on flexibility.

I will be fair to the Government and congratulate them on their realisation of the crucial significance of maritime strike, and their aspiration to run both new carriers. Not to run both would be a national disgrace. Let us hope that their gamble of getting rid of “Ark Royal” and the Harriers pays off. So far we have got away with it for three years; we have to get away with it for another four or five. It was a gamble.

I will focus on just one example of our many shortfalls in the maritime sphere. Noble Lords may remember the preamble about the importance of the Navy to our nation that I gave at the beginning of my speech. Do the Government really believe that 19 destroyers and frigates—that means only six deployed—are sufficient for our nation? At the time of the Falklands war, when the Royal Navy saved the Government’s bacon, we had about 60 destroyers and frigates. The difference in capability of our new ships does not make up for the huge lack of numbers; one ship cannot be in two places at once. We have cut to the bone and, in naval parlance, our nation is standing into danger. I have written to the Prime Minister stating that very point.

We can no longer be sure that our Armed Forces are capable of meeting the tasks that our nation and people expect of them. We are at a crisis point, and something has to be done. History has shown how our nation suffers if we forget the crucial importance of our military and, in particular, of the sea and our Navy.

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