Lord West, the former First Sea Lord and a Falklands veteran, suggests it is “bonkers” that the Royal Navy has only 19 frigates and destroyers.
Vigorous debate about the role, size and shape of the Royal Navy is all the rage at the moment. Numerous broadsides are being exchanged over whether the Navy is equipped to defend the Falklands; the affordability and configuration of future aircraft carriers; the appropriate numbers of destroyers and frigates; and the introduction of new uniforms that wouldn’t look out of place in a fast food outlet.
Lord West, the former First Sea Lord and a Falklands veteran, suggests it is “bonkers” that the Royal Navy has only 19 frigates and destroyers. But such is the culture of intellectual and strategic relativism in which these arguments take place that neither politicians nor the public have any idea whether 19 or 25 or 30 frigates and destroyers is the right number. All of these issues tinker around the edges of the real problem – the fact that no one is prepared to define what Britain wants the Royal Navy to do as part of a coherent maritime strategy.
The essence of military strategy lies in reconciling ends (what the public and politicians want), means (what they can afford) and ways (the ability of the military to deliver, in practical and technological terms). When these elements are out of balance – or one or more of them is inadequate – then defence programmes and spending tend to be incoherent and wasteful. On operations, an imbalance leads to mission failure and in some cases can be fatal, as was seen in Afghanistan, where it is doubtful whether at the start there were adequate levels of political direction, resources or military delivery.
The current size and structure of the Royal Navy results from successive reductions in operational capability and sustainability in response to annual demands for cuts in defence spending, most recently and crucially in the fiscally driven Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). Recent minimalist operations in, over and off Libya brought into sharp focus the serious incoherencies introduced by the SDSR and by the high tempo of its implementation.
The whole process perpetuates and reflects the dominant influence of accountancy management over the application of rigorous strategic thinking, and a casual acceptance that interventions are currently discretionary; in other words, we can choose whether to involve ourselves or not.
In addition, future requirements are too readily determined and defined by past conflicts. There is a lazy acceptance of conventional wisdom, untouched by a rigorous assessment of the future context within which forces are likely to operate and characterised by the attitude that (in Professor Colin Gray’s words) “the future is like the present, only more so”.
As a result, the Royal Navy has accepted a deal that promises “jam tomorrow”, in the form of one or two aircraft carriers (with or without catapult-launched fixed-wing aircraft) in or around 2020, in return for increasing levels of pain and further cuts to other naval forces until 2015 and beyond. Most significantly, the Royal Navy has now – post-SDSR – demonstrably ceased to have a “balanced fleet”, the lodestone of much of the post-Cold War era, and the basis even today for countering a range of generic and emerging risks.
The Senior Service faces an uncertain, unsettled decade, during which it might have to go in harm’s way against state and non-state opponents with a gap in aircraft carrier and fixed-wing aviation capability (after the Harriers were decommissioned), a token anti-submarine force and widespread evidence of extensive hollowing-out and overstretch in almost every other area of operation. Nor does it have the resilience and endurance, as has been seen off Libya, to maintain even low tempo operations for any length of time in addition to its routine directed tasks.
This under-provision and uncertainty will coincide with a decade of possible instability at sea. For some 65 years, the security, integrity and freedom of use of the international system – and the “super highway” or physical equivalent of the worldwide web that is the sea – have been guaranteed and safeguarded by the United States and the naval powers of the free world. It has long been recognised that peace and order at sea does not keep itself.
In the rush to downsize, it seems to have been forgotten that the sea remains the pre-eminent strategic medium for economic growth, trade and human interaction, a global “commons” that is increasingly becoming an arena for more intensive activity, expressed as both cooperation and competition between states, and for non-state actors, such as terrorists, pirates and traffickers.
It should be self-evident that, in an interconnected world, any country that wants to stimulate and sustain economic growth needs to invest in those instruments of power and influence – space, cyberspace and the sea – that best exploit and extend the benefits derived from globalisation, as well as ensuring access, supply of resources and the free flow of goods.
To be fair, by 2020 a properly resourced and supported force structure, front-loaded with carriers, amphibious shipping, Astute class submarines and Type-45 destroyers, should be well placed to conduct high-end conventional deterrence and war-fighting tasks, as well as complementary roles in conducting operations at lower levels of intensity and impact. But this aspiration will continue to be challenged as the costs of providing leading-edge military capability rise and other political priorities and domestic pressures compete for attention and resources in a time of austerity. It will also be severely tested by the low numbers of destroyers and frigates – a perennial complaint, all the way back to Nelson (“Were I to die this moment, ‘want of frigates’ would be found stamped on my heart”).
As the SDSR recognises, all three Services will have to work hard to cooperate with allied or coalition countries to ensure the continuation of comprehensive, all-arms capabilities. In this context, the Royal Navy should in future probably seek to maintain a force structure and capability that broadly maintains influence, utility and congruence with the US for major operations, sustains a partnership role with France (ready to lead or act as a framework nation) and retains the ability – implying a balance and range of capabilities at sea – to act alone in support of, and in defence of, vital national interests.
These considerations should strongly influence the outcome of the next SDSR in 2015, at about the same time as the next general election. The future will emphatically not be like Afghanistan and Iraq; this should have significant implications for defence.
The Royal Navy has not helped itself. It has been distinctly poor at arguing the case for maritime power in the modern and emerging world over the past few years and in justifying the resources it needs to remain a decisive instrument of state power.
However, this debate should not just be about the Royal Navy. It concerns fundamentally the United Kingdom’s future in relation to the sea and should involve the comprehensive integration of all those elements and partnerships – military, commercial and institutional – that have an interest or contribution to make at sea. What is required is a coherent national maritime strategy, in conjunction with a hard-driving ministerial – or better still, an empowered, independent – champion, that can overcome the chronic short-termism afflicting democratic decision-making and can plan for the long term.
It should identify the ends (political, diplomatic, economic and security benefits) that the country seeks to achieve by its engagement with the sea, both in its offshore economic zone and throughout the world. Only then can the appropriate means (the investment that the country is prepared to make in terms of resources, both human and financial) and the ways (the numbers and types of warships, the size of the British merchant and fishing fleets, the policy for energy security and a host of other mutually conflicting issues) be properly reconciled and decided.
In 1436, one of the first political poems in English, ‘The Libel [or little book] of English Policy’ began by “exhortynge alle Englande to kepe the see enviroun”. That enduring message remains a reasonable national strategy for today – and tomorrow.