Global Challenges and Dilemmas for the Royal Navy

First published: 4th July 2016 | Colum Hawken


The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a momentous occasion, and the following breakup of the USSR and success of the First Gulf War seemed to suggest that Bush Snr. was correct in proclaiming a “New World Order” of global cooperation.[1] However, the following years have not given credence to these words. Instead intra-state violence has continued, with ethnic, sectarian and political divides driving conflict throughout the developing world. These tensions and the poor governance created has provided room for non-state actors to flourish and presents the West with a myriad of problems, such as drug trafficking, terrorism and piracy. Furthermore, the resurgence of Russia and the increased assertiveness of China, shown by the Ukraine crisis and South China Sea disputes, suggest that interstate rivalry will increase in the future. This essay will examine Britain’s current role, specifically the Navy’s, in responding to the plethora of challenges that exist and those that are looming, and in doing so will help to assess the role Britain can and should play on the global stage.

Non state threats are not a recent occurrence, and examples can be found throughout history, such as the Fenians who led raids into Canada during the 19th Century, the threat of piracy and Cold War Communist insurgencies and of course the threat from the IRA.[2] However, after 9/11 commentators seized on the idea of ‘new terrorism’ where the onus is on high casualty attacks.[3] These fears are reappearing in the wake of the Paris and Brussels attacks of 2015 and 2016 and there is the sense that something must be done. However, the symptom of domestic terrorism is clearly for the intelligence services and civilian police to address. Therefore, what can the armed forces and specifically the Navy do to counter terrorism? The answer lies in combating instability; as already mentioned terror groups thrive in areas of poor governance, through their ability to provide social support, a normative set of rules and intimidate local populations, which David Kilcullen has termed, the ‘competitive theory of control’.[4] Moreover, he has identified several trends; that of coastal urbanisation, population growth and global inter-connectedness, including the democratization of technology.[5] Therefore, while it is not impossible that in the future we will be facing guerrilla fighters in mountainous terrain, it seems likely that the conflicts the West could become embroiled in will be in increasingly more densely populated coastal cities, against potentially better armed opponents.

In this likely scenario, the Navy will be of paramount importance due to the littoral nature of operations, and there will be an increased need for cooperation with amphibious forces. However, putting boots on the ground must be an option of last resort, as amphibious and urban operations are amongst the most challenging and could easily result in drawn out or costly campaigns. This is due to the ‘Accidental Guerrilla Syndrome’ where the West makes enemies of bored or initially neutral locals through heavy handedness and disrespecting local customs.[6] Instead, the UK must accept its limitations and work with regional actors, whether state or not. Here the armed forces could take several roles. Firstly, and most easily providing reassurance to allies, as a naval carrier and its paraphernalia of support ships is an imposing sight, and its arrival in a hotspot, signalling British commitment, could supress tensions before they escalate. Secondly, by having a strong surface fleet which is capable of operating around the world, Britain can respond to humanitarian crises and instability, providing aid and support of local government to prevent instability and the growth of hostile non-state actors. Towards the end of this spectrum of operations is that of counter-insurgency, where while a large ground force is often required for such tasks, shown by the Surge in 2007, they will need to be supported by a navy capable of conducting amphibious operations, providing air support and supplying those on the ground.[7]

Interstate conflicts and tensions cannot be viewed separately from lower intensity conflicts around the world, for example, the Russian resurgence has helped generate and fuel secessionist insurgencies in eastern Ukraine, and increased ability to project force has allowed the Russians to intervene in Syria.[8] The most demanding interstate issue for Britain is the defence of Europe, this is especially pressing for several key reasons. Firstly, a recent RAND article showed how currently NATO cannot prevent the Russian’s from seizing the Baltic States, in less than seventy two hours in some war games.[9] Secondly, the American ‘rebalance’ towards Asia signals a risk of American overstretch and shows that her European allies must do more to contribute towards collective defence.[10] Finally, Russia’s rearmament program is due for completion in 2020.[11] The UK’s role here is that of a senior European partner, as one of the few nations that meets the 2% spending requirement Britain must encourage its allies to do the same, and potentially surpass that target if required, admittedly a difficult proposition in these times of economic strain.[12] The Navy’s role must be examined, but even though a European war would presumably be largely land based, the Navy will still have a vital role to play. Mobility would be crucial to defending Eastern Europe, and the Navy’s ability to transport men and material to the continent need to be considered vital. Moreover air power based from carriers will also be necessary to compete for air dominance, which would be put under pressure from the loss of any air fields to a Russian advance. Finally, control of the seas would be hotly contested, and the British must limit any Russian attempt to gain access to the North Sea, the Channel or the Atlantic, which will prevent them from interdicting reinforcements and supplies from Britain and America.

The other crucial aspect of Britain’s naval strategy is the submarine based nuclear deterrent. The renewal of Trident is highly controversial, and not without good reason due to the moral implications of nuclear war and the hefty price tag the renewal entails.[13] Furthermore over fifty years of American theorising on nuclear strategy, from massive retaliation to limited strikes has not yielded much in the way of satisfactory doctrine.[14] However, nuclear weapons cannot be un-invented and history suggests that proliferation will continue. Additionally, Ukraine is a telling example of the risks of giving up nuclear weapons, therefore, this is not a decision we should make lightly. However, Britain must realistically assess the usefulness of these weapons, and whether the money required could be better spent by the Navy or armed forces in general.

In these times of uncertainty, with rising powers challenging and overextending American hegemony, Britain should be prepared to play and fund a wide role. This variety of challenges mean that the UK’s role, aims and capabilities must be carefully evaluated and adjusted to match each other. However, these challenges do not require mutually exclusive efforts. While counter insurgency and the defence of Europe require a competitively sized army, the Navy should not be allowed to atrophy to meet these needs. Instead, the maintenance of a strong surface fleet, built around a small number of aircraft carriers and supported by a sizeable supply arm will allow the UK to project force in a number of ways, conventional combat, peacekeeping operations, counter insurgency, reassuring regional allies and responding to humanitarian crises. The key for Britain is to remain flexible and assert itself on the world stage. While Britain doesn’t need to have the global reach it did fifty years ago, it must continue to lead the European Allies by example and assert itself as a cornerstone of European defence and global stability by stepping into any vacuum America leaves and spending what is required to meet the needs of nation with the ability to respond to a number of eventualities in many theatres.


[1] A. Rubinstein, ‘A New World Order or Hollow Victory’, Foreign Affairs, 70 (1991), pp. 53-65, p.53.

[2] E. Green, ‘The Fenians’, History Today, 8 (1958), pp.698-705, pg.702.

[3] O. Lynch and C. Ryder, ‘Deadliness, organisational change and suicide attacks: understanding the assumptions inherent in the use of the term ’new terrorism’’, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 5 (2012), pp. 257-275, p.258

[4] D. Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains, (London, 2013), pp. 125-131.

[5] Ibid, pp. 30, 32.

[6] D. Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla, (London, 2009), p.35.

[7] Ibid, p.128.

[8] IISS, ‘Russia and Eurasia’, The Military Balance, (2016), pp. 163-210, p. 163.

[9] D. Schlapak and M. Johnson, ‘Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO's Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics’, Rand Corporation, (2016), pp. 1-16, p.1.

[10] K. Campbell and B. Andrews, ‘Explaining the US pivot to Asia’ Chatham House, (2013), pp.1-9, p.8; IISS, ‘Europe, The Military Balance, (2016), pp.55-162 p.67

[11] ‘Russia and Eurasia’, The Military Balance, p.171.

[12] IISS, ‘Comparative Defence Statistics’, The Military Balance, (2016), pp.19-26, p.20

[13] M. Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, (New York, 2006), p.270; J. Stone, ‘The cost of replacing Trident is really £167Bn, new figures suggest’, Independent, 25 October 2015.

[14] L. Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, (London, 1981), p.433.



Campbell K., and Andrews, B., ‘Explaining the US pivot to Asia’ Chatham House, (2013), pp.1-9.

Freedman, L. The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, (London, 1981).

Green, E., ‘The Fenians’, History Today, 8 (1958), pp.698-705.

IISS, The Military Balance, (2016), pp. 163-210.

Kilcullen, D., Out of the Mountains, (London, 2013).

Kilcullen, D., The Accidental Guerrilla, (London, 2009).

Lynch, O., and Ryder, C., ‘Deadliness, organisational change and suicide attacks: understanding the assumptions inherent in the use of the term ’new terrorism’’, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 5 (2012), pp. 257-275.

Rubinstein, A., ‘A New World Order or Hollow Victory’, Foreign Affairs, 70 (1991), pp. 53-65.

Schlapak D., and Johnson, M., ‘Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO's Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics’, Rand Corporation, (2016), pp. 1-16.

Stone, J., ‘The cost of replacing Trident is really £167Bn, new figures suggest’, Independent, 25 October 2015.

Walzer, M., Just and Unjust Wars, (New York, 2006).

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