Join Date: Jul 2007
Likes (Received): 1
The first sea lord has his say.
A fleet for the future
Britain's national security depends on our efforts at sea - on well-equipped, versatile naval forces
Strategy is often misunderstood; it is about consequences and outcomes, the plan by which all the instruments of national power – diplomatic, intellectual military and economic – are to be employed in achieving identified goals in support of the national interest. That necessitates making choices and setting priorities, now and for the future, because ours is an uncertain world characterised by a rapid, often confounding rate of change – pandemics, climate change, resource constraints, conflicts fuelled by ideology, ethnicity and more, all of which present security challenges, some novel.
Last month's update to the government's national security strategy – Security for the Next Generation – affirms the commitment to agile, deployable armed forces as vital contributors to the nation's security, at home or overseas. The government recognises that the UK's interests are governed by geostrategic truths: we are an island nation with global trading interests, we have many UK overseas territories and nationals living abroad, and we very much depend on our ability to influence events through multilateral engagement. Those truths inform and define the UK's interests. The role of strategy, which has to be sufficiently adaptable to accommodate the uncertainties of a changing world, is to determine where the priorities for protecting and promoting our national interests lie.
Current operations have to be the priority. The armed forces are doing a remarkable job conducting joint operations in Afghanistan, while continuing to meet a range of standing commitments that contribute so much to the defence and security of our country by dealing with threats at arm's length.
Our focus on enduring campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan should not blind us to the longer-term implications of the UK's geostrategic reality. Our ability to deploy globally and use the seas in support of operations is key to the success of the armed forces in war and time of tension; whether it means dropping Royal Marines into Iraq from carriers in the Gulf, as we did in 2003, or using warships to evacuate UK nationals from Lebanon in 2006. The sea can be a barrier or a highway, depending on who controls it, so the Royal Navy can shape future events as well as determine them.
But, even more fundamentally, the global sea lanes are the arteries along which the economy of this island nation flows. We are increasingly and heavily reliant on imported raw materials, goods, food and especially energy. We live in a "just enough, just in time economy" – if the sea lanes are denied to us, the supermarket shelves fall empty and the lights go out. The strategy for the UK has to be a balanced one, to offer the government the greatest possible range of options. There is an important maritime dimension to this and it is a dimension to which all of our armed forces, alongside other instruments of national power, can contribute strongly. First, global interdependence and our reliance on the sea mean that the potential for conflict between other states to directly affect the UK has grown. At the same time, the scramble for resources and valuable raw materials is increasingly being played out at sea: the "cod wars" of the 1970s have given way to disputed maritime boundary claims as states vie to establish their access to the sea and the mineral and food wealth beneath it. In the Pacific and Indian oceans, states are expanding maritime forces and establishing strategically positioned naval bases to promote and protect their growing influence and wealth.
For those prepared to think longer-term, the UK's national interests will continue to rely in large part, as they always have, on a Royal Navy that is sufficiently capable of underwriting the country's security and prosperity.
That means a fleet, not of extravagant size, but big enough to have a meaningful presence, and with a balance of capabilities that give it global reach and the ability to guarantee the delivery ashore and protection of land forces. A globally capable fleet brings many benefits to the UK. Key among them are, first, the ability to act strategically with low political overheads, to deliver influence, support or military force without having to commit land forces. Second is the ability to build alliances and trust as a hedge against an uncertain future through multinational operations at sea with the maritime forces of many other countries. As a nation, you can surge military forces in response to a developing crisis, but you can't surge familiarity, trust and co-operation.
In the final analysis, a capable fleet is as much about deterring aggression and influencing friends as it is about delivering combat power at sea or from the sea. While we will always need to fight and win if necessary, when it comes to the future we shouldn't overlook the value to this country of the wars we won't have to fight as a result of using the Royal Navy strategically as an instrument of national power.