Britain’s naval moment

I’ve been meaning to post some thoughts on British strategy and defence policy for a while now but have lacked the certain sense of urgency required for blogging to supersede the normal end-of-academic-year-and-holiday-is-looming desk clearing obligations. Not that it matters much, it would seem, as the British government has already been on vacation from reality for months. The news last week that Sangin, Nowzad, Musa Qala, and Kajaki in the Army’s old stomping grounds in Helmandshire have all been under siege passed largely without comment in the press. I gather that a British chinook was also shot down, thankfully without casualties and the wreck was recovered–but, still, the sort of thing which might have been remarked upon in earlier times. The British Army remaining in the area, by dint of not leaving its bases, has not suffered any casualties; though by my reckoning, rough I must admit, the US Marine Corps which still has some appetite for the fight has lost eight dead over the last couple of weeks. At any rate, for Britain, it’s clear that no one’s particularly interested in the war–the whole enterprise is a write off and best dropped down the memory hole. It’s hard to be wholly unsympathetic to this line of reasoning. That said, the time, it would seem to me, for taking stock of things strategic is nigh, indeed ’tis now.

We should probably start with the observation that our current strategic condition is noteworthily FUBAR, to use the technical term. 2010’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty was an avowedly short-termist and budget-driven exercise further constricted by the May 2010 election and political-military dysfunction in general. On the latter point see James De Waal’s Depending on the Right People Chatham House report (also this Oxford University Changing Character of War programme’s podcast Generals, Politicians, and Mandarins: The Malfunctioning Military-Political Relationship in Britain). For that matter, the Royal United Service Institute’s director Michael Clarke’s characterisation of the UK’s ‘strategic moment’ from A Question of Security: The British Defence Review in an Age of Austerity is more burningly pertinent now than it was when he said it in 2011:

The fact is that even if the assumptions underlying the 1998 SDR had not been exceeded; even if the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had been unambiguous triumphs; even if the current defence programme was not unaffordable; even if the savage economic crisis had not materialised; even then, the United Kingdom would still face some strategic choices unprecedented in modern times. More than most other Wstern countries, the UK finds itself at what might be termed a ‘strategic moment’, driven by developments over which it has very little real influence. Not since the 1930s has the country faced so wide a range of global developments generating as much political uncertainty. It is more than seventy five years since British politicians have had to confront a world that offered so little indication of what is best for the country, and with far less power to wield than was habitually available to their predecessors. (p. 9)

In short, the situation is bad–has been bad for a good while–and, in my view, is uncomfortably plausibly likely to get even worse over the coming decade. In broad brush there are four things that are worrisome:

1. As Sir Richard Dearlove, formerly head of the Secret Intelligence Service, recently remarked in a speech at RUSI on Terrorism and National Security: Proportion or Distortion? our current prioritisation of counter-terrorism over all other threats is distinctly out of whack with the degree of actual danger. As he put it,

I feel deeply uncomfortable to see our national media making national security monsters out of rather misguided young men from our Muslim communities who frankly, I think, cut rather pathetic figures… Thanks to the media coverage they achieve celebrity status beyond their wildest dreams and are probably actually encouraged by the attention towards fulfilment of some of their more extreme radical fantasies… Surely better to ignore them and assume the means to control them, if and when they do come home, are sufficient to meet the threat that they pose… It is time to move away from the distortion that 9/11 understandably created in our national security stance… Counter-terrorism activity will remain an important requirement but it should no longer dominate our national security thinking and planning, rather a problem we have learned to live with and that should seldom be given, either by the Government or the media, the oxygen of publicity… We must continue to cover the Middle East as a political requirement but without putting the incipient terrorist threat to ourselves at the centre of the picture…

I find this hard to gainsay and David Cameron’s recent declaration that ‘No-one should be in any doubt that what we see in Syria and now in Iraq in terms of ISIS is the most serious threat to Britain’s security that there is today’ to be rather unjustifiable hyperbole. There are bigger things to worry about.

2. For instance, the European Project–not to put too fine a point on it–is toast. I personally consider this a good thing and the cessation of Britain’s participation in the whole economy-destroying, sovereignty-eroding, democracy-traducing, and empire-building-on-the-sly cannot come soon enough. That said, its demise represents a profound alteration of long-standing assumptions concerning Britain’s foreign relations and place in the world generally.

3. The United States is also screwed. Don’t get me wrong–America is enormously powerful and it has also very large powers of regeneration. However, again, that said, its economic difficulties are extremely formidable. Moreover, I’m surely not alone in marvelling at the degree and speed at which its position in the world has gone from one of respect, if not admiration, amongst its allies to suspicion and rancour. The recent contretemps vis-a-vis Germany over CIA spying on German officialdom is but one of a fleet of examples. This is to say nothing of the attitude of existing and potential enemies who clearly apprehend America’s strategic lassitude and are behaving accordingly. At the very least it seems very likely that the United States is likely to turn inward–this is, after all, one of its distinct historic proclivities–and something it is able to do as a gigantic continental power with a large, if currently ailing, domestic economy and increasing energy independence. As America’s appetite for foreign adventure and, it must be said, for subsidising the security of well-being of its allies through massively disproportionate defence spending diminishes, yet another prop for Britain’s strategic dilly-dallying will fall away.

4. The above would be bad enough if Britain’s economy was in comparatively robust good health. Unfortunately, Blighty also faces serious economic and social headwinds notwithstanding this recent relatively positive outlook. Moreover, as opposed to the United States, Britain really needs to seek its fortune abroad for as an island nation with relatively few of its own resources and a relatively small population it cannot afford to look in. For what its worth I thought this part of the National Security Strategy actually hit the right notes both rhetorically and realistically:

…Britain’s interests remain surprisingly constant. We are an open, outward-facing nation that depends on trade and has people living all over the world. In fact one in ten British citizens now lives permanently overseas. We are a country whose political, economic and cultural authority far exceeds our size… In order to protect our interests at home, we must project our influence abroad. As the global balance of power shifts, it will become harder for us to do so. But we should be under no illusion that our national interest requires our continued full and active engagement in world affairs.

Where I would differ with the government is how they seem to be imagining that they can achieve this ‘active engagement’ and the desired strategic effect. We’re now barely managing to achieve defence spending of 2% of GDP–and honestly it cannot be said that even that 2% is spent wisely–which really is not enough, as ex-Chief of Defence Staff Sir David Richards lost no time in pointing out (after his retirement). The government, if it believes its own strategy, needs to put its money where its mouth is. Instead, though, we get the ludicrous idea that we should enshrine in law that henceforth Britain should devote 0.7% of GDP per annum to foreign aid despite their being precious evidence that this does anything much to generate security (actually much to the contrary) or economic growth–our own or that of the recipients of this (borrowed) largesse. For three hundred years, on the other hand, a cornerstone of British policy has been the maintenance of a very good, at times world preeminent, navy–even through the 20th century during which its relative power progressively diminished (on which point have a listen to Admiral Lord West’s Britain at Sea). On current trajectory, presently we shall have a not very good navy at all with serious gaps in capability and depth. The surface fleet is being reduced significantly (for the nth time). Two new large aircraft carriers are being built–one’s just been christened but the other is due to be mothballed when it is eventually finished. Moreover there aren’t any airplanes to fly off them until the F35 comes along, which it may not do since the version that we’re buying still doesn’t work. The country no longer has a maritime patrol aircraft–a lack which became embarrassingly apparent a couple of months ago when Britain’s contribution to the search for a lost British yacht in the Atlantic consisted of a C130 Hercules and the US Coast Guard had to be cajoled into continuing the search with their much greater assets. Our anti-submarine capability is weak; for that matter is our submarine capability full stop. I could go on… This is not the way that a country which declares itself to be at the ‘heart of many global networks… [have] an outward-looking disposition and is [to be] both a geographical and virtual centre of global activity’ ought to comport itself.

The next Strategic Defence and Security Review is due in 2015, though who will be in government then is anyone’s guess. It has been argued that the review must not be distracted by ‘fruitless discussion of grand strategy’ and struggle amongst the services over who gets the ‘largest slice of a diminishing cake’ (see Fifty Shades of Purple? A Risk Sharing Approach to the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review). I disagree. I think it’s high time for a discussion of grand strategy. Why not? And balance be damed when it comes to whether or not someone’s ox gets speared because it seems to me the key imperative for this country, in peace and in war, is having a navy that is in line with its maritime dependence and global aspiration. If it were up to me every damned penny currently earmarked for overseas aid would be redirected to the Royal Navy permanently. There’s nothing better for lifting poverty than trade.

Photo by Mark Empson from planespotters.net.


10 thoughts on “Britain’s naval moment

  1. Mike says:

    Yeah, hard to disagree with that except to say a RN to what end? Defend sea lines of communication? Project power ashore? Strategic deterrence? Each requires a different sort of fleet. It would be mighty nice if NATO could establish some real maritime burden shareing. NATO was, up to a couple of weeks ago, looking like it might be one of two winners in Afghanistan (along with narco traffickers)— much headway has been made on the persistent bitch of poor English language skills and non compatibility of systems, for example. Had the current American administration been smart enough not to destroy it’s second most important relationship in Europe, who knows what the future could have held.

  2. Ken says:

    Good stuff. 2% is unarguable and not much to ask. It would go further if we’d stop paying bazillions for exquisite technologies that don’t work and arrive way behind schedule. The 80% solution and 25 ships would be a better bet.

  3. While the 0.7 aid target is outdated and arbitrary, I find you simple dismissal of it ignoring the role of aid beyond development. Aid programmes foster secure, in fragile states and developing countries. What do you call Afghanistan? That’s aid to secure the country. How about Gaza/Palestine? Same idea. Somalia? Same idea. The world is not at the 18th/19th period where security is only via guns and bullets and shhips.

  4. Habeas Corpus says:

    With slang in mind, whilst our strategic condition might be FUBAR, let us hope SDSR 2015 is not a case of BOHICA for the services!

  5. Andy Young says:


    Brilliant. Purely Brilliant. If you don’t mind, I will share this as a link to the ‘Naval Review’ members area.

    To all who have commented and are wondering about the state of the RN…worry more! Unfortunatley, I cannot say more on here, but a cursory inspection of personnel numbers, asset reductions and the inability to make the Grand Strategic case for the RN in both peace and war (Armies and Air Forces struggle to justify themselves in the former, except as insurance policies against the latter; Navies exist to pre-empt and prevent through forward deployed influence and security) will tell you all you need to know.

    • David Betz says:

      Sure, Andy. Thanks. Actually, I’d be interested to hear what the members of naval review make of it if there is any discussion.

    • Andrew Young says:


      Any chance of chatting off-line? I am sure you have my e-mail. If not, I am on Linked In, or you can get hold of me via Danny Steed (so long as I am not at Sea!).

      Yours aye,

  6. Toby Baillie says:

    Mr Betz,

    Thank you for an excellent and pertinent piece there. A lot of what you’ve said can almost be applied here in Australia word for word, except for a number of local peculiarities i.e. the perception we “Punch Above Our Weight” (and thus presumably don’t need a large Defence Force), the National inclination towards an Army (which is frankly strange considering we too are an island nation whose economic and strategic wellbeing depends largely upon seaborne assets) and the utter complacency brought about by what I believe is an unfounded confidence that if we need them, the US will come riding over the hill (or water) to save us from an external foe (just like with you blokes not so long ago eh?).

    Just as Australia is struggling to find some sort of relevance in the “New World Order” (again note the similarity of circumstances; an island nation with a relatively small population but with a trade influence and strategic position which lends it more significance then it would otherwise deserve), so Britain needs to start exerting its influence abroad again. I know that I’ll get howled down for being “Neo-Imperialist” etc. but I think that the whole “Little Britain” stance that you seem to have taken for so long just doesn’t suit you. Britain has also never been a full member of the Europe Club; you’ve certainly spent your entire history influencing or being influenced by Europe, but you’ve always been on the periphery at the end of the day. This is why you must return to your outwards-looking policies, return to being the Gateway of Trade to Europe and start stepping back into a role which is starting to be abandoned by the latest “weary titan” i.e. the US. You can start by rebuilding your Navy (as we here in Australia absolutely need to do; our Navy is a shambles) and start protecting sea lines of communication and ensuring Free Trade once more. It’s a cornerstone of Western Society which everybody takes for granted, but let me tell you, the Sea Lines are by no means as safe as they were 100 years ago, or even 20 years ago. There’s more to be done, of course, but that would be a start Mum!

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