Britain’s National Anthem urges “Britannia Rule The Waves”, a sentiment that rose to fulfillment in the Victorian era with the global primacy of the Royal Navy. Margaret Thatcher’s ‘return to Victorian values’ did not include maintaining sea power and cuts by her government, and those that followed, have threatened to turn the Senior Service into the Senile Service.
More cuts are expected to be recommended in an upcoming Defence Review. Already, many Royal Navy sailors see themselves as a brown water – coastal – navy.
It isn’t a matter of projecting national power and prestige, the cuts threaten the prime function of any navy: to protect its nation’s commerce.
In an unprecedented move, Britain’s First Sea Lord, Sir Mark Stanhope, has stood up to warn against the browning of Britain’s blue water fleet.
MAC’s UK correspondent William Redmond has the story:
Crown copyright MOD/2010.
Royal Navy cutbacks will imperil maritime safety, warns First Sea Lord
In what may be seen as a cynical, pre-emptive strike, First Sea Lord, Sir Mark Stanhope, has fired an early salvo against the UK Government’s expected Royal Navy budget cuts in the pending Defence Review. He says that he can absorb no further cuts if the navy is to protect global security. “In one day we have seen the navy tackle the drugs trade in the Caribbean, tackling piracy off Somalia, servicing out NATO roles and working to protect fisheries but we are providing these roles at the minimum capability we could possibly run at,” he said recently.
Given the parlous state of the British Government’s finances and the defence budget seen as the most politically popular department to cut, can Stanhope succeed in repelling boarders where so many of his predecessors have seen decades of cuts, leaving the navy reduced to its lowest level while its commitments are not commensurately less? And if he fails what are the implications for global maritime security and safety?
Of all post-war sea lords Sir Mark faces, perhaps, the most unusually difficult mix of problems. He feels, for example, that the Army’s high profile role in Afghanistan will see the government giving the Army priority at the expense of the other two services, even though a national referendum tomorrow would probably see a majority call for immediate withdrawal from a country that has seen two super powers, Britain and Russia, retreat with their tails between their legs. He has also taken over at a time of unprecedented financial turmoil, leaving the government saddled with huge debts that the global financial community will want to see slashed quickly to avoid a downgrade in sovereign debt ratings.
There is also the problem of public perception of the Royal Navy, where its ‘over the horizon’ work, as Stanhope calls it, is not generally perceived but nevertheless is of inestimable value. A good example is the navy’s Caribbean watch, which back in September saw HMS Iron Duke seize 5.5 tonnes of pure cocaine, worth £240 million. This followed three other notable cocaine seizures totalling 6.4 tonnes, twice the whole amount seized in England and Wales during 2008. Those seizures have removed much misery, crime and death from the streets of America, on which no price can be put. On many occasions during the hurricane season the navy has also rendered valuable humanitarian aid.
Other ‘over the horizon’ benefits include mine sweeper protection of oil platforms in the Persian Gulf and anti piracy work off Somalia. The latter is a new and substantial commitment for the Royal Navy, which has had some success, but the 25-30 warships of mixed nationalities would need to be 15 times that number to do an effective job, claims the International Transport Workers Federation. The result is that insurance premiums have soared, huge extra costs incurred through long detours via the Cape of Good Hope and many millions of dollars paid out in ransom money to secure the return of seized ships and their crews. There is also the severe impact such piracy will have on the African littoral states as cruise ships shun the area and Suez Canal transits.
If the British public were more aware of these hugely valuable, albeit immeasurable, benefits then the admittedly high costs of naval hardware, like the two new aircraft carriers on order, would be easier to justify. The £5 billion price tag on the two carriers would pay for 25 new 1000-bed hospitals or 125 miles of a three-lane motorway. That is a great deal of socially valuable, foregone investments but the price of defence is never cheap, and the UK’s current defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth, has just admitted that the Government has pushed the military too hard. But is the cost being fairly shared?
Ainsworth suggests that other major European maritime allies with much smaller navies should help with costs. It could be fairly said, after all, that major European trading nations, some with bigger economies than Britain, have been getting a free ride on the backs of the Royal Navy in terms of keeping global sea lanes open and safe. Britain has the second largest navy in the NATO alliance after America, with 88 commissioned ships, but if it faces savage cuts then its commitments will have to be cut back from, perhaps, being a blue-sea navy to one of just coastal protection. Without a commensurate increase in financial support from other countries then the world’s commercial maritime community will face greater dangers and costs.
The first Sea Lord has an even greater responsibility to succeed than he may realize and upon his negotiating skills rests the safety of many commercial ships and their crews. So will Sir Mark succeed? It would be a miracle if he emerged without some of his feathers plucked. It would be far greater miracle still if the plucking government escaped embarrassment and ignominy for years to come as the chickens of their actions came home to roost.