Britain's Maritime Commitments: Getting our Priorities Right

A recently leaked report from inside the British Ministry of Defence titled Royal Navy Utility Today Compared with 20 Years Ago has highlighted the dreadful state of the Royal Navy and has brought the plight of Britain’s navy into the limelight. The report’s contents paint a gloomy picture for the Royal Navy and Britain’s ability play a leading role in an increasingly multi-polar world.

Since Labour came to power, and during Gordon Brown’s tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Royal Navy has experienced an overall reduction of 20 ships. Some of these reductions include Britain’s active aircraft carrier fleet being cut from three to two, our frigate and destroyer fleet being cut from 35 to 25, and our attack submarine fleet being cut from 12 to eight. The Royal Navy has faced significant cuts in force levels, which are completely at odds with the government’s own 1998 Strategic Defence Review. Consequently, the Navy has been blackmailed into accepting such cuts for fear of losing the two future aircraft carriers, which at least, have recently been ordered.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have given Britain a navy that, according to the report, “would be challenged to mount a medium scale operation in accordance with current policy against a technologically capable adversary”. The United Kingdom can forget about launching another Falklands type mission. Securing the Straits of Hormuz in the event of a crisis with Iran, or conducting naval blockade operations like the one proposed for North Korea earlier this year as part of a multinational task force are not even in the realm of possibility.

The reduction in the size and capability of the Royal Navy also limits the United Kingdom’s ability to fulfil military commitments to NATO. Since the NATO Response Force (NRF) was created in 2002, Britain’s main contribution has been in the form of maritime capability. Since 2005, Britain’s commitment to the NRF has included the Maritime Component Command together with associated supporting forces, including an aircraft carrier and associated aircraft, a destroyer/frigate escort, mine hunter, auxiliary support and maritime patrol aircraft. In 2008 this commitment will be slightly reduced to one aircraft carrier and associated aircraft together with a destroyer/frigate escort.

However, in addition to the cuts the Royal Navy has suffered, Britain’s misguided commitment to the European Union’s European Security and Defence Policy (EDSP) threatens the UK’s ability to fulfil its NATO requirements.

Britain’s naval contribution to the ESDP under the 1999 Helsinki Headline Goal consists of “18 Warships, including an aircraft carrier, a helicopter carrier, destroyers, frigates, mine-hunters and submarines; plus support ships”. The EU’s Headline Goal 2010, which was created to provide the ESDP with a more modern and realistic approach to the security needs and capabilities of the EU in the post 9-11 world, called for Britain to provide “the availability of an aircraft carrier with its associated air wing and escort by 2008”.

In 2004, Britain’s Minister for Europe, Denis MacShane said that the Headline Goal 2010 did not relieve Britain of its commitment to the Helsinki Headline Goal. Although the wording of the Headline Goal 2010 and the Helsinki Headline Goal is different on paper, the commitment is still the same. Why would the Labour Government commit so much to the EU when the UK had so little to give?

Just a quick glance at the condition of the Royal Navy during the establishment of the EU’s Helsinki Headline Goal and Headline Goal 2010, invites one to question the wisdom of the Labour Government in committing so much of the Royal Navy to the EU.

For example, HMS Ark Royal, one of the two British aircraft carriers, was at a state of low readiness in 1998 and entered refit in June 1999 until March 2001. During this period she went to sea for only 4.75 days. This left the Royal Navy with only one operationally ready aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious. At the time of the 2004 announcement of the Headline Goal 2010 the UK was heavily engaged in naval operations in the Persian Gulf in support of the Iraq War and in the Indian Ocean in support of the war in Afghanistan. In addition, HMS Illustrious was in refit from November 2002 to November 2004 and did not go to sea at all in 2003.

The British Ministry of Defence standard is that one of the two aircraft carriers is at a level of high readiness at any given time. With the current state of the Royal Navy and the high operations tempo, it is not possible to meet MoD readiness standards while making available an aircraft carrier to the NRF or the ESDP.

As for the ‘associated air wing and escort’ required by the Headline Goal 2010, cuts in the British Navy mean that it will experience difficulties providing escort for its own carrier battle groups much less providing resources for an EU carrier battle group on an ESDP mission. It was announced in January 2007 that half of the Royal Navy’s 44 warships are to be mothballed as part of a reduction in British defence spending. In addition to the expected delayed introduction of the two new aircraft carriers into the British fleet, the Type 45 destroyer-building programme has been reduced from twelve to eight; currently only six of these have been ordered and none will be fitted with the Tomahawk cruise missiles requested by the Naval Staff.

Robust naval operations, including blue water naval capabilities, are something that the UK cannot count on the EU to provide through the ESDP. NATO is the best organisation to meet maritime security requirements because of the robust naval projection of the United States Navy. Operation Sharp Guard in the Adriatic Sea during the Yugoslav crisis of the early 1990’s is an example of why NATO should be left to the task of leading naval operations. This joint Western European Union/NATO mission has been viewed as an example of unnecessary duplication of EU and NATO capabilities. The UK must re-examine its naval commitment to the EU and focus more on strengthening NATO’s capabilities.

In the eyes of the current British Government, Britain’s naval commitment to NATO and its naval commitment to the ESDP are viewed as equal. This is wrong and endangers Britain’s role in the trans-Atlantic Alliance. To think that Britain can offer so much of its navy to the ESDP is pure fantasy. It is a disgrace to NATO, and to our relationship with the United States, that Britain would double-hat its navy to the ESDP whilst committing to NATO. The Labour Government needs to get their priorities in order. Britain needs a strong and robust blue water navy which has the ability to project British influence to all corners of the world while at the same time fulfilling its commitments to NATO, not the EU. I just hope it is not too late.