Red Ensign

“Sometimes I get the impression that the Navy is less successful, even less willing, at selling itself than the other services.” UK Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox

During a speech in London meant to celebrate the achievement of the UK Armed Forces during the year of 2010, the new Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), General David Richards praised the bravery of British servicemen in Afghanistan. Once again he made a linkage between the consequences of failure in Afghanistan and keeping the public in Britain safe. “Safe,” he said, “from the violent extremists who would make the region their base; and safe from the operations that terrorists would train for and plan from those havens.”


He did not speculate on how his men might deal with similar terrorists in the Yemen or elsewhere but a quote from a NCO on the ground in Afghanistan carried by a national newspaper provided a worrying insight into the mindset of the Army. The NCO gav e this opinion “If we don’t succeed in Afghanistan, then other countries like Somalia or Yemen won’t allow us in. We’ll be seen as failures.”

For the Army, despite all the casualties, the campaign in Afghanistan has been a Godsend, providing it with an enemy to fight when, post-Cold War, its relevance was being questioned and the UK’s strategic defence was being returned to its maritime-led norm. Never mind the cost in treasure, or lives, the deep unpopularity of ‘nation building’ among the British electorate, or the fact that the presence of Western troops in numbers on the ground in Muslim countries may be counter-productive to UK homeland security, it appears the grass roots Army wants more of the same. For the UK, further Afghan-style adventures would be sheer folly, but you will never ever hear any of the Khaki mafia buy into the realpolitik.

During his speech in London, Gen Richards announced his intention that the Chiefs of Staff – the three heads of the UK Armed Forces – should play a leading role in advising the National Security Council on the development of Force 2020, which he promised would be formidable and powerful, joint and across each service. While the Army might have some valuable input, the self-serving fighter pilots that control the RAF, and who engineered the discarding of the Harrier and the Nimrod while preserving their Tornado and Typhoon toys, should be barred from any such move. They are not Joint in any significant sense, nor do they wish to be. Gen Richards repeated his message that, after cuts in the defence budget over the next four years, military spending must rise in real terms after 2015, if government assurances to the armed forces are to be honoured. Richards added: “We need to look several decades ahead and decide what Britain’s place in the world is.” He also referred to the MoD’s problems in “Linking the ends to ways and means.” In Richard’s view: “There are weaknesses.” In other words, he recognises the incoherence that underlies the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

“I was accused by some of being the only dark blue suit in the SDSR apart from the First Sea Lord.” Liam Fox to senior Royal Navy officers.

The dream that any future government, of whatever political hue will, short of a clear and present danger to national survival, increase Defence spending belongs in cloud-cuckoo land

Around the same time Gen Richards was speaking in London, and purveying his usual land-centric view, the Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox, made a speech at the HMS Collingwood naval training establishment near Portsmouth. In his milestone address, which passed largely unreported, he claimed: “I was accused by some of being the only dark blue suit in the SDSR apart from the First Sea Lord.” This was an extraordinary claim to make, and if true points up a worrying lack of investment by the Navy’s own so-called opinion formers in shaping SDSR in favour of the Naval Case. That surely cannot be so, but there is no escaping what Fox said.

Odin would like to ask why the government has several ex-Army officer ministers, and even one former RAF officer minister, but there are few, if any ex-RN politicians in a position of real influence. Naval knowledge in the Tory Party, for instance, is not lacking but those MPs are not in ministerial jobs. Perhaps Dr Fox can fix that

It was, however, a powerfully pro-Navy speech, Fox making many of the points that have been highlighted consistently by Odin. “Why,” asked Fox, attempting to set his speech within the context of the bigger picture, “should Britain remain a maritime power?” Fox answered his own question, in words that Odin repeats here because every British naval person should read, mark and learn the answer by heart. They should then go out and convey the ‘Gospel According to Fox’ with all their might and with the same passion as the Army and RAF opinion-formers, who work their magic ceaselessly and do not give a hang about what the Navy thinks. “Britain is an island nation,” stated Fox. “The sea not only protects us, but, as a trading nation reliant on imports of goods and energy, the sea is a crucial artery that helps sustain our way of life and our prosperity. We can never afford to become sea blind whatever other military priorities we may have in the short-term. Keeping the sea-lanes and lines of communications open for the global transfer of goods and energy is vital. These arteries exist often in shared areas, which are outside exclusive national jurisdictions. International law, including the laws of the sea, must be underpinned by methods of enforcement and that can only be secured by the capability to prevent, deter, coerce and ultimately intervene against those who would act against security and stability in the global commons. The sea is not only a highway. It holds many resources – energy, minerals and even food production – that in the years ahead, as the technology to exploit them and the need to do so grows, will mean that the competition for resources on land will be mirrored by competition on, and under, the sea.

Fox went on: “Britain must remain a maritime power, not only because of the capacity of maritime force to protect our security and prosperity, but because maritime power is an essential enabler to gain access and operate in other domains in far flung parts of the world. It provides choice and flexibility to decision makers as a focus for deploying and sustaining force – with mobility, range and endurance. As a politician, and especially as Secretary of State for Defence I can see the benefit provided by a naval force in measured escalation without necessarily committing to a footprint ashore. Sea-basing can overcome the challenges associated with securing access, air basing and over-flight permissions for combat operations. In a new era of competition, strong British maritime forces – to protect trading routes, to protect Britain’s interests in the exploitation of marine resources and to enable the projection of power in the air and over land – will remain a fundamental part of our national security posture.”

But Fox also delivered a subtle, but powerful, reprimand. At the end of his speech Fox told the senior naval officers assembled at HMS Collingwood for what was the First Sea Lord’s annual conference: “Sometimes I get the impression that the Navy is less successful, even less willing, at selling itself than the other services.” Mr Fox did acknowledge, however: “The First Sea Lord, a submariner, fought hard for you during the SDSR.”

Was his reference to Admiral Stanhope’s submarining specialisation, and a subsequent suggestion that one day a Royal Marine might be First Sea Lord, a reprimand for the surface navy? Whatever the reason, they were curious words.

Curiously, it is just 100 years since the then First Sea Lord, ‘Tug’ Wilson, another brave and an intelligent officer, was unable to articulate the naval case. In 1910 the Army proposed landing a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France (in case of a German attack) and Wilson was unable to muster his arguments for a coherent maritime strategy. Much the same seems to have happened in 2010: Not only was the Naval Staff wrong-footed in the closing days of the SDSR, but in the run-up to SDSR how strongly did it advocate the Naval Case? If this is a misrepresentation of what happened, what on earth is the Defence Secretary up to? It is all very well for him to lambast the Navy, but, as the various leaks to the national media indicated during the SDSR process, Fox himself was at war with the Treasury and even the Prime Minister. Could it be the Navy’s case was lost amid all the dirty politics? While the Navy presented a solid case – perhaps not in terms simple politicians can necessarily understand – the wily lobbyists of the RAF and Army played their ace cards better in the final days before SDSR was settled, not bothering to use Fox as their medium? If that better accords with reality, the Navy has to ask itself why it continues to play by the rules, instead of getting down and dirty like the other two services?

All is fair in love, war and politics. While the British armed forces are licking their wounds after the SDSR, it’s important to remember that strategic shock – which may indeed represent clear and present danger – takes many forms. MoD planners have had to tear up existing plans for evacuating British residents from the Gulf, in the event of Iranian threats, because the expatriate population in the UAE has grown to more than 100,000 while a million British tourists visit annually. Yet, where are the ships, which will be needed to rescue these people in event of war? Apparently one of the MoD’s answers is to station cruise liners off the UAE, which will make nice, fat juicy targets for Iranian swarm attacks, or hijacking to access thousands of ‘human shields’ that can be sailed to Bandar Abbas.

Despite the need for a less lunatic solution, the MoD is still paying off Type 22 frigates, an almost new Bay Class amphibious ship, the carrier Ark Royal and the RFA Fort George – the very ships needed for such an evacuation. At the same time, the French have confirmed their intention, much to the consternation of Russia’s neighbours and to France’s allies, to sell up to four assault carriers to Russia. So Russia, France, Australia, India and lots of other nations are enlarging their navies and investing in the very ships Britain is discarding, a fact that shows the advocacy of Mr Fox and anyone else who cares to tub-thump for the Navy fell on deaf ears (belonging to Cameron and Osborne and many of their Cabinet colleagues).

A UK carrier strike gap of ten years is unacceptable. In his speech the Defence Secretary referred to Oliver Cromwell’s quote that “a man-of-war is the best Ambassador.” Fox added: “We need to update and redefine what might be described as the concept of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ for the 21st Century.” To do that, you need gunboats and enough of them to matter, Mr Fox. Today, that is far from the case and there are in 2011 fewer ‘Grey Diplomats’, as somebody else dubbed the Navy’s warships, than at any time since the early 1800s. Some people say numbers do not matter, which of course is rubbish. Critical mass is important, as it affords presence and enables a navy to sustain losses, and not be afraid of going in harm’s way. It is time Cameron and his crew were awake to those salient facts. Dr Fox will have to provide that cure for their sea blindness, on behalf of both the Navy and the nation.

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