The title of this blog is lifted from the header of Royal Navy’s website and before we get our sleeves rolled up and into the subject, I wish to make clear that there is no stronger admirer of the Senior Service and its achievements down the centuries than your humble blogger. But, being as we are in the 21st century, the principles upon which Britain’s exercise of sea power and the political masters that determine its strategy ought to be the topic of a more serious review than the penny-pinching exercises that Messrs Hoon, Hammond et al have indulged in over the last decade.
The British like to think of themselves as peaceloving—slow to anger but fierce in their retribution. Unfortunately, such a self-image sits ill with reality. Let’s leave aside who was at fault in the major conflagrations that were WW1 and WW2, few of the countries of the world can boast as aggressive a history as Imperial Britain. Consider a world map in terms of that history:
Fewer than thirty of the world’s two hundred countries have never stared down the barrel of a figurative British gunboat. And before you start pointing out that neither Mongolia nor Mali have a coastline and are therefore inaccessible, note that Upper Volta and Uzbekistan both have; also, as recently as 1998, the Royal Navy paid a visit to Switzerland by sailing a patrol boat up the Rhine to Basel. There is however no truth to the rumour that Russia drained the Aral Sea just in case perfidious Albion found some way of wangling a gunboat onto it.
Admittedly the world map is a simplistic rendition of four hundred years of complex history and geopolitics. But the point of it all is that attitudes toward Britain have been formed at least in part by such a perspective. And, given incursions into both Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade, it could be argued that we are still playing the gunboat diplomacy role of a world power and that terrible events like 7/7 or the Glasgow airport car bomb are direct, if unjustifiable, consequences of that.
Given the scale of British interests, it has always fallen to the RN to police those interests across the globe. A century ago, we dominated both trade and naval power and that effort was both sensible and feasible. However, British share of both has now shrunk to risible levels compared to global competitors. Yet the RN continues to be tasked with its old role. Thirty years ago, the fallacy that this could be done was almost exposed in the waters off the Falklands. Although a brave victory against steep odds, a few more Exocets and/or fewer dud Argentinian bombs could have made it a disaster.
A quarter century later, the Royal Navy still had its global tasking but Geoff Hoon’s Strategic Defence Review of 2005 pared all three small carriers and 3 of the 35 ‘blue water’ escorts (frigates and destroyers). By comparison, the USN operates 11 major carrier task groups (each with almost 100 aircraft and a half dozen escorts, including Aegis cruisers), plus 9 similar-sized amphibious assault groups, each capable of landing a brigade of 2,200 US Marines against opposition.
Not only is Britain incapable of deploying even one such task group (at least until 2018) but the existing main units are stretched halfway round the globe and, despite their web site slogan, no longer capable of discharging all that is asked of them. But, worse than that, the beancounting firm of Hoon, Fox & Hammond have all but gutted what capability is left. From the SDR’s 32 FF/DD fleet of only seven years ago, the RN is effectively down to 5 DDs and 13 FFs—and not all of those operational
For anyone with a naval background, this does not make comforting reading. The RN still deploys four amphibious warfare and helicopter assault ships plus six survey ships, but those are not naval combat units in the usual sense. They also have a couple of dozen patrol ships and minesweepers but none of those are really ocean-going, nor armed, nor capable of the 30+ knot speeds of the destroyers and frigates.
So the table above scatters nine of the ten operational units halfway round the globe (including two supporting HMS Bulwark on Exercise Cougar 12 with the French and Albanians in the Mediterranean). The only ship in home waters not either undergoing refit or working up (in theory operational but crew is still training on new equipment) is the Type 23 Frigate HMS St Albans, based at Faslane.
Now the defence of the nuclear sub base at Faslane is obviously a priority which is why the St Albans is there (along with two 50-ton Archer class patrol boats). And chasing drug-runners in the Caribbean or Somali pirates could be justified if they caught more of them. But if I were the Taliban looking to smack Britain in the chops for daring to invade my country, a couple of fast cigarette boats packed with amatol could do damage to North Sea rigs that would dwarf Piper Alpha.
Even if the Admiralty were to get wind of such a strike, attack submarines would be useless to counter it, minesweepers and patrol boats would be too slow, even sailing from the Forth or Hull, and HMS St Albans would take a day to get there, even if immediately ready to put to sea from Faslane. And the RAF would be hard put to hit such small, fast targets, even if they were not clever enough to hide out next to the rigs that ASMs or cannon would be as likely to damage as their intended target.
Or what about an LNG tanker with 200,000 cubic metres of liquid gas aboard is similarly attacked as it come in to tie up at South Hook? The resulting fire and explosion would not only wreck Britain’s main LNG import facility but take out much of the Milford Haven oil facility with it, causing an environmental as well as economic disaster.
That the RN is ludicrously overstretched cannot be blamed on the sailors. Both Labour and Tory governments have insisted on a global role for Britain, whether it be a global military reach the whole UK can no longer afford or the nuclear deterrent that it can’t afford either. As a result, the RN is kidding itself that it is capable of protecting Britain’s conventional maritime interests any more.
But what is worse, seen from a purely Scottish perspective, the key oilfields, most especially the newer ones out in the deeper waters of the Celtic Sea, are wide open. With no long-range maritime patrol capability, we no longer even know what’s out there, whether some rusty Liberia freighter off the Faroes is even now removing its deck hatches and using its derricks to launch fast attack boats amidst the rigs.
To protect our nation (that is Scotland’s) interests, we need 2-3 FF’s deployed around our coast, backed up by a half-dozen fast attack boats (c.f. Finland’s Hamina class), a squadron of long-range maritime patrol aircraft and an SBS squadron specially trained to deal with terrorists, especially aboard oil rigs. The UK has none of that.
No disrespect to the RN personnel doing their best in impossible circumstance but the only way we Scots can protect our nation’s interests is to have our own nation and then choose defence forces that don’t involve poking 90% of the world in the eye with a gunboat at some point in our history.