hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Future of Naval Power


Friedrikshavn, Denmark. 20 November.  At the dawn of what became the British Empire that great Elizabethan adventurer, naval commander and occasional pirate Sir Walter Raleigh said, “Whoever commands the sea commands the trade, whoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself”.  The politically correct West might wish to put it slightly differently these days but I am sure neither China nor Russia would demur from Raleigh’s fundamental principles of sea power.  Today, I have the honour of addressing officers of the Royal Danish Navy, latter day Vikings, on Europe’s place on the world stage and the future of European navies.  The essential question implicit in my speech is this; are Europeans any longer up to the principles of projectable sea power?

We are entering a big power age, a hyper-competitive age in which illiberal power is growing and liberal power declining.  It is also a hybrid age in which co-operation and competition between states takes place simultaneously.  It is a world made dangerous by Europe’s retreat from power and its wilful refusal to invest in power, a retreat that has doomed its cherished law-based international system to failure.  This is something Russia has demonstrated to effect this year with its skilful conquest of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.  In effect Moscow wrapped Europeans up in the contradictory nonsense of their own ‘laws’ and revealed for all to see that for Europeans ‘law’ is the new appeasement; a metaphor for weakness and retreat from power and influence.

Navies in particular have been hit hard by this nonsense.  As warships the world over are built and launched daily European navies have atrophied.  Britain’s once mighty Royal Navy (RN) is a European case in point.  My friend Captain Simon Atkinson of the Royal Australian Navy sent me a piece this week by Nicholas M. Gallagher entitled When Britain Really Ruled the Waves for which I am grateful.  The piece tells the story of the decline and fall of the world’s premier navy to a point at which today the RN has 38 admirals for 29 ships. 

Go back a century. In May 1916 just off the coast of Jutland where I am sitting the enormous massed Dreadnoughts and Super-Dreadnoughts of the Grand Fleet were swinging one-by-one into battle line astern, enormous battle white ensigns were blossoming into the wind at the ‘gaff’ of the masts of each battleship as huge guns swung and rose in their turrets.  Before them the German High Seas Fleet confident of victory was sailing unwittingly into an enormous steel trap.  On one horizon HMS Marlborough laid her guns for action and at the other end HMS Agincourt.  It was the greatest display of naval power in history as the greatest cannonade ever fired thundered out catching the German Admiral Scheer completely by surprise.

That was then and this is now, which is why Gallagher misses the essential point.  His argument is that the US-UK special relationship is built on naval power and that the weakness of the Royal Navy is putting that relationship at risk.  The RN of today is indeed at low ebb.  Brit-bashing is a popular sport partly and precisely because of the past power of the Royal Navy.  The critics like to point out that there are not enough ships and that because of that Britain will be unable to exercise sea control or sea presence, the two essential functions of naval strategy.  And they are right; the Navy of today is neither Corbett nor Mahan.

However, Corbett at least would have understood the strategy.  Some time ago I told a very senior British officer to keep the faith, look up and out at strategy and focus on the creation of the future hub force the Royal Navy is destined to become.  Within a decade the RN will have two super-carriers, new Type-45 destroyers and Type-26 frigates in addition to its new Astute-class nuclear attack submarines.  Indeed, an enormous part of Britain’s enormous £160bn defence equipment investment (by contemporary European standards) is devoted to the new Royal Navy. 

Powerful enough to work with the Americans the future RN will be also capable of commanding coalitions often alongside the French (not without historical irony) as a pivotal element in the emerging democratic world-wide security web.  The web will include Australians, Canadians, Europeans, Japanese and others and will see the RN front and centre when the Americans are otherwise engaged as they surely will be.  It might not be Jutland and the Grand Fleet but that was the exception in British naval history not the norm.

Therefore, when I rise to address Denmark’s finest I will be addressing partners in a future naval concept in turn part of an entirely new concept of projectable maritime-amphibious power.  Power that sits at the core of a new concept of joint force in which land, sea, air, cyber, space and indeed knowledge are merged into a new concept of influence, force and effect.  The Royal Navy - the greatest navy the world has ever known – will be slap bang at the heart of a twenty-first concept of projectable military power every bit as impressive as its nineteenth and twentieth century past.

So, stop whingeing, keep the faith, and the tell the story Navy!


Julian Lindley-French

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