"We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
-Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses
While a third of the world's merchant shipping no longer sails under the red ensign as it did in 1939, the UK's maritime sector remains significant and vital to national prosperity and international power. Britain's naval strategy plays an important role, but as part of a wider effort that provides maritime security in home waters and overseas. The business of securing and protecting the UK's maritime interests rests on the shoulders of an astonishing array of actors: the military, government departments, agencies and the private sector. From Royal Navy's enormous new aircraft carriers to the tiny coastal research vessels of the Environment Agency HMG owns, charters and operates a vast profusion of specialist shipping. This is why it's necessary to take a broad view of the UK's security at sea, a narrow examination of the military alone would fail to recognise that the navy is shaped by the maritime world in which it operates.
It would be easy to simply mention the existence of a "maritime world" in passing and never return to, or elaborate on, what it actually means. 71% of the earth's surface is covered by salt water, a vast space that is totally inhospitable to human life; without technological assistance. Despite this, the seas and oceans play host to an astonishing range of economic activity. This can be broken down into two broad categories: logistics and extraction. 90% of global trade goods are moved by sea, transported by an international fleet of over 50,000 merchant vessels crewed by over a million merchant sailors. The UK is even more reliant on the sea than most nations: moving 95% of it's traded goods and importing 40% of it's food by sea. The seas and oceans act as a vast international space, that has acted as the engine of globalisation for centuries. If the Internet is the world's information superhighway then the maritime world is it's economic superhighway.
Earlier I mentioned that the UK merchant shipping sector is no longer the all-encompassing leviathan it once was. Despite the sharp decline in it's size since the Second World War it remains a powerful and healthy entity. The practice of using "flags of convenience", registering ships in countries with few regulations and little ability to enforce them, has fundamentally changed the rules of the game with respect to where merchantmen are registered. Currently 1/3rd of the world's merchant ships are registered in two countries: Panama and Liberia, ~85% of these fleets are foreign owned. In total the UK manages some 53.9 million deadweight tonnes (DWT) of merchant shipping interests, even though only 12.6 million DWT is actually registered in the UK. Since 1998 the gross tonnage of the British flagged merchant fleet has quadrupled, riding a wave of globalisation and technological change. As of 2014 a further 24.2 million DWT were registered in the UK's crown dependencies and overseas territories, the so called "red ensign group". Of these, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda are prominent red ensign flags of convenience, which contribute to the economies of Britain's overseas territories. Aside from the UK's own merchant fleet, the City of London is a vital financial hub for the international maritime sector. It has a dominant position in marine insurance, holding a 33% market share in 2014, and provides a multitude of other financial services vital to the global maritime industry. In 2013, nearly a quarter of a million UK jobs were sustained by maritime services, mostly in logistics, with 140,000 directly employed in the sector. Of those 140,000 jobs just under half, are in the North of England and Scotland; providing job opportunities to people from communities in some of the most deprived areas of the country. In that year the maritime logistical sector as a whole contributed ~£10 billion to national GDP. The UK is now so deeply integrated into the system of globalised trade, and benefits so much from it, that the continued freedom of the seas to merchant traffic must be considered a paramount priority for any government and any security strategy.
|90% of all goods are moved on the world's merchant shipping routes|
While it's a much smaller industry than fossil fuel extraction it is impossible not to mention the 15,000 fishermen that sail out of ports large and small around the British Isles. From the deep-sea high capacity fleets of Fraserburgh, North Shields and Grimsby to the myriad of small fishermen that sail out of Newlyn, Milford Haven, Plymouth and Poole the industry is alive and well. Although the UK fishing fleet has declined in numbers by 9% since 2004 it remains the second largest in Europe, by tonnage, after Spain. In 2014 the fleet landed 756,000 tonnes of fish and shellfish with a value of £861 million, a 21% increase in volume and a 16% increase in value of the total catch over the 2013 figures. The largest areas for fishing activity remain the North Sea and West of Scotland, with 62% of UK landed fish caught in those areas. While the fishing industry is nowhere near as economically important as North Sea oil and gas it remains the backbone of many communities, often in some of the most deprived areas of Britain.
Maritime logistics and fisheries are industries which have existed for thousands of years the seas around the British Isles also play host to an industry that is just breaking out of it's infancy: renewable power generation. Since the first two experimental offshore wind turbines off the coast of Northumberland were completed in December of 2000 there has been an explosion in the number of turbines and their generating capacity. There are currently 1452 offshore turbines which generated 28.1 TWh of electricity in 2014, accounting for 4% of total UK energy generation capacity. This is a boom industry at the moment, with 4000 MW of capacity already in place with a further 1700 MW under construction and over 5000 MW planned. The wind, wave and tidal energy sectors currently employ and support just under 35,000 jobs, a ~75% increase in five years since 2010. Some predict that the maritime renewable energy industry will create some 70,000 new jobs in the coming decade to 2025. Nearly half of the new jobs are likely to be connected to offshore wind. The renewable energy sector more generally remains an extremely vibrant economic environment, with healthy competition and a profusion of small and medium sized businesses employing 80% of workers. Once again we also find that the offshore arrays are located near areas where quality jobs have been scarce for some time. As North Sea oil and gas helped revitalise a number of towns and cities on the East Coast of Scotland so offshore renewables are slowly having a similar effect on coastal communities all around the UK.
|The UK's economy relies upon the maritime sector for logistics and energy|
Ensuring the security and safe passage of merchant traffic at sea is an even more demanding task, involving the efforts of the private sector, the military, a range of government organisations and international partners. The current system of international merchant shipping is built on navigational safety. Without accurate and constantly updated charts, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety Service, widely available meteorological information and the internationally agreed regulations for the prevention of collisions at sea the system of trade that we know today simply could not work. Britain continues to play an essential role in the maintenance of these systems. The UK Hydrographic Office is world renowned for the quality and accuracy of it's famous Admiralty charts, which 90% of the world's merchant ships use, and the met office's shipping forecast is issued four times daily on BBC Radio 4. Both institutions have a near-unrivaled pedigree and are at the cutting edge of applying the latest technologies to the cartographic and meteorological fields. The UK, as a world leader in meteorological sciences, maintains two permanent and one summer-only Antarctic research stations run by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The Royal Navy's Antarctic patrol ship, currently HMS Protector, is relatively well-known because of her ancestor, HMS Endurance's, role in the 1982 Falklands War. What is less well known is that the BAS also operates two Antarctic research vessels: the RSS James Clerk Ross and the RSS Earnest Shackleton, with the former due to be replaced in 2019 by a new specially constructed polar research vessel. The activities of the BAS are essential for the continued international scientific investigation into, amongst other things, the long-term effects that climate change will have on the natural environment. Long term forecasts about how the Earth's climate will change, and how this will effect sea levels and weather patterns will allow coastal communities, ports and the maritime community to better prepare and hedge against potential environmental threats to their long-term sustainability.
|RSS Earnest Shackleton, one of three UK vessels which operate in support |
of the British Antarctic Survey.
Closer to home than Somalia and far more immediate than the potential effects of climate change Britain's maritime institutions play an essential role in providing human security. People trafficking, smuggling and illegal migration all pose threats to UK civil society and to many of the unfortunate people exploited by international criminal gangs. Intercepting illicit goods and trafficked people at sea is a far more attractive option than policing them once they reach British shores. Seizures of illegal drugs at sea tend to be measured in tonnes rather than pounds and have the potential to dent the formidable criminal industry in ways that policing alone cannot. Once again we find that tackling these challenges requires a range of government bodies working in tandem: from the intelligence services to HM Revenue and Customs and the Royal Navy. In this role the five customs cutters currently operated by HMRC have proven extremely useful. While unarmed under normal circumstances they have demonstrated their worth by acting as a visible deterrent through presence and monitoring, as well as taking a very active role in boarding, enforcement and constabulary duties around the UK. Interceptions and boarding operations by the customs cutters increased four-fold between 1999 and 2009 to nearly 2,000 operations a year. Some of these operations have resulted in the capture of huge quantities of illicit goods, early in 2015 the cutter HMC Valiant and the frigate HMS Somerset seized three tonnes of Cocaine with a street value of £500 million. Recently the government took the unusual step of deploying two of the cutters to the Aegean to help with the Mediterranean search and rescue effort related to the ongoing migrant crisis. HMC Protector and HMC Seeker were together responsible for rescuing 1650 people and arresting 26 smugglers while they were forward deployed.
|HMC Valiant, one of HMRC's 42-metre customs cutters|
To put it bluntly the number of these ships is currently woefully inadequate to support the level of defence activity required to safeguard Britain's maritime interests. The current force of 19 escorts in reality generates a deployable force of some 6-7 ships. The rule that three ships are required to keep one permanently on station, or available at high readiness, still holds true, vessels have always needed maintenance and crews need time ashore. Almost the entire escort fleet is committed to sustaining the UK's few remaining standing patrols in the South Atlantic, Gulf, home waters and the West Indies. There is no strategic reserve, no replacements available for losses to combat, sabotage, technical faults or accidents and few to no escorts are available to protect Britain's capital ships. In 2004 the New Labour government sold three relatively new Type 23 frigates to Chile, in 2010 the Liberal/Conservative coalition scrapped the four remaining Batch 3 Type 22 frigates. The replacement of 12 Type 42 destroyers with half as many Type 45s between 2003 and 2013 amounted to another cut of six hulls. In the decade between 2004 and 2014 the RN lost 13 escorts, almost half of it's major surface combatants.
For a country that is so totally reliant on the sea for it's survival and prosperity the current situation is nothing less than unacceptable. An opportunity currently exists to reduce the pressure on the escort fleet by bringing the new Batch 2 River class OPVs into service in addition to the existing Batch 1 ships, rather than as replacements for them. Forward basing these three new ships in the West Indies, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands would free up three or four high-end warships for operations elsewhere, in areas where their greater combat capability is required. Reintroducing a small but permanent RN presence in the Mediterranean, based out of Gibraltar, would also send a strong message to the Spanish; who have consistently violated the UK territory's sovereign waters in recent years. I would argue strongly that this is the only reasonable coarse of action in the short term, but in the medium to long term the number of escorts must rise. In the author's opinion the best way of achieving this long-term expansion would be to extend the Type 26 production run by at least seven hulls, to give a minimum of 20 frigates plus the six Type 45s. Crucially this increase could be achieved without increasing the total number of crew needed for the frigate fleet. Trained military manpower is a major expense and the smaller compliment of just 118 for each ship (compared with 185 for a Type 23) would allow the RN to man 20 ships with roughly the same number of people needed for 13 Type 23s. Combined with reduced pressure on the escort fleet as a whole, by handing over the Falklands and West Indies patrol tasks to forward based OPVs, this should allow the RN to hold a properly escorted carrier and/or amphibious group at high readiness, available for deployment anywhere in the world at short notice. Importantly, this should be achieved without severely disrupting ships' repair and maintenance cycles, and would also create a small reserve to cover unforeseen contingencies, accidents or combat losses.
|The Type 23 frigate HMS Somerset, one of the UK's 19 remaining|
It is therefore shameful and shortsighted that Britain's premier means of safeguarding it's maritime interests should be in such poor shape. As I have discussed, the economic health of the UK depends to an extraordinary extent upon the freedom of the seas not only at home but also much further afield. The inner sphere of British maritime security is not in bad shape, with the return of a dedicated maritime patrol aircraft almost an assured part of the upcoming SDSR the future looks good. However, when it comes to the needs of the outer sphere which guards UK interests further afield there is much left to be desired.
It is too rarely expressed that Britain is a maritime nation, for which the sea is the ultimate source of power and the ultimate source of vulnerability. By failing to understand those two words, and the vast, complex and vital systems they so neatly describe, we are failing to understand ourselves. This is something that each generation must learn and relearn, because working out who we are requires us "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."