Naval gazing

“The British Army should be a projectile to be fired by the British Navy” – Edward Grey

Writing as he did at the peak of British influence, Viscount Grey’s statement may seem a little peculiar when viewed through the modern lense of power projection theory – the British Army, deployed as it has been in various campaigns both conventional and counter-insurgency sine the end of the Second World War, has long held the limelight as the paramount tool of serving Britain’s interests, but this is not necessarily a permanent state of being.

Britain, as an island nation, has long enjoyed the advantage of not needing to maintain a strong army. Unlike her continental neighbours, Britain effectively had no hostile neighbours with whom she shared a land border for several centuries, and even now is only bordered by one neutral country. Lacking any immediate threats, much funding could be diverted to naval power projection and commercial development; an asset which played no small part in securing Britain’s domination of the global scene until the early Twentieth Century.

It would be wise to remember our history when considering our future; the Army is an extremely useful tool in the national arsenal, its troops are of an extraordinarily high standard and it enjoys capabilities shared only by the very top echelon of world fighting forces. In recent years the Army has conducted its campaigns to a very high standard, and provides vital training expertise to bolster the quality of allied forces. For all these advantages, however, successive rounds of cuts since 1991 have seen the Army reduced to a size (oft quoted in the media) roughly comparable to the pre-Napoleonic era.

In modern fighting forces, number of bodies is not the sole measure of quality; indeed, the British Army of 1914 was the smallest in Europe and yet man-for-man perhaps the most powerful. The well-trained British volunteers reaped a fearsome toll on the German invaders of the West, but ultimately required a huge influx of manpower before it could stand on its own two feet. The losses suffered by the British and Imperial armies throughout the Great War were a consequence of being deployed to fight a conflict that they were ultimately not intended to fight; as Grey appreciated, Britain’s power rested upon her ability to control the seas, and it was natural that any military strategy should be an extension of this control.

The key to effective utilisation of sea power against a potential adversary is a strong amphibious capability, which even in the modern world Britain still possesses (although a replacement to HMS Ocean is of paramount importance in retaining this); the means to rapidly transfer troops and equipment ashore allows for a decisive blow to swiftly be struck against a foe, and whilst 40% of the world’s population live within 100KM of the coastline a strong amphibious capacity grants a nation a disproportionate edge. Currently, British amphibious capacity largely lies with the Royal Marines; an elite force ostensibly listed as a part of the Royal Navy. This small force is a vital link in our defence capabilities, yet recently suffered a further down-sizing in manpower.

With the small size of forces available, it would be wise to continue to consider how best to employ them in order to maximise impact. The British Army is currently moving towards a ‘strike brigade’ concept, in which it intends to rapidly deploy a brigade size force into the field at short notice, in order to effect a rapid response to a crisis. This concept is, however, currently largely dependent on air power. This detachment between land and sea, however, estranges the two at a time when inter-service cooperation is of vital importance to ensuring national security.

With a Royal Navy capable of deploying and sustaining a strike force on land, it makes sense to encourage a greater degree of inter-operability with the Army; a modest expansion in transport and amphibious assault craft could see the strike brigade integrated with the Navy and able to be deployed at very short order to a variety of potential conflict zones. There would naturally be some reticence in the Army to see their principal attack force brought into operational integration with the Navy, but such a move would have the potential to both reduce inter-service rivalry and improve efficiency.

The size of the Army precludes it assuming the primary role of national power projection, but if a combined-arms approach were embraced its power and flexibility would be fundamentally increased in either combat or humanitarian operations especially as it would be deployed in concert with the force most responsible for our continued prosperity.

That the Royal Navy still, despite the turmoil of the past century, retains its role as the linchpin of national security should be beyond doubt; as a nation dependent upon global trade for survival a powerful fleet is a necessity, whilst protection and support for our overseas possessions and manifold allies can only be afforded via a powerful sea presence. Recent investment in the new aircraft carriers heralds something of a resurgence in support for the Royal Navy, but a greater expansion, supported by a doctrinal appreciation of a truly naval outlook, would pay dividends on Britain’s future capacity to remain a major player on the world stage. With a strong fleet, and a larger ground force ready to be deployed via such a fleet, rapid deployment of force across the world would allow Britain to (in words so beloved in recent years) punch well above her weight internationally and enjoy the manifold returns in prestige and relations that would accompany such presence.

Excepting a fundamental doctrinal change, such a development being unlikely in the immediate future given the upheaval within the Army caused by the adoption of the Strike Brigade concept and the general rediscovery of capabilities lost in 2010, a change in outlook alone could well be sufficient to achieve a development in operations.

A revival of the maritime outlook of the nation, including an appreciation that our interests are best served at sea, could well encourage such a shift. The Army can naturally operate in areas beyond the ready reach of naval forces, and must be ready to do so if the need should arise, but when planning for the future we would be wise to remember the costs of lengthy ground operations and consider how a naval outlook might better serve Britain once more. 


Another article on this matter, highlighting the importance of amphibious capability:


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