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:


Further thoughts on international aid

I recently wrote a piece on here detailing my thoughts on the need to improve the means by which the United Kingdom delivers aid internationally, and recent events seem to be necessitating a drastic overhaul of our approach to crises.

The United Nations recently announced that we are facing the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War, with more than 20 million people in Central Africa and Yemen facing famine and in dire need of support, but this has received far too little attention. When I saw this announced on the BBC, it received but a passing mention, with significantly more air time being granted to allegations of sexism in the British cycling team.

The general lack of focus on military and international affairs in the news is something a pet peeve of mine, and I will refrain from plunging down that rabbit hole here, but I believe that this presents one of the greatest obstacles to decisive action. When coverage of crises such as these is limited to a few clips in the news, the public reaction will likewise be limited, and without pressure from the public democratic governments will be less inclined to make the effort necessary to avert the crisis.

It was telling that in the latest budget announcement, no mention was made of either military spending or foreign aid; in a time of such international unrest and with such a disaster is unfolding it is surprising that the Chancellor should be so quiet, but amidst the furor over National Insurance there has been effectively no scrutiny of what remained unsaid.

Whilst it is unfortunate that the government has, as yet, made no real statement towards addressing the crisis that is unfolding, it is easy to understand why. The regions that have been affected are in a state of turmoil, and any aid programme would require a significant deployment of resources and personnel that are currently lacking. With the British military as stretched as it is, they would be hard pressed to make a significant contribution alone – such a situation would require the aid of the U.N.

Such action should be a united effort, with 20 million lives at stake across four nations the world as a whole should be taking action, but a crisis of this scale should prompt the U.K. to take a look at the tools at our disposal to act in the event of crisis. As I wrote in my last piece, our International Aid budget is sadly hampered by the bureaucratic strings attached to its utility, and it often fails to translate into meaningful action.

The need for dedicated hospital and relief ships was the central point of the previous article, but there is no need to end the process of reevaluating the aid budget with the purchase of platforms. It would be to Britain’s credit to use the budget to fund the creation of a full-time aid organisation; rather than rely on the badly stretched military and volunteer forces, the creation of a permanent force of aid workers would allow for a rapid and decisive response to crises that emerged. By having an asset such as this Britain would be put at the spearhead of many badly needed relief efforts and be a useful asset to the United Nations.

Such a force would not need to be enormous, if one were to compare – Doctors without Borders currently employ some 30,000 with a budget of approximately £616,000, by contrast the British foreign aid budget for 2015 was £12.2 billion. If some of that money were invested in personnel and equipment, a sizable organisation could be funded whilst still allowing large volumes of capital to be left available for the resources needed to support their operation. Rather than relying on local infrastructure, a well funded force of relief workers could be deployed and ensure that aid could be delivered exactly where it was needed.

Naturally, the creation of such a force would be a lengthy process with high initial outlay for training and equipping, but the long-term advantage it would present in terms of employment, value for money in terms of the aid budget, and diplomatic capital would make such a scheme a huge investment for Britain and afford a better chance to help those in need across the globe.

This effort is unlikely to be made, however, without public pressure. These matters will never be addressed if they are not discussed, and we run the risk of the aid budget remaining as little more than a token lip-service to good will. As an internationally minded country the United Kingdom has an obligation to provide assistance to the most vulnerable, and if the government is sincere in its commitment to providing foreign aid then they should be pressed to ensure that the money devoted to it is used to its fullest potential.

[EDIT] Since writing this piece both the British government and people have pledged a huge sum in support of the crisis in question, to their enormous credit, and coverage of events has intensified. Nonetheless, the means of delivery still appear lacking in this observer’ mind. A structured, centrally supplied and directed body with personnel and vehicular resources would be a major asset and allow the next crisis to be met before it hit breaking point.

[NEW EDIT: OCTOBER 2017] In the past few weeks the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary have been deployed to the Caribbean on an enormous aid mission after several devastating hurricanes. In the immediate aftermath came the scandalous (and scandalously under-reported) realisation that the much-acclaimed Foreign Aid budget would not be allowed to be spent to cover the relief effort. Whilst under current regulations aid may be spent to support states like India (which has an active space programme and nuclear arsenal), the funds were not permitted to be spent on the British Virgin Islands (a British Overseas Territory for whose wellbeing the UK is directly responsible, and which suffered damage to 80% of its buildings in the hurricane). If this revelation is not proof that a drastic re-think in how the Foreign Aid Budget is employed, I am not sure what is.

Hospital Ships and the RFA

In recent years, with the rapid reduction in the number of surface vessels available to the Royal Navy, increasing pressure has fallen upon the Royal Fleet Auxiliary to pick up the slack and fulfil various missions across the globe that would otherwise have been completed by a warship. Despite this increased requirement, however, funding has not been brought up to match and the RFA has been at least as stretched as the RN in its operations despite the skill of its personnel.

Many of the RFA’s new taskings are, naturally, of a less military nature; with migrant patrols and disaster relief appearing high in the order and the ships deployed are acting admirably as symbols of British resolve to meet various crises.

Good will alone, however, will not be enough to sustain Britain’s commitment to taking action in the face of disaster and as more ships are retired the ability to continue these missions will suffer. The RFA has already lost several capabilities, such as at-sea repair, without the provision of any replacement and whilst several fine new ships have been brought in hull numbers continue to decline.

In a time of tight budgets it is understandable that funding should be directed towards the RN surface fleet, but it would be dangerous to suggest that the RN could operate alone without the logistical support provided by the RFA.

Thus, it could be argued that the funding for certain RFA elements could be treated differently; acting as they are as tools of British foreign policy in support of disaster riven areas there is a strong argument that funding for certain ships could be provided from the newly-protected Foreign Aid Budget.

The Foreign Aid Budget has become something of a controversial outlet for government spending; since it gained a protected status there have been numerous allegations of mishandling, and the loss of much of the money spent to bureaucracy at home and corruption abroad. One way to ensure that the money was sent to the right people would be to use it to directly supply aid, rather than to do so through third parties.

Britain can currently deploy one ship, RFA Argus, in a medical support role and as the ship is armed she cannot be classed as a hospital ship. Building a dedicated hospital ship would grant the UK a far fuller capacity to respond to international crises, and be a strong demonstration of our intention to do good on the world stage.

A dedicated hospital ship would free up other naval elements for military taskings, grant a greater capacity for action in the face of emergencies, and also provide useful training for medical staff. It would also ensure that aid was properly delivered to those who needed it, and would essentially be an investment in Foreign Aid spending for the long-term results it could deliver.

This line of thinking need not stop with hospital ships; Royal Navy and RFA ships are often called to disaster relief missions; helping to repair damage done by hurricanes, landslides, and other natural disasters. Building a couple of ships equipped with the machinery and supplies needed to quickly respond to such events would also be an asset, and once again allow such tasks to be conducted by dedicated elements and free-up existing craft for their usual duties. RFA shipping tasked with the heavy machinery needed to clear up disaster sites would also be useful for supporting land-based operations by the Royal Marines, and setting up new operational areas.

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary are often the forgotten force in the British military, but it would be folly to forget the importance of such logistical craft, particularly as the reliance placed upon them for patrol duties increases. By using vital support ships to fill support positions, such as using RFA Mounts Bay to counter smuggling, the number of ships readily available to face a military crisis is reduced and the Navy would be harder-pressed to act swiftly. The creation of dedicated ships to meet civilian crises would be a vital asset both to the military and to the world; as disasters of any kind could be better met by the appropriate tool.

Naturally, Save the Royal Navy have published a fine piece on this:

ThinkDefence has also written this extended piece on adapting ships for non combat use by the armed forces: