James Holmes

Navies of the World: The Royal Navy in the Pacific

Recent Features

James Holmes

Navies of the World: The Royal Navy in the Pacific

The Naval Diplomat begins his series on middle power navies in the Indo-Pacific with the United Kingdom

Navies of the World: The Royal Navy in the Pacific
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

RESOLVED: that this column shall undertake an occasional series on Asia-Pacific Indo-Pacific Indo-Asia-Pacific sea powers not named China, Japan, or the United States. Starting forthwith.

And why not start with the Royal Navy? The 2013-2014 academic year is drawing to a close, and by happenstance it’s been my year of the British Empire. I served on a panel with the current First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, last fall in Australia, and on another alongside his predecessor, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, last week in Singapore. Throw in a quick Canadian trip, and that’s a decent grand tour of the erstwhile imperium on which the sun never set.

But, you protest, isn’t today’s Royal Navy the merest shadow of the hegemon that once ruled the waves? Didn’t London throw in the towel on the Indian and Pacific oceans decades ago, withdrawing from east of Suez when it could no longer afford a fleet big enough to concentrate meaningful power along the Eurasian rimlands? Isn’t it starving the surface fleet of shipbuilding funds to bankroll nuclear submarines and a couple of flattops? Hasn’t the gulf separating ends from means — and mismatched priorities within those means — reduced the Royal Navy to a boutique navy composed of a handful of sexy platforms and not much else — a force with little punch outside Europe? All true, arguably. Britain looks like a post-Mahanian sea power.

And yet. Just last week the U.K. government published a National Strategy for Maritime Security worthy of a nation with Great Britain’s seafaring past. Give it a read. Then let’s probe the document to see how a middle power like the United Kingdom means to wring maximum value from sparse assets and manpower. For fun, we might also juxtapose it against the U.S. Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. Maybe our Global Force for Good can learn a thing or two about how to make and execute strategy on a shoestring.

Now, in case you haven’t noticed, the Naval Diplomat is a patriot, glad that Washington, Greene & the Boys gave those Redcoats a good thrashing awhile back. (For a scrupulously accurate retelling, look here. But one passage in particular from the National Strategy for Maritime Security should warm the heart of any ‘Mercan sailor. Our European friends are forever clamoring to know how they can support the U.S. pivot to Asia. David Cameron’s government supplies a welcome answer: by “developing the maritime governance capacity and capabilities of allies and partners in areas of political, military, or economic importance, including South-East Asia, the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Guinea.” And, potentially, by taking more direct measures to safeguard shipping passing through those waterways.

In short, British mariners will help others help themselves while rendering direct help in times of need. In so doing they will lighten the load on outsiders, who often find themselves policing developing nations’ offshore environs. By helping coastal states become fully sovereign — sovereignty connoting control of territory, first and foremost — European navies can perform yeoman service to the common interest in free navigation. Equipping local coast guards and navies for constabulary duty spares others — the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea, even Russia and China — from having to crack down on Captain Jack Sparrow or A. Q. Khan in places like the Gulf of Aden or Gulf of Guinea.

That’s much-needed relief. The British strategy also implies a geographic division of labor whereby middleweight and small sea services take charge of relatively tranquil expanses. Their shouldering constabulary duty frees heavy U.S. Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard forces for action in more menacing waters such as the Persian Gulf, Bay of Bengal, and Western Pacific. (It’s worth noting, moreover, that the French Navy flattop Charles de Gaulle has roamed the Indian Ocean as of late. Paris, it seems, is taking on a share of the load as well. Here’s hoping burden-sharing keeps trending!) From a purely parochial standpoint, what’s not to like?

The coalition, geographic, and functional dimensions of the Maritime Security Strategy are what piqued my interest. But a few other aspects warrant mentioning for the sake of completeness. First, unlike the 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy, which was signed out by the uniformed service chiefs, the British strategy bears the signatures of civilian political officials. That puts the Cameron government’s stamp of approval on the document. Which is a good and potentially a bad thing: it telegraphs that all agencies responsible for seagoing affairs will pool expertise and resources in a common, government-spanning effort. If and when the Conservative government falls, however, the strategy could find itself discarded along with other policies. The U.S. strategy endured a change of administrations precisely because it was seen as an apolitical document, not an artifact of the Bush administration. The Maritime Security Strategy’s longevity could prove ephemeral.

Second, the strategy’s framers outline an action/reaction cycle for British involvement in high-seas contingencies. Officialdom and mariners, they say, will Understand, Influence, Prevent, Protect, and Respond to events deemed potentially troublesome. The logic is sound. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Two observations about this. One may be trivial. Understanding what’s transpiring in the maritime domain bespeaks a fuller net assessment than the corresponding American jargon, maritime domain awareness. Awareness connotes gathering data, understanding a higher-order grasp of the situation. A linguistic distinction without a difference? Maybe, maybe not.

The other observation: postulating a cycle from understanding the situation to responding to it implies linear, sequential thinking and action. Consequently, one hopes U.K. officials won’t interpret their strategic guidance too literally. Like the intelligence cycle (Planning and Direction, Collection, Processing, Analysis and Production, and Dissemination) or John Boyd’s decision cycle (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), the British cycle is, or should be, in perpetual motion. It’s not a checklist. And like Boyd’s OODA loop, events could compress the maritime-security cycle into a short time indeed. Dexterity of mind and deed is crucial when you’re a middleweight like Great Britain, with broad national interests and exceedingly finite resources to uphold those interests.

Lastly (for now), and strikingly, the Maritime Security Strategy explicitly endorses conscripting private security firms as an ally in the fight for oceanic law and order. I will never forget spring 2009, when — while briefing the commanders of Operation Atalanta at The Hague — I suggested arming merchantmen to stave off Somali piracy. Hired guns were among my options. The response was something to behold, and not in a congratulatory way. It appears reality has set in since then. What Europeans once saw as trigger-happy cowboy diplomacy has become accepted wisdom — in some pockets of maritime Europe, at any rate. Welcome to the Wild West, folks.

All in all, the National Strategy for Maritime Security is a nifty piece of work. Still, it’s just a piece of parchment. Making strategy is not the same as executing it. As with all great enterprises, then, the devil broods in the details. It will be worth monitoring how the United Kingdom fares in this one in the coming years. London’s strategy could become a template for other middle powers.

Great strategy, kid; now don’t get cocky.