By Cris Lee
Join us for the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Dr. Eric Grove on the UK’s maritime strategy, the evolution of its national security strategy in the post-9/11 era, and force structure debates in the current era.
Download Sea Control 148 – United Kingdom Maritime Strategy with Dr. Eric Grove
A transcript of the interview between Dr. Eric Grove (EG) and Roger Hilton (RH) is below. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
RH: Hello and moin moin, Center for International Maritime Security listeners. I am Roger Hilton, a non-resident academic fellow for the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, welcoming you back for another edition in the Sea Control podcast series.
Great Britain is one of the few island civilizations that for centuries served as the center of a sprawling global empire. Obviously, this success would not have materialized without their prowess at sea. This mastery of everything maritime was captured in perfectly in Peter Hopkirk’s book, The Great Game, when Captain James Abbott explains the extent of territory and power of Queen Victoria to a Khivian Tribal Lord. A glance at the map, he said, would show him that the seas occupied 3 times as much of the earth’s surface as the land. Adding, that wherever the ocean rolls, there my queen has no rival.
Here today to help us update the state of this mastery is Dr. Eric Grove. Dr. Grove is a commanding authority on naval history and a fellow at the Royal Historical Society, a vice president and fellow of the Society for Nautical Research and a member of the Council of Navy Records Society. In addition, he is author of Vanguard to Trident, the standard work on the post 1945 Royal Navy. Dr. Grove, welcome aboard today.
EG: I’m very happy to be able to talk with you on this very important subject.
RH: Well, I couldn’t agree with you more. With so much of the media both at home and abroad focusing on the state of Brexit, it will certainly be refreshing to hear your thoughts about Stanhope to Zambellas and the UK’s naval strategy in the 21st century.
Your piece begins by declaring your positivity about the state of the Royal Navy from the time of the Vienna Congress in 1815 to the beginning of the current century. Following the end of the Cold War in 1991, this produced mixed results for the Royal Navy. On one hand, the concentration of resources and preoccupation with continental commitments of ground and air forces had ended. A positive in theory which you mention in your piece. In opposition, due to the peace dividend, the Royal Navy suffered serious cuts. Prior to reviewing the 1997 Strategic Defense Review, can you contextualize what those budget cuts meant for listeners?
EG: Well, the Navy didn’t suffer as much as the other services. In fact, the Army lost about 120,000 people in so-called “options for change process” which some people criticized because it wasn’t focused enough. The Navy lost about 60,000 people, but the cuts were limited. The number of frigates and destroyers came down from about 50 – actually it was more like about 45 to about 40, which sadly turned out to be a little less than that. But the Navy on the whole was able to argue that in these new strategic circumstances, it should suffer least.
Now, the continental commitment had been tremendous – the commitment of ground and air forces in Europe had been a major factor in British defense policy throughout the Cold War. The fact that that continental commitment, if not being abandoned, was being wound down meant that the space, if you’d like, for the Royal Navy was actually rather greater in terms of the overall defense budget. So, although there were cuts, they weren’t as significant as they might have been. One might say the priority of the Royal Navy overall in British defense policy increased.
RH: In 1997, the British people overwhelming elected Labour’s Tony Blair. As you and I both know his record has shown he was not shy in foreign policy.
RH: Immediately his government commissioned the strategic defense review, which you describe as a major triumph for the Royal Navy. Consequently, Labour’s more interventionist oriented foreign policy was greater than their predecessors, the Conservatives under John Major. Dr. Grove in practical terms, what did the SDR mean for the Royal Navy? What are the positives and negatives that our listeners should recognize in such a complex document?
EG: Well, the most important thing was the decision to purchase two large aircraft carriers. These were the only platforms actually mentioned in the introduction by Defense Secretary George Robertson to the Review, as he put it, in the future, we can’t expect the crisis to come to us, we have to go to the crisis. And so, the two aircraft carriers were in there. Apparently, there had been quite a lot of controversy right up to the publication of the Review. We know a lot about this Review because in those days of open government they allowed the BBC in to do a fly-on-the-wall-documentary. And there you see the carrier very ably being defended in perhaps a slightly unlikely Baltic scenario, supporting an eastern European country. So, going for the aircraft carrier and making the carrier the centerpiece of the future Navy was I think a major victory although some would say it was putting a lot of eggs in those baskets. But on the other hand, it was a great success.
The cuts to the surface fleet were kept limited. And to submarines, and so it looked as if the era of continentalism was really over and that British strategy would have a maritime emphasis. They actually even asked the academics about this Review. I went to a meeting in Coventry, in the Midlands of England as far north as civil servants would let the government go without falling off the end of the world, and I said at one point, if you don’t know who you’re going to fight when and where, then maritime forces and maritime platforms are more important. And a junior defense minister nodded sagely, so I think I made my mark.
RH: I mean there’s no doubt and I think you would agree that Secretary of State Robertson was on to something when he said you had to go to the crises rather than expect them and as everybody would recognize, an aircraft carrier is the ultimate tool of power projection.
EG: Absolutely, yes.
RH: And so much utility to it. Something that I found super interesting in your piece was how you mention the previous Whitehall defeats of 1966 and 1982 for the listeners. So maybe you can also elaborate on how the Navy overcame their previous Whitehall defeats from those periods.
EG: Well in 1966, there was a big argument between the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy as to what could do the east of Suez job, the job of intervening east of Suez in the Indian Ocean and the Southeast Asian areas best as far as air power is concerned. And the Royal Navy was really out-argued by the Royal Air Force whose apparent command of modern analytical techniques really impressed Defense Secretary Healey. Who later said in fact he’d been rather hoodwinked but still. Then again in 1981, Defense Secretary John Nott who’d been put in to bring the budget of the program into greater congruence lost faith in the power of the naval staff because he had been told things in the United States about the future shape of the battle of the Atlantic and he believed the Americans rather than the Royal Navy. In fact, it was a time when strategy was changing toward the more forward strategy of the 1980s.
They began to recognize that the Whitehall battle was as important as any battle and perhaps more important than most. And by the late 90s, the Royal Navy had got rather good in arguing its corner within the Ministry of Defense. And I think as I say if you look at this TV program, it’s very interesting to see how well the naval officers are arguing and how positively, and the Royal Air Force and the civil servants are both on the defensive.
RH: That’s a positive for our listeners who know that into the future, the Royal Navy will be able to defend their positions adequately well and hopefully not suffer too many devastating budget cuts.
EG: Better, but of course the balance shifts at various times as we shall see later on.
RH: Our listeners should get the popcorn as the tensions between the rival factions is something out of theater. Dr. Grove, as the Royal Navy enters the new millennium, you claimed its new expeditionary strategy was justified and cite operations specifically in Sierra Leone that helped its stabilization as an example of proof. You subsequently identify a watershed moment – the attacks of September 11th – as a negative turning point for the Royal Navy, as it led to the re-emersions of a continental strategy. In fact, Europe was replaced with Asia in your words. Before going into more detail, can you explain why Navy personnel loathed the concept of continental strategy.
EG: Because it took attention away from what they regarded as the important dimensions of an island nation. An island nation needs a Navy if it wants to protect itself and project power. And having to put so much emphasis on a major commitment to ground troops, not just troops but their families as well. Back in 1981 there was a major conflict between the First Sea Lord and the Ministry of Defense who wanted to say well why not bring families home, it will save a great deal of money. Although, actually bringing the families home, trying to find facilities in Britain, it meant also bringing the troops home and would actually have spent money rather than have saved it. But in general, the Royal Navy disliked very much being tied down to sort of a single threat, in Germany, and largely a land and air threat in Germany rather than a more substantial global threat. And you can see in the writings of people like Admiral Richard Hill for example, one of the leading thinkers of the Navy at the time, a considerable frustration that the continent was taking resources away from a more balanced strategic policy.
RH: But if it was disadvantageous against the Royal Navy, who was it in favor of, specifically was it the Army or the Air Force?
EG: Well both, it was the Army and the Air Force, it was both land and air contribution. It certainly helped the Army. The Army was able, very easily, to argue its case because it had a 200 km section of the central front, it knew precisely who it was going to fight, it had a very good idea of what it needed and actually it increased the sophistication of its doctrine. It invented the concept of doctrine in British defense circles in the later Cold War period. The Air Force too. One needed a considerable contribution of aircraft as well. And so, this became the priority. And one saw it in fact, particularly in the 1981 Defense Review, the John Nott Defense Review. Where in fact, with respect to the Atlantic commitment, the Chief of Staffs had tried very hard in the 70s while under pressure from the defense reviews to come up with the four pillars of British defense policy. But certainly seeing it in 1981, with the land and air contribution to central Europe, was considered to be much more important than the contribution to the North Atlantic. And that was something that naturally the gentlemen in dark blue didn’t like.
RH: If we did a quick counterfactual exercise Dr. Grove, if September 11th had never happened, how do you think the Royal Navy would look today?
EG: I think it would look somewhat larger. I think we would have kept a carrier capability throughout the century so far, we wouldn’t have done away with the carriers as they were later done away with. Thankfully, temporarily I think, it would be relatively larger, and I think given the kind of operations that might have occurred and such as Sierra Leone which I think we’ll be coming back to. I think that in these circumstances, if strategic circumstances stayed the same we’d have more frigates and destroyers, we’d have had perhaps a marginally larger attack submarine force, and we’d certainly not have abandoned carriers as we did temporarily in the 2010s.
RH: Forgive me, but I have to ask this question, but if your desired wish to have an expanded Navy had materialized, how do you think that would have influenced British foreign policy? In terms of being able to go do more crisis-oriented situations or what would be the real impact on drafting of foreign policy?
EG: Well, we might’ve done more in Africa, I mean I think one of the trends at the very early years of the 21st century were operations in Africa. And I think even the operations then were sort of stretching the armed forces somewhat. And I think therefore there may have been perhaps a more gently interventionist policy shall we say in various parts of the world where British government was trying to intervene as a force for good which was what they used to say. And of course, we have the Blair doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Whether that might have backfired badly is of course something we can’t say, but I think what did certainly happen was that the commitment to Iraq and to Afghanistan greatly helped the Army in its pressure to make the Army the major service, and in fact almost come up with a cultural change where the media began to refer to servicemen as soldiers.
RH: I mean no doubt the pursuit of very sought out financial resources was extremely buoyed by both the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan but hopefully as we move forward, you can elaborate on if you think if England is in fact losing its island nation ethos, which is the lynchpin to Great Britain’s great success in the past.
EG: Well, you could say it’s the opposite now. I mean, you mentioned at the start about Brexit but in fact actually, you might argue that our desire to leave the European Community or European Union, is in fact part of Britain redefining as a sort of a second rank, not second rate, but second rank global power. So, I think that some future historians might see a sort of secular trend taking place, of Britain repositioning itself as a more global power, and so you know perhaps we’re in the middle of some great historic trend but certainly it could help the Navy somewhat but of course the budgetary pressures remain very considerable.
RH: I couldn’t agree with you more though, but I mean as Great Britain ventures out to the unknown abyss at the moment I think you would be in agreement that the Navy will only start to gain more relevance, if they’re trying to reposition themselves as a second rank global power with access to world markets.
EG: That’s right yes. We need to go back and look at Admiral Richard Hill’s, of late he died recently sadly, but his book ranked medium naval powers. Because I think that is certainly the role which Britain wishes to fulfill. The British still consider themselves to be a world power if not a superpower and if they want to be so, then certainly maritime forces are very important. Now, whether in fact that Navy will get the resources to do that given the balance of shall we say political power in the ministry of defense or within the armed services is a moot point. I think Cameron had been converted to a born-again seapower man by the time he resigned. The position of the present government of course is so preoccupied with other things it’s hard to say.
RH: I mean there’s so much uncertainty but I mean some of the wild theories about substituting the European trade…I’ve even read about Great Britain potentially joining NAFTA? And you have a very sympathetic regime, or should I say administration with President Trump. So obviously with such great logistical issues the Navy will once again play a major role and in facilitation of capital and goods.
EG: Well, I think once the carriers come into service I think people will be quite surprised actually, the potential of Britain’s maritime forces. The problem is of course, are the RAF really wholeheartedly behind the idea of the joint force. I mean one reason the carrier came along back in 1998 was because there was an accord between the RAF and the Navy to set up Joint Force 2000 but it originally was Joint Force Harrier as it became and they hadn’t come up with a name for it but of course the first squadron, the 617 squadron of the Royal Air Force the Dam Busters’ is in fact a joint RAF-Naval affair, but there’s only one squadron. And as some critics have said we have this wonderful carrier which looks marvelous, and I was on board her recently and she is marvelous, but, you know, what about her aircraft? Now she’s going to go to the Far East in 2020 with a combined British and American group, which goes right back to the origins of the carrier, actually, that in fact the idea was that it would give Britain a say in the actions of a joint force air component commander. So, having a combined air group on board is actually a very important thing. And this of course brings in another dimension. The Royal Navy as, shall we say, is part of the cement in the Anglo-American strategic relationship.
RH: Nine years on from 9/11, the British government was occupied by a Conservative, Liberal-Democrat coalition led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Outside of its borders as we’ve already mentioned and discussed, the UK was firmly involved in both Afghanistan and Iraq which as history has shown did not go according to plan, to compound problems a wave of economic decline through the Great Recession was sweeping Europe and North America. Against the backdrop of this coalition government it undertook as you mention a hurried Strategic Defense and Security Review. An SDSR. To begin with can you clarify the difference between an SDSR and an SDR.
EG: Well, the idea was, in principle that in fact that one should look at national security in the round set in how the National Security Council was set up to try to come up with a policy which made more sense. Unfortunately, the lead was quite clearly the Treasury. They couldn’t afford everything. And as I said at the time the Army wrapped itself in its Afghan blanket which proved to be extremely effective and kept it nice and warm and the other armed services paid the price, particularly the Navy. I remember my late wife coming into the bedroom on the night of the review and saying “Eric, they’re scrapping Ark Royal” and I couldn’t believe it because right up to the end of that Review, and it demonstrated a sort of disconnect between higher security policy and the actual defense posture and the budgeting for it. It looked as if, the Harriers, the short takeoff and landing Harriers, operating from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal at the time would survive and the land-based Tornadoes would go. But there was, right at the end of the Review, a serious counterattack by the Chief of the Defense Staff, a senior RAF officer, and would you believe, a Tornado officer, who convinced the government that it should be the Harriers that should go, without necessarily telling the Prime Minister, rumor would have it, that in fact that would be the end of the aircraft carrier. But once they were committed to the demise of the Harrier, and this was a problem of course because the Joint Force put the RAF in the driving seat, as far as the carrier air groups were concerned. And they decided on their own priorities, they wanted to keep the Tornado, and so the Harriers went, and the carrier capabilities went also, because officially it was estimated that there would not be a requirement for aircraft carriers in the next 10 years or so. Things didn’t turn out quite that way.
RH: I mean to think that carriers are never needed is a bit of a farcical proposition. From my perspective at least.
EG: It was an overambitious one (laughs).
RH: But based on everything you just said then, what was the major takeaway for the Royal Navy based on the hurried SDSR, was it the takeaway of the Ark Royal or was it the last-minute pressure to keep the Tornadoes?
EG: Well as far as the Navy was concerned, it was the loss of Ark Royal. It came as a big surprise, now the current commanding officer HMS Queen Elizabeth, the new aircraft carrier, which is coming into service, was the last captain of the HMS Ark Royal. And he learned on the news that his ship was going to be decommissioned. Which only goes to show the hurried nature of the final decisions of the Review. And it was the loss of the carrier that was the important thing. Yes, the submarine force would be retained to a very large extent, a marginal reduction from eight to seven, new submarines would be coming into service, the nuclear deterrent was to stay, and in that period the amphibious force, although it was notably reduced, one of the amphibious transport docks would be going to reserve. But nonetheless, the rest of the Navy on the whole, suffered not quite so badly as perhaps it might have done, but the real loss was the loss of the aircraft carrier, the loss of carrier strike. And this caused a tremendous, in the fleet air arm, certainly in the air component to the Navy, it caused a tremendous, well no, a near revolutionary feeling as I found when I gave an after-dinner speech down at Yeovilton, the naval air station shortly afterwards. I’ve never seen a more mutinous bunch of young officers in my life.
RH: Mutinous is the perfect word to describe where we’re heading next, Dr. Grove. You make no effort to hide your disappointment about the paradoxical commitments to power projection based on the 2011 Defense Planning Assumption.
EG: That’s right absolutely.
RH: And now for our listeners the real palace intrigues starts. Can you elaborate on the tensions between the Army and the Nvy against the RAF and specifically the role of the famous Tornado mafia?
EG: Well yes, I mean, the Tornado force, the sort of long range strike force is very close to the soul, one might say, the soul of the Royal Air Force. The Royal Air Force in the 1920s acquired strategic bombing as its major role, it was their major offensive capability in the Second World War, to which virtually all else gave way. It was the nuclear delivery system for a long time, in fact I think the RAF has never quite forgiven the Navy for taking over the nuclear delivery role. It was one reason they were so determined to hang on to limited war and air power in the east of Suez in the carrier controversy of the 1960s. And so, the RAF has tended to emphasize certain aspects of air power, leaving maritime airpower and naval airpower in the hands of the Navy. And now in fact the Navy wanted back in the 60s something rather like the current joint force. And they offered a partnership with the Air Force on carrier-based aircraft. But the Air Force turned that down. Because it wanted to use the east of Suez scenario for its long-ranged land-based jets. And that of course is what the Air Force really believes in. Now if the only way they’re going to get something like F-35 aircraft is to actually go along with the Navy and go along with the government in the joint force, well and good. But certainly, as late as the SDSR in 2011 they put the maintenance of their Tornado force way above their contribution to Britain’s carrier force and if that meant the end of the carrier force, so what.
RH: Another point that you raise regarding the 2011 Defense Planning Assumptions is the role of BAE, specifically in a hiatus in building that would mark the end of the industry. Could you comment a little bit within the procurement realm about the significance of what that would mean for BAE and for future carriers.
EG: This is very important actually, because the government of that time was so against carriers. Basically, Cameron and the Conservatives in particular saw the carrier program as a nasty Labour job creation scheme. And they wanted in fact in a perfect world, cancel the second carrier or in fact if not that, put the first carrier into reserve and build the second one. But they were certainly playing with the idea of cancelling the second carrier. And the chairman of BAE, sponsored I think by the Navy, to some extent, wrote to the Prime Minister and said look, if you scrap the second carrier, if you don’t build it, there isn’t going to be a shipbuilding industry because, BAE will have to lay off most of its shipbuilders, you say you want a new frigate, but that’s not going to be developed for in time to retain the workforce. Basically, if you scrap the second carrier, you will destroy the British warship building industry, indeed the British shipbuilding industry. And the government could hardly, that letter was leaked, it was certainly published, and the government could hardly do anything else but keep the carrier Prince of Wales. The idea originally being that the Prince of Wales would be the ship brought into service and what would happen to Queen Elizabeth? Well she might be put into reserve, etc. That actually didn’t happen. But certainly, the main reason that the second carrier was retained, the fact that the carrier force was retained was basically industrial, rather than strategic. It wasn’t as many people say, that cancelling the ship would’ve cost more than building it that’s not the case. The real point was, that if you cancel HMS Prince of Wales, the second aircraft carrier, you will cease to have a warship building industry.
RH: Without being overdramatic, it is somewhat of an apocalyptic situation for Great Britain not to have a shipbuilding industry. What would the alternative have been in the defense policy if Great Britain did not possess an organic shipbuilding industry then?
EG: Well, it would certainly create a lot of unemployment along the Clyde. And given the fact that the carrier was also being built on the Tyne, on the river Mersey and down in Appledore, it would’ve created considerable unemployment, and that would have been politically unwelcome. BAE would have continued building jet fighters although this is a whole new issue which we can’t go into about the future of the Typhoon and so on. Certainly, BAE also got in on the F-35 program. One tends to forget that a significant part of the F-35 is built actually in Lancashire in the northwest of England. So, BAE would’ve continued, but certainly I think it was the jobs implications, the fact that BAE would’ve had to have laid off most of its shipbuilding people, and this would’ve led to considerable social problems, and indeed political problems, it might’ve made the Scottish Nationalists more powerful than they became.
RH: Outside of the social issues that you just described in detail, would the other areas of the British defense policy be able to pick up the slack with the massive diminishment in British Navy?
EG: Not so much shipbuilding no. I mean, nowadays British shipbuilding depends very much on warships. The carrier program has been a tremendous fill in for the shipbuilding industry. I always say when I talk about it you know, it’s not just expenditure on a ship there’s been investment for example on the Cammell Laird which allowed them to take on extra work, a major shipbuilder on the Mersey. There’s been a tremendous investment in skills and so on in British industry. And in fact, not for the first time, naval policy has been, governed perhaps is too strong a word, but strongly influenced by industrial factors. Way back in 1909 there was a crisis. We wanted battleships and we won’t wait. That was to get private shipbuilders to invest in shipbuilding capacity. During the 1920s and 30s there were great concerns about the decline in the shipbuilding industry and building ships. In the 1970s, it was quite a boom then, and it was to keep the shipbuilders in work. So, in fact this sort of interplay between naval policy and industrial and social policy is very important.
RH: So, thank you again for the various options that came with the 2011 Defense findings and assumptions. After being obstructed for a considerable amount of time by the Tornado mafia, you praise the 2011 edition of the British maritime doctrine, for our policy wonks out there it is JDP 0-10. It is the first release since the mid-1990s. Can you run the listeners through how the document represented the natural evolution through the wisdom of Sir. Julian Corbett and his belief in the roles of navies, in affecting what happened ashore?
EG: Well yes, I mean I was involved actually in the first edition of Maritime Doctrine. I was a co-author way back in the 1990s. And in fact, in the latest issue, my own ideas were trying to develop future sea power, a sort of the triangle of naval roles, you know: warfighting, constabulary, and diplomatic had been developed there. But yes, I mean Corbett is sort of the origin, really of British maritime strategic thought. His idea of command of the sea being something from limited periods of time and limited areas chimes in very well with the doctrine of sea control which the Americans developed in the 1970s, and which is now standard naval thinking around the world.
The idea he called it in 1911, the mounting of plex munitions, we call it power projection now, and he also emphasizes which is perhaps the most important thing, that in fact, one needs to think of a maritime strategy and not just a naval one. A naval one is almost incidental to using the sea as an important strategic factor, supporting troops ashore, supplying them, might not necessarily be actually marines, but as he said in the principles of maritime strategy, a major role in the Navy is what it allows your army to do. So therefore, the idea was that there was an overall maritime strategy that Britain could pursue. In some ways he was defeated. He was trying in the pre-first world war period, to avoid, we go back to it, a continental strategy. As things turned out, we couldn’t do that, or we didn’t do it. But certainly, the idea of naval power being part of a joint maritime strategy, the fact that there should be an emphasis on the sea, as an area over which one deploys forces ashore, the idea of power projection is very important. He didn’t say so much about the peacetime roles of naval power. Although he does at times refer to the policing function of certain ships. This kind of thing which we now call maritime security, the constabulary role. But certainly, in his balanced way at looking at maritime strategy, he took Clausewitz to sea, including Clausewitz’s ideas on limited war which was a very sophisticated foundation for the development of British naval thought, in the 20th and into the 21st century, and something that I certainly and my colleagues, who have produced doctrine over the years, have tended to emphasize.
RH: Clausewitz at sea, that’s a first. For our listeners, in case you are interested, Corbett’s most famous work is Some Principles of Maritime Strategy which I think you’ll agree Dr. Grove remains a classic among students of naval warfare.
EG: Absolutely. I in fact produced the United States Naval Institute edition in the classics of naval strategy series with my own introduction and footnotes, etc. That’s not an advertisement, but I think it’s still available, and certainly I mean I argue that, better than anyone else including Mahan, Corbett was able to tease out from the experiences of the past, lessons and principles perhaps for current and future application. That really was his genius.
RH: For our listeners I’m going to read out Corbet’s four concepts, and it’s striking how applicable today.
Number 1. Control lines of communication focus on the enemy and maneuver for tactical advantage,
Number 2. The aspects of political, economical and financial dimensions of waging war as well as with the technological and material aspects of war,
Number 3. The primary of politics in a war and devising an appropriate strategy to protect the national interest,
EG: That’s Clausewitz (laughs)
RH: Yeah, and number 4. The emphasis on efficiency at battle while preserving costly assets. That fourth one is interesting as if there was a budget around the corner and he had to do a little bit of bootstrapping.
EG: Well, I think he was a bit concerned, about the Mahanian idea of you must fight a battle at all cost. This of course gets us into arguments that we can’t get into detail about the battle of Jutland, how far Corbett was responsible for the, perhaps some might argue, rather timid and non-aggressive approach of the Royal Navy at the battle of Jutland, certainly people at the time said he was. As I made clear in my introduction in my edition back in ‘88. And certainly, the fact that you don’t go into a headlong rush. In fact, he was rather critical of Nelson, he was enough of a heretic to be that. Headlong rush in Trafalgar. He thought that modern warships were too much of a national investment to be risked like that.
RH: Its definition in terms of maritime power projection was wide ranging in utility and more importantly address the needs of the security landscape. Based on your expertise, can you address how maritime security provided for where UK interests needed protection? And for our listeners, maybe you could provide some examples to illustrate your point.
EG: Do you mean the concept of maritime security as part of the three-fold role if you see what I mean, rather than maritime security in a much broader sense?
RH: I think it was much more of the refined sphere I was referring to.
EG: Well maritime security of course, British contributions to evacuating nationals from various places, various times, from Lebanon for example, in relatively recent years. Dealing with anti-piracy operations, in fact there was this great growth in piracy and this led to the Royal Navy playing a leading role in dealing with it. Developing tactics such as fast boarding and this kind of thing, in fact it might be argued that piracy and anti-drug operations became the main roles of the Navy, for a time actually, in the 21st century, the maritime security role came to dominate. This led to debate about whether one needed sophisticated frigates or destroyers to take part in these operations. So maritime security in the broadest sense. Particularly with the possibility of terrorism at sea which I always thought whose threat was hyped a bit too much. But nonetheless, you know keeping good order at sea became perhaps the predominant role of the Royal Navy for most of the 21st century so far. Although that is changing now.
RH: I mean everything you said is right on when you refer to these, the British maritime doctrine refers to these as benign operations. And like you said in terms of humanitarian, the British assistance during disaster relief operations after the Indian Ocean tsunami, and again with the trends in climate change, the rising sea levels, the very frequent environmental disasters that have occurred. I think we’re both in agreement that the Navy will have to play a much more of a dual role in this type of operation in addition to power projection.
EG: Absolutely, well it was one of the arguments in favor of the aircraft carrier is that it’s a box that floats. And it could be used for anything, and certainly I noticed that the naval spokesman had been arguing the case for as you say the benign role, in which a sense you can differentiate perhaps from constabulary in the broadest sense. Constabulary is the application of laws perhaps using a certain amount of force within our mandate etc., but benign as you say in disaster relief and so on. That’s a term we invented actually in our original edition of British Maritime Doctrine back in the 90s, but yes, these broad roles, and in fact warships including the biggest, including the carrier, are being justified very much in terms of disaster relief and so on and it’s not special pleading. These are the kinds of things, things that float and have space, and can operate helicopters, and operate medical facilities.
RH: Another asset outlined in the British Maritime Doctrine is the more traditional role which was Britain’s international engagement, as in the aim to prevent conflict from emerging. Can you elaborate on theory and in practice what the concept of conflict prevention from the Royal Navy actually means?
EG: It’s the ability to sort of deploy forces of a contingent basis, perhaps visibly, perhaps not, so that measures can be taken in due time to deter action and or control action should it occur. One thinks of perhaps, the operations of the British aircraft carrier in the Adriatic, in the 1990s which I had the privilege of seeing when I was writing something for Ark Royal and I was onboard her. And having a contingent force in the ship to actually support the peacekeeping force ashore should that get into trouble, we always try to be within range of the Army ashore. So as a contingency force hopefully in fact flying overhead to deter and prevent people who might want to interfere with the activities of the UN protection force, poise, is a British maritime term. Poised to protect as Ark Royal liked to say. So, you can keep something poised on international waters, where you could move, but you could also produce a graduated and potentially forceful response ashore. You don’t want to use force if you can avoid it. So that you can help control and stabilize what goes on ashore. You can see it too in Operation Palliser, the Sierra Leone operation in 2000. Perhaps the most successful of Mr. Blair’s wars. Where in fact you brought in naval forces, maritime forces, these could land troops, these could provide troops ashore, they could support them, and they could also overfly and deter the Sierra Leonean rebels and others in the hugely sort of disorganized affair ashore from interfering with the British because if they did, they might suffer air attack. We didn’t have to carry out the air attacks, but the deterred threat was there.
RH: That’s a perfect segue Dr. Grove because staying within the international engagement asset role, let’s take a trip back in time and discuss deterrence. I think you would agree, looking back at history is sometimes the best way to speculate on the future. Especially since, deterrence as a contemporary concept has been resurrected due to the deteriorating European security landscape for numerous reasons.
EG: Quite so.
RH: As you know, new prime ministers are asked to write letters of last resort on their first day in office which are sealed and given to the captains of the UK’s submarines in the event that the government is wiped out by nuclear strike. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is on record saying nuclear weapons are not the solution to the world’s security issues. They are a disaster if ever used. We spoke about it very very lightly already can you describe the primary function of strategic deterrence at sea within the UK framework?
EG: Well basically, Britain deploys at all times one nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine with a number of apparently eight missiles with up to 40 warheads on board. These provide a range of potential nuclear responses. One suspects that about two of the missiles are single warheads, one with a low yield warhead one with a high yield warhead, and the rest carrying multiple targeted reentry vehicles. This gives you a spectrum of potential responses which any potential enemy should know about. And it deters everything from on one level the use of chemical weapons against British forces in the field, to a full scale attack on the United Kingdom.
One imagines in fact that it would only be in extreme circumstances that nuclear weapons might be used, hence the letters of last resort, what Mr. Corbyn would write: heaven knows, but of course one doesn’t know what’s in there and one hope would any potential aggressor would in fact take the worse possible solution. And it’s interesting too, how a captain would react if Britain had been knocked out and apparently, they monitor the long wave Radio 4 programs actually apparently as a sign of what’s been happening and if they disappear something has gone dreadfully wrong. So yes, I mean at the top end of all this deterrence you have the deterrent force. Britain remains, despite the attitude of a small number of people in the Labour party, committed to retaining a deterrent, there is a new so-called successor class of submarines, the first is called HMS Dreadnought, the other which is currently under construction just over the way from where I live, in northwest of England and there’re going to be three more, probably three perhaps two but I expect a total force of four. Each can carry up to twelve missiles, and they will retain the capability in close cooperation with the United States, but with totally independent British operational control.
RH: I mean no doubt, in the event that Jeremy Corbyn was ever elected it would definitely have a major effect on the Trident delivery system. And as well even without Corbyn in power, the Scottish Nationalists are very much against nuclear posture of Great Britain. Complimentary to strategic deterrence is conventional deterrence which is risen in respectability, according to your professional perspective since the 1990s.Can you start by distinguishing the difference for our listeners, between strategic deterrence and conventional deterrence, and explain why maritime forces are particularly well-suited for conventional deterrence.
EG: Right well, strategic deterrence is considered to be fundamentally nuclear. And that you have a secure second-strike capability in your submarine, this cannot be taken out by your potential opponent, and it gives you a set of nuclear options, including full scale Armageddon if Britain suffers nuclear attack. Conventional forces of course play a part in an overall deterrence strategy, certainly they did in the days of the Cold War, because the idea was you started fighting at the conventional level, and then perhaps you will escalate in controlled kind of way. The Trident force can still do that, it used to be called sub-strategic capability, Now I think that’s out of fashion, as any use of nuclear weapons would be strategic.
As far as conventional is concerned yes, demonstrating to a potential opponent if they engage in some kind of operation, they will face a conventional response which might well defeat that operation. The best example of this perhaps was back in the early 70s when HMS Ark Royal flew its aircraft over Belize to try and prevent an invasion coming because it was thought there might be and the thought of having to operate against a strong force of Buccaneers and Phantoms rather put the potential aggressors off. And of course maritime forces could be brought to bear extremely effectively. The RAF would’ve had great difficulties in doing anything over Belize because it was out of range, but bringing aircraft within range of the potential target is what maritime platforms can do and that’s the basic argument in favor of Britain having a carrier capability being restored in the 2020s.
RH: Your example illustrates perfectly as you say in the piece that conventional deterrence is the UK government’s most versatile military means.
EG: Absolutely. Yes.
RH: The last major asset per the British maritime doctrine that you described is the concept of presence as a multiplier of UK influence. The very famous First Sea Lord Mark Stanhope acutely recognized the benefit of this concept which still stands today. Can you elaborate on this concept and integrate it into the 2003 Operation Keeling that took place in Sierra Leone? While the Invasion of Iraq was ongoing.
EG: Yes, I mean presence in general is having a force in the area and making it known, in fact I just marked a PhD thesis, very interesting, which argued in fact there was a fundamental concept in the idea of visibility. Having maritime forces that can be brought to bear and being visible, greatly enhances deterrence. Of course, to some extent, you can have a deterrence force which might be there or might not be there hence the importance of submarines. Having a capacity to be there can be important. I mean well you could argue that the Falklands War broke out because we were doing away with our naval presence in the area. It wasn’t very powerful in itself, HMS Endurance the ice patrol ship, but it was an important intelligence gatherer, and announcing it was going to be withdrawn gave the Argentines the impression that in fact we were not serious about defending the Falklands. And the invasion went ahead. So, having some kind of naval capability in the area as a mark of national interests and national commitment is very important.
RH: Prior to getting into the specifics of Operation Keeling, I just want to tell the listeners that the Sierra Leone civil war began in March of 1991 when the revolutionary United Front with the support of special forces of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia intervened in Sierra Leone in an attempt to overthrow the Joseph Momoh government. The resulting civil war lasted 11 years and left tens of thousands dead. So, Dr. Grove, how does Operation Keeling fit in with the concept of presence with Sierra Leone?
EG: I think in a way, the important thing in Sierra Leone was that firstly we showed a willingness to intervene. And then by deploying ships, we showed a continuous willingness to intervene in the area to help stabilize things. And I think that that is the important thing. If you are in the area, and if you can bring forces to bear in the area. And if you have shown and demonstrated a capacity albeit in a limited way to use force ashore as we did in Sierra Leone, then I think that it could act as a very stabilizing influence. It didn’t solve the Sierra Leone problem, but certainly it prevented a victory by the RUF, by the rebels, which could have had disastrous consequences. Both in terms of what happened in Sierra Leone and what it indicated to those elements such as the Liberian government at the time who wanted to sort of pursue their highly selfish interests.
RH: No, it speaks volumes to the effectiveness of the strategy, that while it didn’t end it, it at least prevented more bloodshed.
RH: Fast forward to the National Security Strategy and Strategic Deference Security Review of 2015 which outlined the United Kingdom’s defense strategy up to 2025. The threats faced by the UK included its overseas territories and overseas interests that have increased in scale diversity and complexity since 2010.
EG: That’s right.
RH: It highlighted 4 particular priorities that are likely to be priorities for the UK in the coming decade. They are:
Increasing threats posed by terrorism, extremism, and instability, the resurgence of state-based threats, the impact of technology, especially cyber threats, and the erosion of rules based international order making it harder to build consensus and tackle global threats.
Based against a litany of threats, as outlined by the national security assessment, can you contextualize the 2015 SDSR within a maritime context?
EG: Yes, I think those were actually quite good in a way. They said that the terrorist threat is the most likely, which is true of course, we have suffered terrorist attacks, but the important thing I think is to say the second one, that in fact the increasing confrontation on a rather more traditional level, with powers, you can’t mention it, but particularly Russia and so on. Cyberwarfare, very important. Of course, there has to be an investment in that, but in the maritime side it demonstrates that we have to reorient ourselves away from a primary constabulary-based navy or a navy that was doing primarily constabulary roles, back toward a more traditional warfighting role. The Russian submarines are out again in the Atlantic.
I was down in the fleet air arm station in Carl Drove’s recently, the anti-submarine helicopter headquarters, and the captain there was saying a major preoccupation is keeping an eye on Russian submarines. Of course, our problem there or one of the problems is that in 2010, we did away with our fixed wing maritime patrol aircraft and it will take time for this capability to be restored. They’re operated by the RAF but they’re part of our maritime capability.
The carrier force, very important. I’ve been engaged in some discussions about the possibility of going back to something like a forward maritime strategy. Of course, the number of American carriers might not be sufficient so having a contribution to a forward carrier force and amphibious forces in the use of the northern flank, very important.
Operations in the Baltic, Operations in the Mediterranean, and of course depending on the relationship of China with its neighbors, in the East China Sea, given the fact that Mr. Trump is making rather conciliatory noises, it’s interesting to note that the carrier will be going to the Far East, partly I think for diplomatic reasons, but also probably to show that we can help strategically there, so in fact in the changing environment, going back to the future and having a more warfighting navy is important.
There are question marks about the new frigate program, the new lighter frigate which will be marvelous for the constabulary role, perhaps ought to have the capability to carry out higher level operations. I mean whenever I go to the staff college and see the junior naval officers there I argue this case very strongly. We have to go back to an expertise on anti-submarine warfare, an expertise on anti-air warfare, anti-surface ship warfare, all these various dimensions of warfighting. And this is something that is going to have to come back, it’s priority too, it’s perhaps less likely, but on the other hand, it is much more likely than it used to be.
RH: I mean I couldn’t agree with you more with all of the threats posed by new technologies and cyber penetration. It is sometimes easy to forget the validity of going back to basics in terms of protecting interests and projecting power.
EG: That’s right.
RH: Finally, prior to the 2015 SDSR, you praise the development of a strategic tripod of roles to support, to develop the size, shape, and capabilities of the future British fleet. As outlined by first sea lord Admiral George Zambellas. They are: Continuous sea deterrence, continuous carrier strike, and continuous amphibious readiness.
RH: To support these core capabilities, and meet the requirement of its international engagements, a new generation of surface combatants was called for. To date, has the introduction of the tripod system met or fallen short of your professional expectations?
EG: Well if we could keep it, it would be good, but continuous amphibious readiness is looking a little threadbare at the moment. The Ministry of Defense has been going through a serious cost cutting process, in fact the mine countermeasure force has been reduced. Not actually with the types of mine countermeasure ships that the Navy wanted to keep, it was just convenient to scrap two. You know one had lost its crew and the other was about to be refitted.
This demonstrates the problem of budgetary constraints and budgetary pressures with adherence to strategic and operational planning and it has been reported at the press, although it has been denied as being the final decision that in fact the two amphibious docks might be taken out of service. One currently is in reserve, one currently is in service, this would be a tremendous blow to the amphibious ability of the UK and to the Western alliance. So continuous amphibious readiness always seemed to be a little bit of an add on, although it had proved to be crucially important in the post-Cold War period. That appears to be under something of a cloud at the moment.
A continuous carrier strike is fine and continuous sea deterrence, but the problem is, is there enough budget to do all three things properly? And the answer is perhaps not. That is the challenge, but we must in fact, finesse together strategic and operational thinking and the shape and size of the fleet. There are signs that that is proving too fickle at the moment, so we’ll watch this space.
RH: Well based on your answer, it seems as if that the tripod system is meeting expectations but is unrealistic in application due to the limited funds to sufficiently finance all of these operations. Dr. Grove, based on our conversation, it goes without saying that the ability for the UK to continue to project power beyond its borders and respond to challenges in the 21st century will be dependent on Westminster being able to find and utilize a dynamic Royal Navy. Against the backdrop of Brexit it goes without saying this is true. As we submerge on another sea control series podcast, do you have any operational takeaways for the listeners or issues related to the UK’s naval strategy that we should keep an eye on moving forward?
EG: Well, I think first of all watch out for how far the air groups of the carriers are going to reflect the proper operational requirement. Which is 36 aircraft, that might be two American squadrons and one British squadron, I don’t think we get another British squadron until 2022. But certainly, the carrier strike capacity is so central that it needs to be properly serviced.
There may be some people in high positions that have said an increase in the strength of the Royal Navy is coming, because of the new cheaper Type 31E frigate or super corvette. Watch this space. Are we going to have these ships put into service faster than the rather more capable Type 26 ships? Are we going to maintain 19 frigates and destroyers, or are we going to increase? Are we going to maintain the nuclear submarine force with its cruise missiles, the answer is probably yes. How far though, will the nuclear deterrent program eat into the Navy?
I ended my book Vanguard to Trident with some considerable worries of the impact of the Trident force on the rest of the Navy. I’ve become somewhat of a born again Trident man, but unless the government is willing to spend more on defense, that depends very much on the economic results of Brexit: positively or negatively. Then we are going to have a crisis and we won’t be able to do everything we want to do. But that’s been the name of the game in defense policy in general and in naval policy in particular ever since the end of the Second World War and probably before it.
RH: So, a note to all of you Brexit followers, when you need a break from negotiations, be sure to follow all of Dr. Grove’s suggestions. Once again Dr. Grove, it was a pleasure hearing from you today, and I wanted to thank you for graciously passing on your wisdom and insight.
RH: If our listeners want to follow up on the UK naval strategy or desire a better outlook on the general maritime domain the Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security edited by Sebastian Bruns and Joachim Krause, published in 2016 is an indispensable resource to have. In addition, please visit www.kielseapowerseries.com for more info on the book and other podcasts derived from the book. Dr. Grove, you were at the Kiel Seapower series, do you have a quick comment for our listeners on it?
EG: It was very useful, it was a very useful talk and a very useful meeting and in fact I’m very pleased that in fact such high-level discussions on such an important matter were taking place. Kiel of course is in the Baltic, and that’s a whole different story, but you never know, we have thoughts of sending carriers there in the past, you never know we might do it in the future.
RG: Well with no shortages of maritime issues as Dr. Grove has echoed, within the greater geopolitical landscape, I will be back to keep CIMSEC listeners well informed. From the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University and its adjunct center for maritime strategy and security, I’m Roger Hilton saying farewell and Auf Wiedersehen.
Professor Eric Grove is an independent Naval Historian and International Strategic Analyst. Until January 2015 he was Professor of Naval History and Fellow in Security Studies at Liverpool Hope University. He was previously Professor of Naval History and Director of the Centre for International Security and War Studies at the University of Salford, and Deputy Head of Strategic Studies at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. His publications include:- World War Two Tanks;Vanguard to Trident;The Future of Sea Power; Fleet to Fleet Encounters; and The Royal Navy Since 1815. Professor Grove has taught and lectured in North America, Australasia and Asia. He frequently contributes to radio and television programs on naval history and the wider security agenda.
Roger Hilton is from Canada and a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna where he holds a Master’s Degree in Advanced International Studies. He has previous experience at the Office of the State Minister of Georgia for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration as well as with the delegation of the Kingdom of Belgium at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since 2017 he is a Non-Resident Academic Fellow at the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University in Germany. His research publications concentrate on transatlantic affairs and the post-Soviet sphere.
Cris Lee is Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast.