All posts by SWilliams

The Future of British Foreign & Defence Policy: A Case for a Maritime Focus

(L-R) HMS Duncan, HMS Dauntless and HMS Dragon
(L-R) HMS Duncan, HMS Dauntless and HMS Dragon (Source:

The 2010 British Strategic Security and Defence Review (SDSR) begun with an unambiguous statement of intent; ‘Our country has always had global responsibilities and global ambitions. We have a proud history of standing up for the values we believe in and we should have no less ambition for our country in the decades to come’. It then goes on to outline how this might be achieved. Britain must be ‘more thoughtful, more strategic and more coordinated in the way we advance our interests and protect our national security’[1]. But since 2010 the record has not reflected these aims. If anything, it seems the British government is becoming less and less clear about what it wishes to achieve in the international arena in service of British national interests. Written in the light of recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the document admits that Britain’s ‘Armed Forces – admired across the world – have been overstretched, deployed too often without appropriate planning, with the wrong equipment, in the wrong numbers and without a clear strategy. In the past, underfunded spending pledges created a fundamental mismatch between aspiration and resources’[2]. The murderous march of Islamic State (previously ISIS) through Iraq, the ever present and resurgent Taliban threat in Afghanistan and the declining civil order in Libya all demonstrate the damaging consequences of ill-conceived and ill-planned military intervention. Professionalism, success and sacrifice at the tactical level have not translated into success at the strategic level, largely due to the simple fact there has been no overarching strategic direction, set at the political level, guiding operational and tactical planning. The consequences of Britain’s twenty-first century interventionist wars are yet to be fully felt, but they are unlikely to lead to the stability and peace in the Middle East, and security at home, that was envisaged.

The key reason for defeat in these campaigns was a failure of British policymakers to fully appreciate the military, political and cultural dimensions of the regions and conflicts in which they were getting involved. This inevitably led to an inability to develop a singular strategic aim and appropriately plan for contingent outcomes, leading to confusion around how to respond both politically or militarily to evolving contexts. Ultimately, this bewilderment was an predictable consequence of fighting the wrong conflicts, conflicts that did not directly serve British or indeed, global interests, or in fighting them in the wrong way (as in Afghanistan where limited intervention led to strategic creep – ‘nation building’ – and a blurring of aims and means, and in Libya where short term kinetic intervention has led to long term instability). For these reasons, Britain and her allies could never secure long-term victory. If London did not set criteria for victory, how could it possibly achieve it? As the British naval thinker Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond once cautioned in his 1946 study ‘Statesmen and Seapower’; ‘If the statesman misinterprets the nature of national defence or the ultimate object of a war, or fails to make the necessary preparations; if, in war, he misdirects the strategy employed for the attainment of the object; the results will be far more injurious than those of errors in minor strategy or tactics: for they are more far-reaching’[3]. These words have acquired fresh resonance.

The campaign in Libya and the lobbying for intervention in Syria still demonstrate that the incumbent UK government, despite the promises made in the SDSR, does not understand what national security means and how the application of force might serve to uphold it. If the UK government seriously decides that it is in the UK’s national interests to involve itself in wars such as have been fought or proposed in recent years, then it must first write a coherent foreign policy to justify this approach, then develop a defence strategy reflecting this approach, providing ample financial and military resources in order to deliver it. If however, it considers such increases in defence spending as impracticable, and prolonged ground wars as impracticable, then a sober refocusing and apposite downsizing of our national ambitions and strategy is required. Based on the recent record the latter is perhaps more palatable; the more a nation engages in conflicts that they do not understand, both in the long and short terms, the more likely they are to lose credibility in the eyes of their potential enemies, emboldening and perhaps multiplying them. Military capability must match the politicians rhetoric. It is in this, that the soft and hard-power capabilities afforded by flexible and numerous maritime forces present themselves. For a nation such as Britain, who wishes to retain global influence but contain defence spending, a well resourced maritime force can offer a cheaper, more effective, less invasive and more flexible means of meeting the basic security requirements demanded of an Western government[4].

Where the SDSR does start to talk sense is in its clear contention that British ‘national security depends on our economic security and vice versa’. Stemming from her island status, Britain’s economic health is dependent on the sea. 90 – 95% of British imports and exports are dependent on the sea and UK based shipping contributes £10bn to GDP and £3bn in tax revenues and after tourism and finance, is the third largest service sector industry in Britain. In 2011 the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) forecasted that globalisation is simply increasing British dependence on maritime trade. After adjustments for inflation, seaborne imports are projected to grow 287% over the next two decades, and exports delivered increasing by 119%. The value of British imports in 2010 stood at £345bn and is expected to reach £1.95tn by 2030. In the same twenty-year period export values are expected to rise from £233bn to £1.63tn[5].The SDSR however fails to grasp such facts. A maritime focus for foreign and defence planning is critical. It has been through shrewd exploitation of the maritime realm for global influence, trade, diplomacy and war fighting, that Britain had forged and refined successful foreign and defence policy postures framed by her seapower status. But such is modern Britain’s general lack of understanding of the role of the Royal & Merchant navies in shaping British history, that the efficacy of this foreign policy posture is poorly understood. Thus it is unsurprising that Britain is now struggling to develop a coherent national strategy that serves her interests and not the whims of vote-winning, short-termism.

As a result of the SDSR of 2010, the UK armed forces are getting smaller, meaning Britain must be more discriminating about its utilization of hard power. To achieve this aim, Britain must develop a coherent and focused national strategy, structured around its reliance on the sea. A strong Royal Navy can deliver defence of trade, conventional deterrence, counter-narcotics operations, counter-piracy, upholding the rule of law at sea, diplomacy (‘showing the flag’ missions), global air-power projection, support of operations ashore[7], and of course maintaining the at-sea nuclear deterrent. There is great utility in such a force that can deliver all these things at proportionally little cost.

However, if Britain continues to fail to appreciate its historic relationship with the sea and how it has been utilised, in war and peace, in the defence of her interests, it will remain ignorant to the potentialities of the maritime realm in the modern day. It is my contention, that if exploitation of the sea for influence, prosperity, security, and military effectiveness, continues to be sidelined as a core strategic function, by continued under-investment in maritime forces, then Britain’s credibility as a global power will atrophy. Herbert Richmond explained that a State’s ability to deliver decisive military action rests on that state’s strength, whether it has appropriate and well-maintained arms to pursue the objective and ‘whether they have been kept sharp or blunted by ill-considered policy, surrender of territory, of interests, or of rights concerning their use’[8]. Britain’s ‘ill-considered policy’ of the past decade has arisen from a misplaced sense of purpose and strength and it has repeatedly ignored the sources of its power and thus failed to deliver lucid thinking on national strategy. The SDSR failed to interpret British interests, and the threats to them, in the longer term. In putting terrorism as a core focus of British defence efforts, the authors have shown a collective failure to understand that terror does not present a long term menace to the prosperity and security at home that Britons have come to expect. Therefore terrorism should not be a phenomenon that shapes a nation’s foreign and defence policy posture. A nation’s armed forces should remain flexible to respond to and prevent acts of terrorism, but should not be focused on them.

To highlight terrorism as a top priority of British defence planning suggests that Britain, despite the lofty rhetoric of the SDSR, is still doing defence, security and indeed strategy, wrong. Britain’s recent failure to fight wars in support of clear foreign policy goals would appear to draw this out. For instance, its reliance on the purported efficacy of foreign aid is perplexing, when in reality the value of its use is far from certain. The money would be better spent on a maritime force capable of delivering tangible security, tried and tested over hundred of years. These views are shared by Dr David Betz of King’s College London, who in a recent unequivocal post on the War Studies Department Blog argued that ‘For three hundred years… a cornerstone of British policy has been the maintenance of a very good, at times world pre-eminent, navy–even through the 20th century during which its relative power progressively diminished… On current trajectory, presently we shall have a not very good navy at all with serious gaps in capability and depth’[9]. Betz’s final point is perhaps the neatest exposition of what this writer believes needs to happen; ‘If it were up to me every damned penny currently earmarked for overseas aid would be redirected to the Royal Navy permanently. There’s nothing better for lifting poverty than trade’[10].

Britain is a de facto seapower. But its failure to appreciate this is the greatest threat to its long-term security. The scrapping of Nimrod Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), the Harrier fleet and the current aircraft carriers before replacements were in commission and the delivery of only 6 Type-45 Destroyers instead of the proposed 12, all show a lack of appreciation by government officials of what a flexible naval capability requires. Such a high proportion of the future fleet will be required to protect the new carriers that it will be unbalanced and hard choices will have to be made about whether other critical routine operations can be maintained. Either that or more time will be spent at sea with implications for moral (another focus of the SDSR), retention and maintenance. When reading the SDSR document, it fails to account for the unpredictability of the world and the lessons of history. For instance, it stated ‘in the short term, there are few circumstances we can envisage where the ability to deploy airpower from the sea will be essential. That is why we have, reluctantly, taken the decision to retire the Harrier aircraft, which has served our country so well’[11]. Within the succeeding 4 years, air strikes were launched against Libya from bases in the UK and Italy – even the Italians flew their missions from the Giuseppe Garibaldi – at exorbitant cost and prominent officials were lobbying for a similar intervention in Syria. Only in the last fortnight America has begun launching airstrikes against IS in Iraq. The UK may provide similar support but only enabled by the fortuitous location of her base in Cyprus. Future events will undoubtedly once again throw the gap in Britain’s maritime capabilities into sharp relief. But until this elusive moment of clarity, London must begin to refocus foreign policy aims to directly service the nations interests and do this by beginning to acknowledge the nations historic and tested credentials as an effective seapower.

The world is becoming more fractious, unstable and to boot more nations with bright economic futures – some with values divergent from those of the West – are pursuing naval programmes. It is not good for a nation such as Britain, so dependent on the security of the world’s seas, to realign its defence focus to terrorism (and the sources of it), put so much faith in dubious international aid payments whilst neglecting its duty to upholding the security of the world’s oceans. Despite the dreadful consequences of individual terrorist acts, they will regrettably never be eliminated and the threat they pose to the wider security of Britain remains disputed. The defeat of terrorism and the instability that feeds it, through foreign aid and armed intervention, is an illusory aim and the pursuit of it will inevitably continue to lead to future embroilment in costly and ineffectual foreign adventures that do not safeguard Britain’s interests, or its security. Instead, the upcoming SDSR of 2015 must refine Britain’s global ambitions and be selfishly realistic in what it can and cannot achieve vis-à-vis defence and security, instead of pursuing nebulous and discredited aims such as the defeat of terrorism. This post, in addition to the last 400 years of British history, has demonstrated that the UK should pay proportionally more attention to events in the maritime realm and must invest to maintain a strong, flexible maritime armed force (this means numbers not just technologically advanced platforms). The Royal Navy has proven through history to be adaptable, delivering security, prosperity and influence through business-as-usual global operations; able to respond to a broad array of contingencies with finesse or force. London must re-engage with the history of the Service that facilitated its rise to world power status and focus not just on what its armed forces can deliver in war but also what they can deliver in peace. Only in doing this will it truly re-learn the importance of the Royal Navy and the utility of seapower.

Simon Williams received a BA Hons in Contemporary History from the University of Leicester in 2008. In early 2011 he was awarded an MA in War Studies from King’s College London. His postgraduate dissertation was entitled The Second Boer War 1899-­1902: A Triumph of British Sea Power. He continues to write on naval history and strategy and in 2012 he hosted the Navy is the Nation Conference, in Portsmouth, UK. The aim of this event was to explore the impact of the Royal Navy on British culture and national identity. His is organising a second event entitled Statesmen and Seapower, being held in partnership with the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth on 17 & 18 April 2015.


[1] ‘Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review’ accessed 13/08/14

[2] ‘Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review’ accessed 13/08/14

[3] Richmond, H. ‘Statesmen and Seapower’ (OUP, 1947) p.vii

[4] Discussion of the cost-effectiveness of warships was discussed in an earlier post.for this blog

[5] Osborne, A. (2011) ‘Britain’s reliance on sea trade ‘set to soar’’ accessed on 19/08/13

[7] It must however be stressed that a strong tri-service arrangement is a pre-requisite for effectiveness ashore and must be nurtured in tandem.

[8] Richmond, H. ‘Statesmen and Seapower’ (OUP, 1947) pv.iii

[9] D. Betz, ‘Britain’s Naval Moment’ accessed 13/08/14

[10] D. Betz, ‘Britain’s Naval Moment’ accessed 13/08/14

[11] ‘Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review’ accessed 13/08/14


Learning from History: British Global Trade and the Royal Navy

                      Doggy treats for the wolf pack.

Earlier this year, Britain marked the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic (BOA 70), to commemorate those sailors and airmen who lost their lives in serving and defending the vital trade routes into British ports throughout the Second World War. The Battle of the Atlantic was not a unique struggle; it was instead only the latest historical incident where an enemy of Britain had taken to the seas to harass British shipping with the aim of bringing the country under submission. The Germans had attempted it before in 1917, and the French numerous times throughout history, even developing an entire naval mindset around the idea, the Jeune E’cole. But as with many national commemorations, BOA 70, appears to have failed to engender a greater political and public understanding of the patent fact of Britain’s geo-strategic position as an island nation and the vulnerability inherent in such a position. Whilst reflection and contemplation on lives lost is apposite, it has a tendency to appeal to national sentiment and myth instead of to a rational appreciation of the historical lessons it can offer. One of the fundamental problems of our day is that the maritime realm resides on the fringes of the British psyche, resulting in a lack of awareness and understanding of the nation’s maritime heritage and continued reliance on the sea.

Britain is a ‘just enough, just in time’ economy. Around 90 – 95% of British economic activity is dependent of the sea. UK based shipping contributes £10bn to GDP and £3bn in tax revenues and is placed as the third largest service sector industry in Britain after tourism and finance. In 2011 the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) forecasted that the march of globalisation is forcing a dramatic rise in British dependence on maritime trade. British seaborne imports are projected, after adjustments for inflation, to grow 287% over the next two decades, and exports delivered increasing by 119%. The value of British imports in 2010 stood at £345bn and is expected to reach £1.95tn by 2030. In the same twenty-year period export values are expected to rise from £233bn to £1.63tn[1]. These figure are unsurprising as globalisation continues to drive up the level of international trade and sea transport remains the cheapest option for serving this trade. But what these figures do is underline the perennial fact that Britain remains heavily dependent on the sea for its prosperity and economic stability. However, perversely, the global commons lack the levels of policing required to guard against disruption to the global Sea Lines of Communication (SLoC)[2] which would inevitably have a palpable and dramatic impact on the daily life of British citizens; from the latest ‘Apple’ products not appearing on the shelves to more concerning shortages in food, gas and oil. But what is the likelihood of this? What actors would be in a position to be able to mount a credible threat to the free flow of goods around the globe.

The answer is, nobody can be sure. Nevertheless the possibilities are multifarious. Piracy, interstate confrontation, terrorism, civil war, resource competition, natural disasters, climate change and cyber warfare could all pose future risks to international shipping. The future is inherently unpredictable. Any suggestion in 2000 that NATO would be fighting a 12 year war in Afghanistan would have been dismissed as fanciful; 9/11 serves to demonstrate the destructive potentialities of terrorism; recent confrontations in the South China Sea reveal an interstate conflict which has taken on a distinctly maritime dimension and recent events in Egypt raise the threat to the free movement of international shipping through the Suez Canal. ‘Today, the assumption is that good order is a natural condition and can be taken for granted because ‘nothing happens’. But that ‘nothing happens’ is no accident, but is rather because of pre-emption and deterrence’[3]. This writer would strongly contend that the Royal Navy currently has insufficient numbers to deal with the low level threats posed by piracy and terrorism in addition to its other commitments. However the challenge is trying to convince taxpayers and the political establishment to make provisions for all eventualities, not just asymmetric. There is a tendency to assume that the interconnected nature of the international trade system means it is unlikely any nation state, with the capability to do so, would seriously consider disruption of the SLoCs or the key trading choke points as a way of advancing its national interests. Additionally, faith in international institutions and their role in diffusing crises is undermining public and political desire for increased expenditure on armed forces. Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham and Gwyn Prins, writing in 2010 urged that ‘defenders of the status quo base their arguments on two strong assumptions. The first is that in a globalised and increasingly interdependent world, the powers of multilateral institutions and of supranational jurisdictions will and should wax, as those of the nation state wane. The second premise is that the utility of ‘hard power’ is being swiftly eclipsed by that of ‘soft power’, such as development aid. This stance has been given material expression in consistent year-on-year real money increases in the budget of the Department for International Development, at the expense of the chronic underfunding of the Ministry of Defence (MoD)’[4]. But as more nations with divergent national interests look to exploit the sea for their national advantage or to generate strategic leverage over regional rivals, the likelihood of confrontation can only increase. As Dr Lee Willett of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) wrote ‘[Globalisation] increases the perception of the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ and can fuel radicalisation and conflict, in particular with regard to resources such as energy, food and water. Globalisation also enhances the impact of events overseas on the UK’[5]. Should a crisis emerge where a state actor mounts a sustained and determined attack on the international trade routes, protracted procurement timelines would preclude any rapid generation of the forces required to counter such a threat.

It is, or at least it should be, a simple assumption, that any government has a fundamental responsibility to take every possible action to protect its people from threats to their way of life, both through diplomatic means and military preparedness. In the case of Britain, maritime trade protection should be a key focus, or at the very least a constant consideration in defence planning, due to its critical contribution to the nation’s prosperity. The present size of the Royal Navy is dictated by current challenges as opposed to the full spectrum of future threats. The Royal Navy currently has 19 frigates and destroyers supporting a British commercial fleet of some 900 vessels. Once the new Aircraft Carriers are launched escort duties will further reduce the number of ships available for dedicated trade protection and counter-piracy operations[6]. The SDSR had promised catapults and arrestor gear for the new carriers to ensure interoperability and greater opportunity for the formation of Joint Maritime Task Groups that would ‘reduce the overall carrier protection requirements on the rest of the fleet’, freeing up RN vessels for trade protection[7] but a recent government u-turn means a reversion to the STOVL variant of the Joint Strike Fight and the abandonment of ‘cats and traps’ has inevitably made this more problematic. ‘Use of the sea demands presence along the sea routes. Presence is the prerequisite for the silent deterrent messages that naval force alone can articulate’[8] and a credible presence requires numbers and therefore greater investment in frigates and destroyers. It is mystifying that the Royal Navy is struggling to garner a greater share of the public purse, but a key reason for this is a lack of public appreciation of the increasing levels of maritime trade entering British ports delivering the goods, both vital and luxury, that they take for granted. A clearer definition of national strategy could clarify military force structures and diffuse tri-service infighting through sober appraisals of long-term national strategy, of which the Royal Navy, as the guardian of trade, is the key component.

British sea power on the drawing board.
                                                                   British sea power on the drawing board.

In a recent article in the Naval Review entitled ‘Affordability in a Wider Context’, Paul Fegan investigated defence inflation and the impact this has had on the costs of warship procurement programmes. He concludes that, if this subject is examined through the lens of GDP as opposed to money spent in real terms, it is clear there has been ‘little change in the amount of national income needed to buy a new ship, even a ship which is technologically advanced and matched to contemporary threats…It is perhaps reassuring that we are asking no greater a national commitment to buying a warship than we were 50 years ago’[9]. One example he cites is that in cash terms HMS Daring (launched in 2006) cost 4,509 per cent more than HMS Devonshire (launched in 1960) yet the latter required 0.049 per cent of GDP against Daring’s 0.047. Paul Fegan rightly concludes that it is then not a question of defence inflation and the notion that we simply can’t afford to sustain a large fleet but it is instead an issue of priorities, and when it comes to prioritising those election-winning strategies, welfare and health among other immediacies will almost always trump defence. But it would seem appropriate to recognise that in order to sustain health and welfare, defence must deliver with respect to global trade protection and therefore should be treated as an equal partner rather than as an aged relation, no longer needed in this modern world. Such short-termism is dangerous and failing to acknowledge the prospective threats to shipping and taking measure to counter these threats, borders on the negligent.

Britain is an island. It is a Sea Power in the truest sense; its history and its future will be to a great extent shaped by its interaction with the world’s oceans. The sea has for centuries been a source of strength, providing her with a barrier against invasion and a source of economic prosperity and in so doing forging a resilient national character. However the sea, if under appreciated as a key strength has the potential to become a key vulnerability. The continued reduction in the Royal Navy’s size has, without doubt, dramatically hit its capability and flexibility. This has been the inevitable consequence of government policy, authored by policymakers with little grasp of strategy, more concerned with securing international kudos by focusing on high profile ‘kinetic’ conflicts as opposed to supporting the mundane but critical tasks performed by the Royal Navy on a daily basis.  Having a flexible maritime force to counteract potential threats to international SLoCs, no matter how remote they may seem at the present time, is common sense for an island nation and a duty of its government. It must be cautioned that reliance on the support of other navies is a risky approach; any action has to assume political agreement and interoperability questions remain with regards to the new Royal Navy carriers after the removal of the proposed ‘cats and traps’. The decline of the Royal Navy, reflects political and other military priorities and from this we can only assume there is either ignorance as to the significance of the maritime trade sector or an arrogant disregard of the threats posed to it. The days of lobbying on behalf of the Royal Navy; ‘we want eight, we wont wait’, are regrettably long gone, and with the government’s short term horizon and a public ignorant of our maritime dependency there is a need for the key stakeholders both in the forces and in the maritime shipping and insurance industries, to work together to engender a greater understanding amongst the public and politicians.

It would not be an exaggeration to claim that Britain owes its existence, as a free and democratic nation, to its merchant marine and its Royal Navy, as the recent Battle of the Atlantic celebrations highlighted. But the memory of that struggle, if it is to have a lasting legacy, must be transposed into tangible lessons and sensible policy planning for the future. Britain’s strength derives from her island status, but it is this that is also her greatest weakness. She risks being hostage to events until there is a realisation in Whitehall that ships are relatively inexpensive and ignoring the threats to prosperity they guard against could come at an intolerable price.

Simon Williams received a BA Hons in Contemporary History from the University of Leicester in 2008. In early 2011 he was awarded an MA in War Studies from King’s College London. His postgraduate dissertation was entitled The Second Boer War 1899-­1902: A Triumph of British Sea Power. He continues to write on naval history and strategy and in 2012 he hosted the Navy is the Nation Conference, in Portsmouth, UK. The aim of this event was to explore the impact of the Royal Navy on British culture and national identity. His second event on Navies and National Strategy is due to be held in early 2015.

[1] Osborne, A. (2011) ‘Britain’s reliance on sea trade ‘set to soar’’ accessed on 19/08/13
[2] Despite the commendable efforts of Operation Atalanta, the European Union Naval Force’s (EUNAVFOR) efforts to curtail piracy off the Horn of Africa.
[3] Prins, G. & Blackham, Sir, J. (2010) ‘Britain’s trade depends on the sea. In the coming public expenditure cuts we cannot afford to ‘sign off’ from maritime security and naval defence’ accessed 18/08/13
[4] Ibid.
[6] I discuss the question of numbers in another of my Next War entries on the Type 26 Frigate
[7] HM Government ‘Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review’ (October, 2010) p.23 accessed on 20/08/13
[8] Prins, G. & Blackham, Sir, J. (2010) ‘Britain’s trade depends on the sea. In the coming public expenditure cuts we cannot afford to ‘sign off’ from maritime security and naval defence’ accessed 18/08/13
[9] Fegan, Lt. P. (RNR) ‘Affordability in the Wider Context’ Naval Review Vol 101, No. 3, p.235


USS Enterprise – A British Memoriam

           We are Legend; Ready on Arrival; The First, the Finest; Eight Reactors, None FasterBig EWhen a crisis confronts the nation, the first question often asked by policymakers is: ‘What naval forces are available and how fast can they be on station?’
                 – Admiral C.A.H. Trost, USN Chief of Naval Operations Proceedings, May 1990


In December 2012, in execution of the recommendations set down in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the fiscal year 2010, the world’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN-65), was ‘inactivated’ at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. Such ceremonies are always poignant events, a mixture of sadness and celebratory reflection on a ships life and achievements. It is estimated that some 100,000 American men and women had served on her during a distinguished 51-year career and many of them turned out to say farewell to this extraordinary warship.

She is not only extraordinary in her length of service in the U.S. Navy but also in her size and capabilities. She is 1,123 feet long (331 feet shorter than the height of the Empire State Building). Her displacement is 95,000 long tons, 4.5 times larger than the recently decommissioned Royal Navy Invincible-class carriers and still 25 – 30,000 long tons larger than, the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, the first of which will enter service in 2018, 60 years after the hull of Enterprise was laid down in a Virginian ship yard. Her 8 nuclear reactors allowed her to ‘steam’ at up to 35 knots, and meant she never had to refuel. She had a ships company of over 3,000 and could carry up to 95 aircraft. I often remember fondly a story my father told me in which he recalls acting as plane guard to a Nimitz class carrier in the Persian Gulf in 1991. In command of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Scylla (F71), he was struck by her effortless acceleration, while he practically had to burn the wardroom furniture to keep up. Even if not Enterprise, I imagine many a naval officer around the world has similar, lasting impressions of an American nuclear powered carrier.

Big E 2By any yardstick Enterprise is an impressive military asset, and all the more so when you consider she was laid down just 13 years after the end of the Second World War. Since then she has been involved in almost every major conflict since, beginning with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, including;

• Six deployments in support of Operations in Vietnam, during which she survived a devastating fire.
• Operation Frequent Wind (1975); the evacuation of U.S. citizens and at-risk Vietnamese citizens during the North’s invasion of the South.
• Operation El Dorado Canyon (1886); the bombing of Libya.
• Operation Earnest Will (1988); escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers during the Tanker Wars.
• Operation Preying Mantis (1988) in response to the Iranian mining of an American warship during Earnest Will.
• Operation Classic Resolve (1989); demonstrating American support to Philippine President Corazon Aquino during an attempted rebel coup.
• Operation Joint Endeavour (1996) & Operation Southern Watch (1996); enforcing no fly zones over Bosnia and Iraq respectively.
• Operation Desert Fox (1998); launching airstrikes against targets in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq following his continued flagrant disregard for UN sanctions.

In more recent years, Enterprise was first to provide direct air support for Operation Enduring Freedom, the 2001 invasion of land-locked Afghanistan, delivering 700 seaborne airstrikes in just 3 weeks. She would later provide continued air support for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. She has even supported operations off the Horn of Africa against Somali pirates, quite a contrast to her baptism of fire off Cuba. I only list the most salient operations in which she played a significant part, but this list – by no means exhaustive – is sufficient to demonstrate the flexibility and utility of such a vessel. The above record also does not account for the ever-valuable ‘showing the flag’ missions, a task for which she would have had a powerful talent. One must never underestimate the diplomatic leverage a warship with such destructive potential can afford, either sitting offshore or docked in harbour; wherever she is in the world she is a potent expression of America’s engagement with that region. There is something sublime and deeply affecting in the design, scale and military capability of a carrier such as Enterprise.

But she is more than a military asset; she is also an American icon. She has hosted rock concerts, she had starring roles in the films Top Gun and Hunt for the Red October, and of course, her futuristic namesake explores the final frontier. She and her sister ships not only define how America prosecutes defence, but also help to shape an understanding of American culture and international identity. When commissioned in 1961 Enterprise was the embodiment of the post-war American spirit, powerful, flexible, responsive and technologically innovative, characteristics that all contributed to an over-arching commitment to global security1. She was a clear demonstration of America’s post-1945 ambitions and more significantly for a Brit like myself, a clear indication that the Royal Navy had been conclusively usurped as the world’s preponderant naval force (however I am yet to concede the title of the finest!). Seapowers around the globe still aspire towards what Enterprise defines. You only need to look to the shipyards of China, India, Russia and indeed, the United Kingdom, to get an appreciation for the far-reaching legacy of this ship, laid down half a century ago.

Big E 3Her inactivation has not hugely impacted America’s seaborne air-power capabilities. The U.S. Navy still operates 10 carrier battle groups across the globe (each purported to cost the equivalent of the entire Italian defence budget), capable of responding swiftly to any emergency, be it military or humanitarian. These groups continue to define America’s global defence posture. The Nimitz-class carriers, and the new generation currently under construction, present a clear indication that Washington still has an intention to remain a global presence to shape its and the world’s future from the sea and not from protracted and costly wars ashore.

At the de-commissioning event in December, Captain William C. Hamilton, Jr., the twenty-third and final commanding officer of Enterprise reflected on the ships history, “Enterprise is a special ship and crew, and it was special long before I got here”.

“Before I took command of this ship, I learned the definition of ‘enterprise’, which is ‘an especially daring and courageous undertaking driven by a bold and adventurous spirit.’ Fifty-one years ago, this ship was every bit of that definition.”

“Here we are 51 years later, celebrating the astonishing successes and accomplishments of this engineering marvel that has roamed the seas for more than half the history of Naval Aviation. Daring, courageous, bold, and adventurous indeed.”2

It is hardly surprising, and a reflection of the impression Enterprise has made on the American psyche, that a recent announcement declared that the latest Gerald R. Ford-class carrier will be named Enterprise, the 9th American warship to bear what has become a legendary title. When one considers the contribution of Big E to American security, diplomacy and military operations over the last half century, who can argue, as some are tempted to do here in London, if not in words but in their actions, that seapower is becoming less and less relevant to present and future global security?

 Simon Williams received a BA Hons in Contemporary History from the University of Leicester in 2008. In early 2011 he was awarded an MA in War Studies from King’s College London. His postgraduate dissertation was entitled The Second Boer War 1899-­1902: A Triumph of British Sea Power. He organised the Navy is the Nation Conference, which was held in April 2012 in Portsmouth, UK. The aim of this event was to explore the impact of the Royal Navy on British culture and national identity.

1. I must add at this point however that the USN relies heavily on RN mine-countermeasure vessels to ensure safe passage of his big-ticket assets in hostile waters.

2. ‘Enterprise, Navy’s First Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrier, Inactivated’

The Royal Navy’s Type 26


Concept image of the Type 26 Global Combat Ship.

In 2020, the first of the new Royal Navy frigates – the Type 26 Global Combat Ships – will enter service, replacing the current fleet of 13 Type 23s. The ships are designed to be versatile and adaptable, making them useful within a broad range of strategic, operational, and tactical circumstances.

The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, said of the ships: “The T26 Global Combat Ship (GCS) will be a multi-mission warship designed for joint and multinational operations across the full spectrum of warfare, including complex combat operations, maritime security operations such as counter-piracy, as well as humanitarian and disaster relief work around the world… It will be capable of operating independently for significant periods or as part of a task group and will play a major role in the defence of this country for many years”1.

The Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, Peter Luff, also said of the ships: “The Type 26 Global Combat Ship will be the backbone of the Royal Navy for decades to come. It is designed to be adaptable and easily upgraded, reacting to threats as they change”2.

As individual units, the Type 26 frigates will no doubt be potent warships. The intended fleet of 13 Type 26 frigates do indeed represent a flexible and adaptable platform, ideal for ever-changing technological, diplomatic, strategic, operational, and tactical contexts. The proposed armament bears this out:

  •          Anti-air missiles
  •          Anti-ship, submarine and land-attack missiles
  •          Anti-submarine torpedoes
  •          Guns
  •          A hanger to accommodate a Merlin or Wildcat Helicopter (and underwater, surface and air drones)
  •          Additional accommodation for Royal Marine detachments

The frigates is a concept, not just a particular type of ship. It is one that emphasizes wide-ranging utility, speed and cost-effectiveness. These fundamental functions have barely changed throughout the Royal Navy’s history. This quote from blogger Gabriele Molinelli posted on the Defence Management website supports this notion, “The Type 26 is going to reverse the Type 45 situation by adopting proven, legacy solutions for 80 percent of the design, and only innovating in the remaining 20 percent. This is an effort to stay within budget and get a minimum of 13 hulls into the water. Using existing and proven solutions whenever possible does not make the Type 26 obsolete. The ship will still be a great leap forwards in capability as it will be, effectively, the first true multi-mission ship of the “age of the drones” for the Royal Navy.’3. Considering the flexible nature of these warships and their obvious utility, they are understandably an exciting prospect for the Royal Navy and will represent the backbone of the fleet of the future.

But my concern is with numbers, concerns also felt at the highest levels of the military. Recent comments made by Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, at an Oxford University talk revealed one of his biggest concerns in relation to Britain’s modern armed forces is the number of frigates and destroyers the Navy has4. We often hear talk of how advanced and flexible modern warships are, however, no matter how advanced a warship may be, numbers are of critical importance – there is quality in quantity – for a nation that wishes to retain global influence. With the Royal Navy due to commission two 65,000 tonne Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers in 2016 and 2018, there is a chance of a distorted allocation of resources from the wider surface fleet.

Concept image of the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier.

A current American carrier battle-group is at a minimum often comprised of, but not limited to, the carrier itself, two guided missile cruisers, 1-2 ASW destroyers or frigates, and up to two attack submarines. To lose one of the new carriers would be unthinkable, even more so because the loss of one would halve Britain’s seaborne strike capacity (or all of it if one of the carriers is sold to the French!). It would thus be fair to assume that the Royal Navy will need levels of protection similar to that which the American Navy affords their carriers when on deployment (additional protection in time of conflict or crisis). When you consider that there will be only 6 destroyers and 13 frigates (Type 23, then 26) for the foreseeable future, factoring in periods in re-fit, ships returning from operations and the sheer importance of these assets, deployment of just one carrier would seriously hamper the Royal Navy’s ability to meet its wider global commitments. Consider the analogy of a football team; a side consisting of only a few world-class players will still struggle to compete against a full team of average players; unable to respond to every manoeuvre on the pitch. If a warship is thousands of miles from a crisis, technological superiority counts for nothing. It is all well and good having an adaptable and flexible warship, but a flexible fleet is vital.

Limited numbers also means that should any ships be lost during a crisis, regenerating forces to replace those loses becomes problematic. We only need to recall the loses sustained during the Falklands; the modern Royal Naval fleet could not sustain such damage. With procurement timelines as they are (many sailors who serve on the new carriers and frigates were not yet born when they were first conceived), it is important the service fights tooth and nail to get its full allocation of 26s in the first round; the MOD and the Navy must learn from the Type 45 fiasco, where construction delays led to spiraling costs and a halving of the initial building programme of 12 ships. Unlike days of yore, we can’t acquire several new warships after an afternoon sparing with the French.

In addition to the routine but important ‘kinetic’ tasks carried out by Royal Navy frigates and highlighted by Admiral Stanhope in the quote above, maintaining influence through ‘showing the flag’ missions remains of critical importance. For a nation disillusioned with liberal interventionist principles, with little thirst for future foreign policy entanglements and yet a desire, and duty, to influence events abroad, soft-power should be of primary consideration for British policy-makers; something the Navy can uniquely provide. The Type 26 will be a valuable asset for providing such diplomatic leverage.

Unlike the Type 45, the Royal Navy must secure its full allocation of Type 26 warships to ensure Britain has the ability to shape events abroad, both in times of peace and conflict. Britain must not allow the fleet to shrink any further, otherwise London must accept its global influence will continue to diminish.


Simon Williams received a BA Hons in Contemporary History from the University of Leicester in 2008. In early 2011 he was awarded an MA in War Studies from King’s College London. His postgraduate dissertation was entitled The Second Boer War 1899-­1902: A Triumph of British Sea Power. He organised the Navy is the Nation Conference, which was held in April 2012 in Portsmouth, UK. The aim of this event was to explore the impact of the Royal Navy on British culture and national identity.


[1] ‘Design unveiled of Royal Navy’s future warships’ 20 Aug 2012 accessed on 20/11/2012

[2] ‘Design unveiled of Royal Navy’s future warships’ 20 Aug 2012 accessed on 20/11/2012


[3] Gabriele Molinelli ‘The Type 26 will usher in the age of the drones for the Royal Navy’ 21 August 2012 accessed on 24/11/2012

[4] Kirkup, J. ‘Defence chief General Sir David Richards attacks Armed Forces cuts’ 14 Nov 2012 accessed on 14/11/2012