Captain Kevin Rowlands is a naval officer who was awarded a PhD in 2015 through the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London.  He is the author of Naval Diplomacy in the 21stCentury, recently published by Routledge, and the editor of 21stCentury Gorshkov, published in 2017 by the US Naval Institute Press.  In the following post he argues that even in the information age navies remain an important communicative tool. You can follow him on Twitter at @c21st_sailor.

A year ago some parts of the British media must have been suffering a series of slow news days. They became interested and then offended on behalf of the nation by the fact the Royal Navy, apparently for the first time in its long and glorious history, was all but stuck in port.  No major warships were deployed overseas. The decriers were convinced that the lack of activity showed poor leadership, financial bankruptcy, a hollowed-out force and another step on the road to international irrelevance.  The navy said it was just one of those things in the normal cycle of deployments.  Fast forward ten months and it was fascinating to note that the opposite seemed true. The Royal Navy, in addition to its plethora of standing tasks and commitments at home and abroad, was concurrently running three major bespoke deployments.  HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH was visiting the United States and conducting first of class flying trials in the western Atlantic, a littoral strike group was in the midst of Exercise SAIF SAREEA 3 in the Indian Ocean, and a smaller maritime task group was in the High North alongside NATO Allies in Exercise TRIDENT JUNCTURE.

Of course, the fact of the matter is that both the nadir of Christmas 2017 and the relative zenith of autumn 2018 sent important messages about the Royal Navy and about the commitment of the United Kingdom to its self-declared global ambitions.  The new aircraft carrier signalled that the UK was at the cutting edge of naval technology and its visit to the country’s principal ally was not coincidental.  Exercising at scale with Oman reassured strategically important regional partners of Britain’s seriousness and demonstrated hard power capability to Iran.  In the High North, Russia was left in no doubt about British commitment to NATO and, in turn, NATO’s commitment to collective forward defence.  Viewed against the backdrop of a Brexit-driven national redefinition, the navy was playing a leading role as a poster boy or girl for Global Britain.

The point is that in the exercise of sea power (as in life!), everything we do and everything we don’t do sends a message. It may be a message of friendship or animosity, it may be message of coercion, or deterrence, or reassurance, or a bid for increased prestige on the world stage. The message may be deliberately targeted at a particular audience, or it may be more scattergun and be inadvertently picked up by a third party.  The message that is received may be the one that was intended, or it may be misread and lead to completely different consequences.  Consider, for example, what the American decision to halt its regular bilateral exercises with South Korea after President Trump’s summit with Kim Jung Un said to North Korea, and then consider how it was interpreted by South Korea, China, Japan, East Asian neighbours, Iran, the wider world or even the American population.

A couple of months after the Royal Navy’s autumn peak, 2019 began with a “migrant crisis” in the English Channel.  The vista of several hundred people trying to enter the Britain illegally by small boats caused outrage in certain sectors of society, resulted in the Home Secretary returning home early from his Christmas holiday and, of course, led to calls for the navy to be brought in.  Border Force cutters were already available and patrolling but the “need” was for a white ensign. To deploy a warship to deal with a crisis, however small, is still judged to be a signal of strength by the something-must-be-done domestic population.  What else is an ambitious politician to do?

In my recent book Naval Diplomacy in the 21stCentury I present an alternative assessment of what it means to “send a gunboat” today.  Whereas previous writers have tended to view naval diplomacy as a hard power action-reaction process, where one side does something to another, I maintain that the reality is much more nuanced.  If diplomacy is about communication on the world stage, then so to naval diplomacy.  Those states fortunate enough to have a navy can and do use it to further their interests, and not just when fighting wars.  They use it to promulgate their message.  In fact, one could argue that navies offer their greatest utility in peacetime, by being a relative easy, relatively quick, low maintenance but high impact messenger.  The skill for the decision-maker is in working out what message to send, who to send it to, who else might be listening, and choosing the right means of delivery.  HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH in the Channel to intercept 50 migrants would not be a signal of strength, it would be a ludicrous over-reaction.  HMS MERSEY might enjoy a run ashore in New York, but it wouldn’t make the news.

We may be living in an age of information, and we may agree that wars of the future will be fought first in non-physical domains, but we should also recognise that there remains a place for maritime environment strategic communication.  After all, it is what navies do every day.

Image: The Royal Navy frigates HMS Iron Duke (F234), left, and HMS Westminster (F237), the Royal Norwegian Navy frigate KNM Helge Ingstad (F313), the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG-75), the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77), and the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea (CG-58) underway in formation during exercise “Saxon Warrior 2017”, 8 August 2017, via wikimedia commons.

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