British Maritime Strategy in the 2020s

Dr James Bosbotinis

The following article is based on a forthcoming paper, ‘The UK and Maritime Power’, which will be published in the journal Etudes Marines, a publication of the French Centre for Maritime Strategic Studies (CESM).

As the UK enters the 2020s, it is confronted by a strategic system in flux. This is particularly highlighted by the resurgence of great power rivalry, the renewed Russian threat to regional and international security, the shifting of the global balance of power from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, the rise of China as a global power, regional instability in the Middle East, and wider geopolitical shifts. Moreover, the UK itself is at a critical strategic juncture with the opportunities inherent in its withdrawal from the European Union. However, the legacy of the post-Cold War, and especially post-September 11th periods, particularly the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 2008 global financial crisis, serves as a significant constraint on the Royal Navy, and wider UK maritime forces. In spite of those constraints, the UK will in the course of the next decade or so, benefit from extensive investment in maritime capabilities most notably, the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarines, Type 26 City-class and Type 31 frigates, the F-35B fifth-generation strike fighter, and the P-8A maritime patrol aircraft. Looking forward, what are the core priorities driving the development of, and challenges affecting, British maritime strategy?

The policy context for British maritime strategy is currently provided by the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom (hereinafter SDSR), subsequently reviewed and where necessary, developed by the 2018 National Security Capability Review. The SDSR articulates a vision for ‘a secure and prosperous United Kingdom, with global reach and influence’, with a new joint, expeditionary warfighting capability at its core, Joint Force 2025, the maritime component of which will be a task group centred on a Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier with embarked F-35s. Joint Force 2025 is intended to provide ‘enhanced capabilities that offer…choice, agility and global reach’, in order to underpin the defence contribution to three ‘high-level, enduring and mutually supporting National Security Objectives’: ‘protect our people, ‘project our global influence’, and ‘promote our prosperity’. More broadly, as explained in the National Security Capability Review, the UK is committed to the defence of the rules-based international order, and therefore seeks to possess globally deployable armed forces that are ‘effective in the full range of environments and across all five domains – land, sea, air, space and cyber’.

The thinking underpinning British maritime strategy is articulated in the current fifth edition of British maritime doctrine, UK Maritime Power. UK Maritime Power describes maritime power as an ‘inherently broad concept’, encompassing ‘economic, political, military and influence elements – realised through the ability of a state to use the sea’. In military terms, this is defined as ‘the ability to apply maritime military capabilities at and from the sea to influence the behaviour of actors and the course of events’. UK Maritime Power articulates ‘the enduring utility of maritime power’, in the following terms: ‘Maritime forces provide a national global presence through three classical roles – war fighting, maritime security…and Defence Engagement. The unique attributes of the maritime environment allow maritime forces to provide a persistent and versatile military capability, free of the liability of extensive host-nation support’. Further, and highlighting the rationale for the UK’s strategic commitment to the rules-based order, ‘The long-standing principle of freedom of navigation in international waters allows maritime forces to poise without commitment, to project national influence and develop understanding, while remaining highly mobile to exploit opportunities or to counter emerging threats’.

In order to deter, and if necessary defeat an adversary, the Royal Navy and wider UK maritime forces have three core functions: war fighting; maritime security (including such roles as humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, and contributing to maintaining good order at sea); and Defence Engagement (that is, supporting diplomatic activity). War fighting itself involves three tasks: sea control, maritime manoeuvre, and maritime power projection. At the core of Britain’s maritime war-fighting capability will be a task group centred on a Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier (or an amphibious ship), with accompanying surface combatants, support vessels and submarines, to ‘deliver sea control and maritime power projection’. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Tony Radakin, emphasised in a speech at Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) 2019, that ‘We are a Global Navy, supporting a Global Britain’. This is also reflected in the five principal priorities for the Royal Navy set out by Admiral Radakin, namely, the North Atlantic, Carrier Strike, the Future Commando Force (focused on developing an enhanced littoral strike capability), Forward Presence and Technology and Innovation.

However, given the nature of the shifting strategic environment, and the resource constraints on the Royal Navy and wider UK Armed Forces, can the competing requirements of delivering a high-end war-fighting capability centred on a carrier task group be balanced against the requirements of maintaining forward presence in support of defence engagement, and upholding the rules-based order, for example, in the Indo-Pacific? The Future Force Concept, published by the MoD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, describes both the contemporary and prospective strategic context and operating environment as being characterised by ‘complexity, instability, uncertainty and pervasive information’. The threat to the maritime domain is described in the following terms:

Potentially hostile actors could target areas of strategic importance to the UK, challenging maritime security and freedom of navigation, destabilising the free flow of global traffic. International chokepoints will remain crucial to the free flow of trade and energy security. Protecting transportation links, energy infrastructure and contributing to regional stability will remain vital maritime tasks.

The threat posed by Iran and its proxies in the Middle East provides a vivid illustration of the growing challenge to maritime security. However, as highlighted by Admiral Radakin’s prioritisation of the North Atlantic as ‘…an area where we are facing increasing pressure, especially from Russia’, the greatest threat to the UK directly, and international security more broadly, is that posed by Moscow.

Russia poses, via the ships and submarines of its Navy, bombers and strike aircraft of the Aerospace Forces, extensive missile forces, augmented by special forces’ operations, cyber warfare, and ground operations, a distinct and multi-faceted threat to the Euro-Atlantic, which could, in the event of conflict, cause significant disruption to Allied operations, critical military and economic infrastructure, and transatlantic shipping as well as directly threaten the British Isles. The Russian Navy’s submarine force, comprising 38 SSKs, SSNs, SSGNs and SSBNs in the Northern, Baltic and Black Sea Fleets, plus special-mission boats, poses arguably the most significant challenge to the UK and NATO. Whilst Russia’s growing fleet of small, cruise missile-armed surface combatants, operating from protected areas under the cover of extensive land-based anti-ship and surface-to-air missile defences and land-based airpower (for example, off Kaliningrad), yet capable of targeting the UK, highlights the complex and multi-directional nature of the Russian threat.

In this context, the growing strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific, the UK commitment to contributing to upholding the rules-based order, and with it, interest in a greater British presence in the region, poses a dilemma. That is, the UK again faces the challenge of having to balance the requirements of countering the Russian threat in the Euro-Atlantic against those of protecting wider global interests. In both cases, the UK requires broad-based capabilities and globally deployable, credible forces. Given the UK’s global interests and the national policy intent to maintain the ability to project power and influence globally, the issue of commitments versus resources will become even more pressing. This emphasises the requirement for versatile, flexible and adaptive forces, that provide the broadest range of credible options for responding to a highly dynamic strategic environment and contingencies across the spectrum from sub-threshold, ‘grey zone’ threats through to, in extremis, operations against Russia. In this light, the forthcoming Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy will be critical to how Britain confronts the challenges and opportunities of the coming decade.

Dr James Bosbotinis is the Book Reviews Editor of The Naval Review, an associate member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies, and a freelance defence and international affairs analyst.

Featured Image – The Queen Elizabeth at sea in 2017, accompanied by the HMS Sutherland and HMS Iron Duke.

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