We are an island you know


The issue of ‘sea blindness’ is one that vexes anyone who has even a passing interest in UK defence issues but is even more important to those that think the Royal Navy should receive more funding than the other services.

I hate inter-service rivalry with a passion, it is responsible for many of the problems we face today.

Make no mistake, it is the grown-ups in all three services who must shoulder equal amounts of the blame with those devious ministers and unfeeling civil servants the mainstream media like to vilify. It seems to be an unwritten rule in defence reporting that civil servant/minister = BAD and anyone in uniform = GOOD.

Quite ridiculous of course but back on topic.

One can almost guarantee in any justification of spending on CVF or any other naval system the immortal words ‘we are an island you know’ will not be far behind.

In a neat one-two, the island argument is swiftly followed up with a light dusting of statistics, 95% of our visible trade is reliant on shipping or the majority of our food arrives by sea etc.

The Royal Navy provide some excellent background reading here

Behind the headlines though, is an interesting picture of spin, de-emphasis and obfuscation.

Visible Trade, yes, but what about invisible trade, for example, financial services or tourism. The service sector is about 75% of UK GDP, financial services are 32%.

Traffic, the overwhelmingly vast majority of maritime trade is between European ports, not far off places. 70% of export tonnage and 66% of import tonnage is with Europe. When North America, Africa and South America are included the figures rise even higher.

Value, values are roughly in line with volumes, the majority is with Europe.

Shipping Industry, the industry is often touted as the third largest sector in the export economy but how much of this is shipping insurance and chartering?

Food, most of our food arrives by sea, so certain quarters would have you believe, raising the spectre of starvation without a strong Royal Navy, but this ignores our food exports, a growing proportion of air transport and the originator of these imports, Europe again. Out of the top 20 export countries, 15 are European. Imports from Europe account for roughly 70% of the inward food trade. We are 60% self-sufficient in all foods and 74% self-sufficient in foods that can be grown here. It is estimated that we could become self-sufficient if exports were stopped and certain foods not consumed.

Fuel, Food production is highly reliant on energy, as is the vast majority of UK economic activity. We are oil and petrochemical products net importers and increasingly are importing large quantities of gas from Qatar.

Goods, trade with the Far East is primarily for manufactured goods but as China evolves it may well move away from being the low wage economy that has driven its growth, manufacturing output may well move to Africa and other low wage countries.

It is obvious that maritime security is important for the UK, but, and it is a BIG but, does it justify an expeditionary Royal Navy, centred on CVF and the amphibs?

What is the best way to provide security for a maritime dependant UK?

I am all for a strong Royal Navy, but please, let’s base it on sensible arguments instead of scaremongering.

In many ways, we are as dependant on the sea as France or Germany, Samsung plasma TV’s sold in Berlin still arrive via sea.

Looking at the above and other possible strategic futures one could argue that there are other, non-defence, things to spend a finite budget on to secure food, energy and economic security. Increasing gas storage, new nuclear power stations, research in nuclear technology, agriculture, improving the resilience of gas pipelines, deep-sea oil exploration and many other non-defence areas might contribute to actual security more than an expeditionary naval capability.

This may seem strange coming from a defence blog but the defence should always be seen in the wider context of security.

Our overseas territories should also be considered, Cyprus SBA, Gibraltar, the Pitcairn’s, various Caribbean islands and central and the south Atlantic but of these the only ones requiring a strong naval element is the South and Mid Atlantic, which would also include Africa, especially Nigeria for oil products and others for food. The Falklands and Antarctic may be important sources of food and energy.

Given the actual nature of sea trade and its importance to the UK, an argument for stronger defences against asymmetric threats to European ports, pipelines and offshore energy installations could be made. Mines or suicide attacks against these could have a serious effect on the UK and European short sea trade and energy distribution.

In the future, oil products may increasingly be obtained from deep-sea and non-Middle East sources, should infrastructure protection be taking a larger slice of the defence pie.

In increasing telecommunications and IT system dependant world, cyber defences will make increasing demands on the security budget, where is the money for this coming from?

Drugs interdiction, fisheries protection and anti-piracy/seaborne terrorism are likely to be enduring requirements, some might argue for a stronger coast guard and there would be some merit in the argument but a Royal Navy better equipped for these challenges would be equally valid.

The Royal Navy is the training partner of choice for many nations, should we be expanding this and the broader defence diplomacy role.

This leads me to question the capability that the RN is mortgaging its other capabilities against, CVF and the air wing.

As the Royal Navy contracts to what is by default a surge expeditionary capability, rather than one based on forward presence, maybe it is time to address our real maritime security needs.

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