UK Maritime Security Strategy

Offshore sub station

The UK has just published a strategy document for Maritime Security.

Click here to access it in full.

Weighing in at just under 60 pages it is hardly a lightweight but it is a comprehensive document and obviously well worth a read, it must also be noted, much of those 60 odd pages are in annexes.

SirH published an opinion on it here and for another perspective, CDR Salamander in the US also published a reaction, click here to read, with a more detailed review at the US Naval Institute from the same author, here

Although it is the first time such a document has been produced it is not actually the first time maritime security has been included within a maritime strategy. The Marine Policy Statement published in 2011 had a section devoted to Maritime Security although the document itself is largely focused on planning and sustainable development. Where this new document differs from the fragmentary approach prior is that it unifies maritime security in the context of both the home, and, away matches.

Maritime security is a cross-government activity which brings together 16 government departments and agencies. At the forefront of these are the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and the Department for Transport.

The document starts with a number of statements that put maritime security in the context, the economic value of the maritime industry for example, noting that it’s contribution amounts to some £13.8 billion per annum. As usual with these documents they also tend to overplay their hand on the importance of the domain.

As SirH puts it

95% of UK trade (worth some £500 billion) is exported / imported by sea

It also says that the sector accounts for 2% of the economy and £13.8 billion of direct contributions.

We need to be very careful in understanding terminology. The figures are from Oxford Research, the same Oxford Research that publishes a study of the contribution of the air industry. The 95% figure is of course correct for physically traded goods but it is not correct when considering ‘by value’ where it drops to 65% by value for non EU trade and it is worth noting that the air industry generates roughly double the contribution to UK economy, sustaining many more jobs, both directly and indirectly.

None of these niggles fundamentally alter the reasons for or content of a maritime strategy but I do wonder if the authors of these are sometimes a little too eager to make the already bloody obvious case for an island nation having a maritime security strategy.

One of the real strengths of this document is that the four departments responsible for maritime security (Defence, Transport, Home Office and the FCO) are represented, a joint document for a joint issue. CDR Salamander makes this very point in his USNI article when discussing the foreword.

The document is divided into 4 sections; a definition and description of maritime security, the approach, how objectives are delivered and a short final section on future direction.

I particularly like the inclusion of offshore energy infrastructure and subsea communications as important considerations, am going to be cheeky and say, got there first!

All good logical stuff and the document is highly informative, well structured and thorough.

The Maritime Security Objectives are;

  1. To promote a secure international maritime domain and uphold international maritime norms;
  2. To develop the maritime governance capacity and capabilities of states in areas of strategic maritime importance;
  3. To protect the UK and the Overseas Territories, their citizens and economies by supporting the safety and security of ports and offshore installations and Red Ensign Group  (REG)-flagged passenger and cargo ships;
  4. To assure the security of vital maritime trade and energy transportation routes within the UK Marine Zone, regionally and internationally.
  5. To protect the resources and population of the UK and the Overseas Territories from illegal and dangerous activity, including serious organised crime and terrorism.

Informing the means of delivering against these objectives is a short view of risk;

  • Terrorism affecting the UK and its maritime interests, including attacks against cargo or  passenger ships.
  • Disruption to vital maritime trade routes as a result of war, criminality, piracy or changes in international norms.
  • Attack on UK maritime infrastructure or shipping, including cyber attack;
  • The transportation of illegal items by sea, including weapons of mass destruction, controlled drugs and arms;
  • People smuggling and human trafficking

In summary, I agree with SirH and CDR Salamanader that it is a worthy document of some note but where I depart from the wholly positive view is…

Vague Risks

The third risk for example, describes an attack on UK maritime infrastructure but not who or how, if the risk is to be mitigated I think there needs to be a whole lot more detail. That detail is obviously available outside of the public domain but even at a public level, there needs to be greater clarity on risks because risks directly influence potential responses and resultant resource requirements.

Separate Domains

First is the every notion that the maritime, air and ‘cyber’ domains are somehow separate, operating in glorious isolation. You could argue that the physical differences of these domains provide enough reason for separate approaches but I think there are enough similarities and touch points to warrant a truly joint approach.

Organisational Design

Second, although no fault of the strategy it does highlight the very complex multi departmental, multi agency and multi governmental patchwork we have in the UK, each having a contribution to maritime security. The document says 16 organisations but in reality, that number is much higher because the numerous police services are represented as one. Organisational complexity is no guarantee of ineffectiveness and neither is simplicity and whilst cooperation and collaboration between all parties is widely accepted to be excellent there exists a possibility for friction and the development of gaps 

Linkages with Other Strategies

It would have been really good to see how maritime security dovetails with energy policy or the SAR framework for example, especially since the fundamental reason for the Royal Navy’s increasingly permanent presence in the Gulf is energy security, specifically Qatari gas upon which the UK is worryingly dependent. The document describes this presence in some detail but doesn’t really get to the point of why. How this document will flow into Royal Navy force composition and capabilities is also rather cloudy, Carrier Strike for example.

A Failure to Distinguish Between Short and Long Sea Routes

I have already highlighted how the document is liberally sprinkled with enough facts, figures and statistics that reinforce the UK’s dependence on the sea but it fails to draw a distinction between the regional maritime domain and further afield. When it describes our dependence on the sea for food, 40% of consumption being imported and 91% of that coming by sea, it fails to point out that the vast majority of this 91% is actually delivered via very short sea routes between the UK and mainland Europe and Ireland where the security situation is very different to that of LNG transiting the Straits of Hormuz. Another example where a lack of granularity leaves the authors open to ‘over egging the pudding’ Each of the call outs used to describe action towards objectives are those conducted out of area


Predictably, the future section is Somewhat Light in the Trousers when it comes to describing how the strategy objectives will be delivered.

I also find it quite worrying that no mention is made of unconventional/shale gas and its potential to fundamentally shift the nature of maritime security in the next 10-30 years. As a footnote, it also ignores, like all other departments, the possibility of a Scottish yes vote.


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