by Jack Cross
If one were to take a cursory look at a historical narrative on British power over the past several hundred years, there is always one recurring theme: the role of the Royal Navy. From the defeat of the Spanish Armada to victory in the Falklands War, naval power has played a key role in defining British power. But now that Britain seeks to carve out a new role for itself in the post-Brexit landscape, what role should the navy play in this? Back in November 2020, Boris Johnson declared that the most clear cut route to strengthen British power was in ‘building more ships for the Royal Navy’. The effective deployment of naval resources can help promote a nation’s global presence and Britain already has significant naval commitments around the world. But while a reenergised Royal Navy may certainly score some nostalgia points with calls to Britannia and the waves she ruled, it is unclear if there a want or a need for another major naval power on the world stage. Nor is it clear whether British policymakers have a clear vision for exactly how expanding the Royal Navy can further the country’s foreign policy aims.
It is important to first look at the current state of the Royal Navy. Throughout the period since the end of the Second World War, British naval capacity has been in steady decline with fewer vessels in use today than in any time in the past fifty years. Since the end of the Falklands War, Britain’s last conflict with a significant naval theatre, the number of submarines, destroyers and frigates possessed by the Royal Navy has more than halved. However in more recent times, the Royal Navy has seen some significant additions to its surface fleet, including two new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, launched in 2017 and 2020 respectively. Ships such as these are particularly useful in helping to enhance Britain’s global presence as it allows for a combined deployment of sea and airpower. It is yet to be seen if the necessary aircraft and support vessels will also be built to protect these new carriers. Britain is also able to maintain a naval presence around the world, through its various naval bases such as those in Cyprus, Bahrain and its Overseas Territories. The new defence funding announced last year includes significant benefits for the navy, with new ship building projects and upgrades to existing vessels. But none of this is going to have an immediate practical impact on British diplomacy, given that large naval ships can take several years to build. Nevertheless, from this position, the future of the Royal Navy look promising; it has established itself as one of the most powerful navies in Europe, with a total of seventy seven operational vessels as of August 2020. This is in spite of the decision taken to suspend the Naval Reserve until April 2021, which had domestic rather than broader strategic implications, with an impact on border patrols in the Channel. By comparison, the French Navy only possesses twenty-two ships and while the Italian Navy has more vessels than the British, it has far fewer aircraft.
While the current trajectory of naval expansion is positive purely in terms of military capacity, it is unclear how the British government is going to use this as part of a wider strategy to further Britain’s foreign policy objectives. Already British naval forces take part in a wide range of NATO and other allied exercises, from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. This also covers a wide range of objectives, from anti-piracy operations to the enforcement of arms embargos. Withdrawal from the EU prevents British participation in operations Atalanta (protecting commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean) and Sophia (enforcing the UN arms embargo against Libya), thus reducing the country’s global presence. The challenge here is for the new naval expansion to be put to use, rather than purely exist as a signal of British re-engagement. Existing government publications on Global Britain include aims for greater naval deployments, however it is unclear as to exactly where these will be. The British government’s announcement to seek membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership could potentially see a significant reorientation of British strategic interests, with naval applications as well. This year the Carrier Strike Group, led by HMS Queen Elizabeth will take part in exercises in the Pacific Region, as part of the Five Powers Defence Arrangements. These exercises will involve visits to key players in Asia, such as India, Japan and South Korea, highlighting the diplomatic nature of this venture, in demonstrating British security capabilities to foreign governments. Only time will tell if this military participation will translate into political influence.
So, will any of this naval activity to have a serious impact on Britain’s diplomatic fortunes? Naval power on its own can no longer turn a nation into a great power, especially in the post-colonial era. In seeking to ensure power in the future it is natural to look to past success for inspiration however it is rarely so simple as to write the past into the present. Just as with much of the rhetoric around Global Britain, there is a risk that the government is trying to recreate a world which no longer exists. Historically, British naval power was focused on the protection of trade and empire. But now the seas are largely free of pirates, colonialism is at an end and so, what role is there for the Royal Navy? While it nonetheless provides an excellent tool to help Britain retain its global role, one shouldn’t get carried away and think that it can become a panacea to cure all of the country’s diplomatic ills. With poor relations with the EU and a US administration which is not positively predisposed towards the UK, the British government must take every opportunity to improve its international standing. A more vigorous naval policy could allow Britain to take on greater security commitments around the world, establishing a position as an indispensable ally.
Jack Cross is currently pursuing a masters in the History of War in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. His main research interests are diplomatic history, the role of great and middle powers within current international politics, as well as the politics of the Balkans and Middle East.