The Master and Commander of Britain’s Royal Navy just became the first naval officer in two decades to be appointed as Chief of the Defence Staff, the country’s premier military officer. This reflects the U.K.’s new defence strategy, which has a pronounced naval flavor, after many years of army domination.
Earlier this year, the British Government published a “Review of Foreign Policy” that emphasized the country’s role as a “maritime trading nation”.
For those of my readers with an interest in history, you will remember that Britain’s empire was built on the need to provide Royal Naval protection for its trade routes. It was not simply a desire for conquest, it was a very practical strategy that resulted in this tiny island owning three-quarters of the earth’s land mass and three-quarters of the world’s population by the middle of the twentieth century. During the past fifty years, however, the Government seems to have forgotten that history and legacy. Now, with this new initiative, it appears that memory loss is slowly regenerating.
The Review also promised to deepen the country’s connections to Asia, Africa and the Gulf, with a definite emphasis on the Indo-Pacific. A defence review, subsequent to major document, said that the armed forces would be designed for “permanent and persistent global engagement”, not just preparing for big wars. In other words, the Royal Navy of legend is on the way back and the new Master and Commander (The First Sea Lord) will lead the revival.
In practical terms, the Review stated that the army is being shrunk, and the Royal Navy is planned to grow to 24 frigates and destroyers by 2030.
The Government also acted decisively, if that’s not an oxymoron, to implement this new strategy. As I reported in previous blogs, the new aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth II has been deployed to the Far East. She is accompanied by her task force, and destroyers from the Netherlands and the U.S. She has already passed through the South China Sea at least once and, only this last week, one of her escort destroyers passed through the Straits of Taiwan.
As I have said before…about bloody time someone started to react to China’s territory-grab aggression. I am reminded of the title of a book I have somewhere, which documents the Royal Navy of the Empire. The title of the book is “Engage the Enemy more Closely” – the unwritten Royal Navy captains’ mantra of the time.
The newly signed AUKUS agreement between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. is also part of this new U.K. “world” strategy. Finally we are getting a united allied response to China and, more importantly, it is being led by concrete action rather than just talk. I had all but given up hope but, as an old British joke suggests, “we always lose every battle except the last one”. It’s a relief to witness that that may still be the case.
Many have written Britain off as a “has been” relic of a past era, but this new global strategy indicates we should not be so quick in our analysis. Britain will probably never again be a world-dominating power, but has always been able to enter the fray with a strategy based on vast experience over many years. Sending a British warship through the Straits of Taiwan, instead of a U.S. one, sends the same message, just a little less antagonistically. I’m sure the local U.S. Carrier Task Force is lurking closely offshore just in case, and the underwater collision of a U.S. nuclear submarine in the South China Sea recently, lends credence to that suspicion.
Allies cooperating has seemed like a distance dream for so many years. It is gratifying to witness it actually happening. We may well have a new Master and Commander.