Lord West: A strong navy helps prevent war. The Government should fund it properly
The government has forgotten the importance of maritime security – this spending review is a chance to put that right, says Lord West
We are fortunate in being an island nation that for centuries achieved an unparalleled control of northern waters and the global commons, ensuring our wealth and safety from invasion.
Since the end of the second world war, that maritime superpower status has passed to the US, but we are still surrounded by sea and it is crucial to our survival, wealth and security. To our peril, successive governments, politicians and civil servants have forgotten that truth to the extent that the last national security strategy did not even mention that the United Kingdom is a collection of islands.
We are in a chaotic and ever-more dangerous world. Theresa May has stated that “threats have continued to intensify and evolve, and we face a range of complex challenges… the resurgence of state-based threats… the undermining of the international rules-based order”.
Global stability is vital to protect our massive overseas investments and to ensure the flow of shipping necessary for our survival – and indeed for the wealth of the global village. World shipping is effectively run from London.
Until the late-90s the Royal Navy deployed worldwide and helped ensure that stability. But in the first 15 years of the new millennium that sense of purpose, indeed the number of ships available, faded away. There is now a clear desire and intent to reach out again and deploy with global reach. We have established a new base in the Gulf and deployed ships to the far east, not least to exercise the right of free passage through disputed waters in the South China Sea.
Another worry is that, without a powerful navy, our coastline, far from being a bulwark against invasion or illegal entry, is actually more welcoming than a land border. Brexit makes this an immediate cause for concern.
The issue of patrolling and protecting our exclusive economic zone and territorial seas requires reorganisation and more ships. In the mid-70s there were 17 ships in the Fishery Protection Squadron; now there are three.
Looking at the size of the navy, it is clear that it is unable to do what our nation thinks it can and should. It is inadequate for the tasks expected of it now, without taking into account its lack of resilience should ships be lost in action. This is the view of military experts, academics and laymen alike.
Successive governments have whittled away our ships and naval funding as the percentage of GDP spent on defence was steadily driven down. In addition, the prolonged Afghanistan conflict against terrorists took priority and maritime was ignored. The success of that struggle is arguable, and it was never going to be an existential threat to our nation, whereas a failure of the maritime would be.
The new carriers and the rebirth of carrier strike is crucial – a key capability allowing global reach. However, the savage reduction in the number of frigates and destroyers has to be addressed, as does the depletion of our nuclear attack submarines.
Shortage of funding has also hollowed out our current capability to deploy ships due to manpower shortage, cuts in training and pressure on spares.
A strong navy helps prevent war. It is only too easy to ignore the dangers of geopolitical escalation and forget the seemingly trivial triggers of major war in the past. If a small conflagration in a distant part of the world, for instance in the Black Sea or Baltic, developed into the worst-case scenario threatening our national survival, the best welfare provision, National Health Service, education and foreign aid programmes in the world would be as nothing.
Preventing war and defending our nation and people are more important than any other government spending, as hard as it may seem to contemplate. In the final analysis, our government has a choice of whether we spend what is required to ensure the safety of the United Kingdom and its dependencies or not.
At present, it is getting the choice wrong, certainly with regard to the Royal Navy. The forthcoming comprehensive spending review is a chance to put it right.
Admiral Lord West is a Labour peer, former first sea lord and former security minister