Is the Royal Navy ready for Brexit?

Brexit is propelling the United Kingdom like a torpedo out into uncharted waters. The world, as most would agree is an increasingly unstable place. Smouldering conflicts in the Middle East, Russian expansionism, China’s imperial ambitions in the South China Sea and elsewhere; coupled with President Trump’s America First doctrine, we could see a myriad of other unforeseen challenges for a post Brexit UK.

This year’s Autumn Budget will be a test of this. It will be a test of the government’s commitment to the UK’s wider security and standing in the world moving beyond Brexit. It will also be the first test for the new Secretary of State for Defence, Rt. Hon Gavin Williamson, who has promised to fight for the armed forces.

In 2000 the UK’s defence spending was less than £28 billion. This rose after 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan year on year, reaching £45 billion in 2011. Since then the defence budget has remained at £44-45 billion per year. However, in terms of Gross Domestic Product the UK’s defence spending has steadily declined, from 2.85 percent of GDP in 2000 breaking below 2.4 percent GDP in 2016.

It is crucial for the UK to defend its interests at home and abroad. This is not an issue of military pride, academic interest or historical concern. 95% of Britain’s economic activity depends on the oceans; and every year Britain imports goods worth £524 billion to the UK economy.

The UK’s economic prosperity is completely reliant on unrestricted and safe access to sea trade routes; to ensure this the UK has since the sixteenth century relied heavily on the Royal Navy. However, in recent decades it has been reduced in size, casting doubt on the UK’s ability to conduct independent operations at sea.

The current active strength of the Royal Navy is 77 commissioned Ships, of which there are only 19 Warships and 10 Submarines. During the 1982 Falklands war, the U.S. Navy considered a successful counter-invasion by the British a military impossibility, they were ultimately proven wrong, but not before the Royal Navy was pushed to its limits. This was with a Task Force which included 23 Warships, 2 pocket carriers, and 6 submarines. It is hard to see how in its current state the Royal Navy could do the ‘Impossible’ again if called upon.

Throughout naval history the skill and tonnage of navies has largely been the critical factors that lead to success. The skill and dedication of the men and women of the Royal Navy is not in doubt, but in war it is inevitable ships will be lost. Even in peace time, as seen with the new £1bn type 45 Destroyers there will be mechanical failures which can take a precious ship out of action. It is important therefore that the number of Royal Navy warships is increased. We seem to have slipped into the same trap as James I with splendid capital ships rendered useless by the lack of tonnage to support them.

Having said that, there is good news. The UK’s National Shipbuilding Strategy 2017 has taken on the recommendations by Sir Jon Parker in his independent report into UK Shipbuilding Strategy (September 2016). This report proposed greater integration with the government’s industrial strategy. Outlining an ambition to transform the procurement of naval ships, making the UK’s maritime industry more competitive, growing the Royal Navy fleet by the 2030s, export British ships like the planned Type 31e frigate overseas, boost innovation, skills, jobs, and productivity across the UK.

If the Royal Navy’s problems are to be remedied, then according to the Parker report we must see an end to the reduction of planned Royal Navy ships. Furthermore, we must see strong evidence of the government using ‘the UK’s full marine and defence supply chain’ to provide for the Royal Navy, and attempts at unleashing the full economic potential of the UK’s shipbuilding industry with the so called ‘Total Enterprise’ strategy.

However, there is a historic trend in this country for the Treasury’s axe to fall on the Royal Navy when it needs to balance the budget. This Autumn budget would presumably be no different. The future of the Royal Navy’s ability to provide effective security for the UK’s global economic interests is therefore in doubt.

To ensure the UK is ready to face the challenges post Brexit it is important that in this Autumn Budget the Chancellor and the new Defence Secretary protects the wider defence budget and delivers on the promises made in the National Shipbuilding Strategy.