Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Dr. Anthony Wells is the 011/y living person to have worked for British /11tellige11ce, served in the Royal Navy and the United Stales Navy as a British citizen, and worked for US /11tellige11ce and the Unites States Navy as a US citizen. Dr. Wells was educated at Durham University, King’s College, London, and the London School of Economics. He received his Naval training at the Royal Naval College Dartmouth. He is the Chief Executive Officer of TKC international LLC, and has been in the national security and intelligence business for well over forty years. Dr. Wells was trained in the I 960s by several mentors who were key operatives in World War Two, including Sir Harry Hinsley, the great Bletchley Park Enigma code breaker. Dr. Wells is a Life Member of the Submarine League, and worked with the late Vice Admiral J . Guy Reynolds on several projects.

The objective of this article is to demonstrate that the survivability of the Royal Navy as a serious world class fighting force, and a new enlightened British defense strategy coexist in ways that serve the long term security interests of the United Kingdom.

The bitter fact is that the Royal Navy has been decimated: A very small, outstanding surface force, a great Submarine squadron (but that is all – a squadron), and a strike force that may or may not materialize in the shape of the new carriers. The amphibious force and the Royal Marines brigade are again excellent, but small in size and limited in resources. The outlook is even bleaker because of the economic climate and the simple lack of funds-there is no money. Something has to give. This article seeks to show that out of very bad things can emerge very good things. Now is the Royal Navy’s moment in time-sink or swim, best foot forward, or die on the vine and wither to an inconsequential force that cannot project power anywhere with any kind of long term credibility.

The UK is spread too thinly across too many operational domains. As a result, the UK is in great danger of executing none of them as well as when the UK was better resourced. This less than adequate across-the-board performance is not because of people. The UK’s Forces are made up of high performance professionals. Their ability, motivation, and dedication are never in doubt. The UK’s Achilles heel is that it is spread too thinly. It does not have the resource base to continue to perform in all those domains that predicate its Force Structure, its acquisition strategy, and its investment in R&D, as well as maintaining good personnel, training, and retention policies. The indications that the UK’s defense posture may hemorrhage are clear. Such indications are no longer wrapped up in the analysis of what should drive the UK’s strategic doctrine, or Staff College analysis of fighting the next wars, or examining the balance between the future demands of conventional and irregular warfare. The key point is that the UK simply cannot afford the luxury of trying to do things for which it does not, and will not, have the resources.

What is the answer? Let the UK be capable of executing a much more limited range of warfare domains that are both within its current and projected resource limits, and which are in keeping with the UK’s most critical national interests. Failing to achieve in an environment of a fiscally strained and struggling industrial base is not a recipe for military success for a nation with such an incredible military heritage as the UK. The answer is to specialize in those areas where there is the greatest security return for the investment made.

During this century successive British governments will be faced with hard decisions about how to secure and protect the UK’s vital interests in various geographic areas. The likelihood is that the UK will have to provide capabilities to cover the land, air, sea, and space interfaces. The key question is what is the best total force structure to meet the land-air-sea-space domains within the projected fiscal limits? A Joint approach to a tri service Force structure runs a great risk that it will devolve into a traditional break-out of what each Service says it must have in order to continue doing business in ways with which it is most familiar. Each Service may have to sacrifice some sacred cows, but the key single Service focus will remain very influential despite the apparent desire to remain Joint and cooperative. The reason for this lies in the nature of organizations protecting their survival and operating within a bureaucratic structure. The willingness to step aside and take a very deep strategic breath is less likely.

Defense of the UK home base at a strategic level has rested firmly with the national deterrent in the shape of the ballistic missile submarine force. The UK has to decide whether other credible threats present reasons to maintain additional ground and air forces for the protection of the home base. The compelling evidence is that the UK’s vital security interests are overseas. The dilemma is that the UK neither wishes, nor can afford, elaborate overseas permanent bases other than those that are shared with the United States. The residual bases at places such as Akrotiri in Cyprus, Gibraltar, Diego Garcia, Ascension Island, and the Falkland Islands facility, together with the various reciprocity agreements with the United States, are of a much lower order than the historic bases that the UK possessed at such locations as Singapore, Hong Kong, Malta, and Bahrain.

The analysis of twenty first century vital UK national interests, the defense of the homeland issue, the overseas basing situation, and the nature of the land-air-sea-space warfare domains in the future lead to one clear conclusion-namely that British Force structure has to be expeditionary and maritime in nature. The Royal Navy by its very nature becomes the centerpiece of that expeditionary force structure, within which are encapsulated the land, air and space domains. In essence, such a Force structure is seaborne.

The next question that such a conclusion predicates is what are the key characteristics of such a maritime expeditionary Force structure? Flexibility is critical. However, force structures tend to evolve in very inflexible ways over time, driven by programs, technologies and industrial base concerns. Creating and maintaining flexibility in the Force Structure will be an absolute key requirement. The Force structure cannot be constrained by base issues and geography. This implies sea based systems that have a logistical tail that will sustain a forward deployed expeditionary maritime force to deal with a range of contingencies. The latter include guaranteeing UK access to vital areas that are essential to its economic survival, deterring and preventing other nations from pursuing anti-access policies, littoral access for ground and air forces from the sea to those land areas where the UK wishes to use influence, and a wide range of other activities, missions, and political-military goals such as security force assistance, protecting UK citizens and their interests, humanitarian relief, evacuations of UK citizens, and at the higher-end, amphibious operations that involve direct forcible entry and sustainment from the sea of land and air operations. In all these areas- space and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance play very critical roles. The Space-ISR components will be critical in forward deployed expeditionary maritime operations at whatever level and whatever the mission. Survivability against emerging counter access systems and technologies will make the ISR mission highly critical and fully integrated into expeditionary operations.

One key conclusion from the analysis of operations is that the UK will not have the resources for second order power projection of land forces beyond the first order maritime expeditionary land elements on board amphibious warfare and transport ships. Working with other nations will be paramount in this context. The traditional alliance with the United States must prevail along with growing relationships with other nations as part of the international maritime community. Traditional low intensity operations such as counter terrorism, counter piracy, counter drug and the plethora of tasks to inhibit the illicit transport of weapons, explosives, WMD materials and human trafficking will all continue with this force structure.

The next key question that falls out from this analysis is how to do this. What must be done?

An overriding conclusion is that the single linchpin of an expeditionary warfare maritime strategy is the Royal Navy. All else must devolve down to the support of this single strategy-influenced on and from the sea, with a global capability to provide and sustain conventional maritime and irregular operations. This does not mean that the Anny and Royal Air Force are relegated as poor relations. What it means is that both these services must subject themselves to massive organizational soul searching to find the right balance of economically viable forces to help sustain this new strategy, and within the fiscal constraints laid down by the government. It is not a question of winners and losers, but how to refine what forces will be needed and those that are no longer relevant for the new strategy.

The twenty first century has witnessed already the emergence of global security issues that are not like the twentieth century’s continental type strategy that required large standing armies and air forces. Emerging global resource and economic issues are overlain with asymmetric and irregular threats across a very broad spectrum, and at the same time witnessing the emergence of a powerful China. Existing rogue states also challenge the normal international order. The sea is the international commons that connects all these varying and vying interests and potential problems, and pose serious threats to the UK’s vital national interests. The maritime axes, or confluences of economic and threat challenges, are virtually global in disposition, not completely, but they exist and are emerging in almost all major sea and ocean areas. The Mid East, South East Asia, and East Asia are prominent, and other troublesome areas loom on the horizon. The UK cannot become an inconsequential player in this environment and should now create a maritime force and programs that support this new Strategic Vision.

The substance is not about the recent reemergence of old challenges-piracy, arms and human trafficking, drug and gun running, the movements of materials associated with WMD, the use of the sea for terrorist related activities, and so on-there is little new under the sun in the ways in which the sea has been used as the conduit for these and many other forms of non conventional violence and illegalities-the Royal Navy was the instrument for eradicating the slave trade and pirates. The substance has to be about threats to the vital national interests of the UK, and by association, its most trusted friends and allies who, because of economic and cultural globalization, are joined at the hip with the UK in collective self interest. There is nothing new here-just a variant on a very old theme. So what is the substance? What are these vital national self interests if the UK is void of a future threat of invasion, or of the old world balance of power and territorial issues that caused centuries of European based conflict?

For most educated laymen the answers are not that difficult to discern, and should not therefore be oblivious to those who must make hard defense decisions in the UK between now and into 2011. Budget pressures will not permit delay.

The global commons is about resources and production at all levels of economic activity, whether in high technology, or in the simplest agricultural economies, and their ownership, acquisition, security, transportation, and the associated economic and cultural well being of all the member nations of the world. The challenges to the stability and growth of this global economic environment are considerable. The UK is a trading nation, an island, and one totally dependent on imports and exports for its life blood. The sea is the common factor that joins these economic interests with other nations. The air and space are important, but they do not predicate the UK’s ultimate well being. The sea is the means to the UK’s economic ends. The UK trade and resource numbers for the present and the foreseeable future alt support this key statement. Without maritime power the UK has no means to influence and safeguard its critical economic and political national self interests. The means by which to influence from the sea are legion. The UK must accept that its ability to contribute to land campaigns, within the context of its military past, will be seriously curtailed. Military influence on the land will come from the sea in the form of Special Operations Forces operations, security force assistance, and short low intensity operations using Marines, SOF and a very much smaller traditional military cadre, with a logistics tail that is sea based and supplied.

What then must be done to implement the expeditionary maritime strategy to meet the emerging threats of the twenty first century?

The UK’s Navy should expand significantly all the principal maritime warfare domains-surface, air, subsurface, amphibious warfare, land attack from the ocean, ISR, special operations, mine and counter mine, maritime space operations and communications, together with the ability to respond to national contingencies in short order, and maintain the national strategic deterrent. All these elements must be joined in the pursuit of alliance building, multi lateral operations, and forging security relationships through security force assistance and multi national training and exercises. This is the simply stated backbone of a new maritime strategic vision.

The top down break down of this strategy then says-what does the Royal Navy need to fulfill the above, and what can we afford? There is one key going in assumption to this question – the government, the Ministry of Defense and Parliament accept that massive cuts will be necessary in the British Army and the Royal Air Force. Not simple cuts in programs and planned procurements, but cuts that shift irrevocably the strategic balance to an expeditionary maritime force based exclusively on the Royal Navy, with the Army and the Royal Air Force playing roles solely in those domains //tat support the global deployment of maritime power. The latter does not envisage major land campaigns or sustained land based air operations. Gone will be the days of a British Army that is deployed for an Iraq type operation, or an Air Force with home based squadrons. Army and Air components will have to be tailored to and subordinate to maritime operations. The latter operations will stop short of any major deployment of land forces, except Marines, Special Forces, and small Army and Marine units that support highly specialized land operations- SOF operations, Security Force Assistance, support to UK personnel overseas, and short shock type operations based on highly specialized Special Forces and Royal Marines. Amphibious lift and logistic support for the latter will be necessary. The main thrust of this maritime strategy will be the global maritime ability to project surface, naval air, and subsurface forces to cover the spectrum of sea based conventional maritime and irregular operations-there will be no Anny sustained deployments and no Air Force that conducts any air operations other than in support of maritime operations and logistics support through air lift. All the other current Army and Air Force roles and capabilities disappear.

The current order of battle of the Royal Navy is a pale reflection of its former self. The force strength is not only low, the capabilities and balance of the force is out of kilter with emerging threats, and the operational tempo required for forward deployed maritime expeditionary warfare. The analysis that follows is predicated on the perceived needs of a new Royal Navy that has the flexibility, force strength, operational capabilities, manpower, logistics train, and deployment schedule to meet a wide range of conventional and asymmetric threats, while deterring potential threats, and providing security force assistance in a multi national environment.

The Royal Navy currently has two light carriers of 20,000 tonnes that are aging and deploy the GR3 Harrier that is rapidly becoming dated for future missions. There is no organic in-flight refueling from these platforms. Range, endurance, and on station time are limited in a world that increasingly requires carriers to be at significant stand off ranges from anti carrier ballistic missiles and in order to complicate the tracking and targeting parameters of the newer, quieter, and more flexible non nuclear and nuclear submarine threats. The three amphibious warships and four dock landing ships are very fine vessels and represent a significant baseline for growth of an expanded expeditionary force that can embark a very much larger Marine Force than the current elements of the Third Commando Brigade analyzed below. These seven units are bedrock for the future. The surface force is small, and as most will agree, does not reflect the emerging threat needs. Why is this? The six type 45 Destroyers, one type 42 Batch 2 destroyer, the 4 type 42 Batch 3 destroyers, the 4 type 22 frigates, the 13 type 23 frigates, the 8 fine mine counter measures vessels, and the assorted thirteen patrol boats are outmoded with the exception of the mine counter measures vessels and the missions associated with the patrol boats. The type 45 and type 42 destroyers, and the type 22 and 23 frigates are relics from Cold War requirements and thinking. They are about defense and not offense. They are heavily air defense oriented in an age when the spectrum of air attacks will be so varied that none of the missile systems will be relevant. Naval warfare is about offense. The current destroyer and frigate force has little offensive punch at ranges, precision accuracy, and with fire power, especially volume fires (both anti surface and land attack), that will make a difference. Long range guns with precision rounds will change this environment, together with smaller caliber guns that also have precision rounds for dealing with a myriad of asymmetric threats. As the emerging sea-air interface in East Asia is demonstrating in most analyses, and in real world operations, the United States Pacific Fleet is facing a challenge to blend its carrier air power with its surface and subsurface forces in innovative and unique ways. However, the key is capability. The UK’s new maritime expeditionary force must pack a punch rather than have roles that look very much like defending the platform. This is not to minimize defense. Clearly being able to defend the ship is critical. The question is what is the best means of defense? Given the emerging threats there is little doubt that the best means of defense is attack. Key components in sustaining the latter are ISR and Information Warfare. Within this new strategy and force level the UK must invest in and develop all the ISR tools that make the integration of shipboard organic sensors and the data seamless with non-organic ISR platforms and their sensor data. Situational awareness, data sharing at the national, theater and tactical systems levels is absolutely essential. The Royal Navy’s expeditionary force will need to have real time satellite and high altitude stealth persistent UAV feeds while also integrating local tactical feeds from multiple off board sources, together with organic data. The cyber warfare domain is part of a much wider Information Warfare domain. The current UK submarine force of four planned Astute Class (three currently building), six Trafalgar class nuclear powered attack submarines (SSNs) and the four Vanguard class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) is outstanding. The problem is numbers. Whatever the quality, and there is no question that the Astute class is outstanding, the key point is that a submarine can only be in one place at a time, and a small force is also limited by deployment cycle issues. The submarine with its stealth, covertness, and ability to operate clandestinely with extraordinary persistent presence, is an invaluable asset within the UK total defense posture. The UK simply needs to build more. The number is at least double the current force strength, with an SSN force of about twenty platforms. In addition to tactical tomahawk and torpedoes the UK submarine force needs a third kinetic weapon that will provide precision volume fires way beyond the capabilities of previous subsurface to surface tactical weapons. A platform is only as good as the weapons it fires and the targets it can destroy. Tomahawk and torpedoes do not meet all the coming threat needs – a third kinetic weapon is required together with much greater information connectivity for UK submarines. Success will rest on information dominance and information flow. This new maritime expeditionary force will require logistics and sustainment. The current four fleet tankers, four replenishment ships, one aviation training ship, one forward repair ship will have to be significantly enhanced. At sea, forward deployed logistics support will entail the full spectrum of support activity, including repair docks, hospital ships, and commercial vessels configured for support that includes the aid to civil power missions and security force assistance. Such ships should be able to generate and supply electric power from off shore and coordinate aid, disaster relief, and multi national training support. The new UK expeditionary warfare strategy will be free of all foreign bases and over flight rights issues.

The Royal Marines, together with select elements of the British Anny, will form the core of the new maritime sea-land force embarked in a significant amphibious force. There will be a heavy emphasis on Special Forces for quick reaction, high tempo operations, where rotary wing and seaborne lift will be critical. Safe insertion, withdrawal and sustainment will be critical, with air support from the new UK carriers. The best of the best of the British Army units will form the core of the conventional units, providing the ground support elements for sustaining operations that are not Special Forces oriented. Such UK forces are likely to operate only in a multi national environment, in security force assistance and in a well defined set of UK- only credible scenarios where UK interests and citizens require protection. The final size of this force will be driven by the defined total expeditionary warfare force capability that the UK can afford, driven in the final analysis by the size of the amphibious transport capability, the size of the home base training reserve, back up reserve forces, and personnel in the leave, training, and staff cycles in the UK home base centers. The Third Commando Brigade will become the key element on which to build an expanded force, together with the Special Air Service, the parachute Regiment and selective British Army units with the requisite combat records and traditions for recruitment and retention. The Commando unit model of approximately 690 persons per commando has served well, and may well continue to serve as a good model. Armored support and logistics are critical elements and will have to be balanced in a fine away to ensure that the new expeditionary warfare force is not lacking in an essential capability. The ability to transport armor on a regular basis, globally, will be a necessary capability for instance, together with very specialized Special Forces units, such as the special boat service, and other UK clandestine forces.

Within the above framework the Royal Air Force is reconfigured to meet the total air needs of the UK’s expeditionary warfare strategy. Anything that is not relevant for this requirement has to leave the UK force level, including staff functions and logistics. In order to support maritime expeditionary warfare the Royal Air Force will have to recruit and train to support the new carrier navy flying the Joint Strike Fighter, and or the F-18 and its several variants, and provide extensive rotary wing support for the amphibious ships and replenishment ships. In addition the Royal Air Force should have responsibility for the provision and manning of key space and airborne (manned and unmanned) ISR platforms and sensors, but only those that are capable of supporting forward deployed maritime operations, free of bases. The Royal Air Force should assume responsibility for cyber and information operations, tasked to provide persistent information dominance, and work with the US in the Royal Air Force’s historic relationship with US space systems, and their organizations and commands.

The UK Intelligence Community should reconfigure itself to address the demands of a forward deployed expeditionary warfare force, where information dominance on a 24/7 basis will be critical for staying ahead of the threat and anticipating force deployments, presence in key areas and guarding against a wide variety of threats to the new force. As stated earlier, attack in the modem cyber and information worlds will be the best form of defense. Coming second in the information age will not work. Integration of the intelligence requirements of this new force within the classic UK agency structure and culture may need changes of information sharing, coordination and cooperation that go beyond the improvements made as a result of 911. Connectivity and communications become critical and the Air Force’s role of ISR tsar will demand resolution of emerging connectivity problems, particularly in bandwidth management and security.

There are emerging techniques that may be game changers over time to the color and complexity of expeditionary warfare. Various capabilities may impact the sensor, communications and information domains in ways that will require the UK to stay ahead with its US ally, to ensure that systems are not attacked in ways that are outside the current electronic warfare domains and traditional communications intelligence realms. The UK should therefore invest heavily in ISR, cyber warfare, and the overall information dominance domain.

The above is a strategic vision for a expeditionary maritime strategy-it means massive pruning of the Army and Air Force, followed by a complete revitalization of the Royal Navy and its industrial base-the shipyards, the naval weapons and aircraft manufacturers, helicopters, and so on. Army and Air Force contractors will have to accept this huge change-there is no alternative because there are no funds for the alternatives. It will mean massive personnel changes, and the Royal Navy will have to keep in its ranks enough personnel for probably longer periods of service to implement this new strategy. Parts of the Royal Air Force will become the new maritime Air Force, to support projected maritime power from the sea. The Army, with the exception of the Special Forces, other units that will enhance the capabilities of the existing Third Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines to an agreed land force structure level that is transportable and sustainable from the sea, and key logistics regiments, will downsize significantly, a sad event, but necessary from all perspectives, strategic and financial.

Britain’s strategic deterrent posture should remain intact because with the absence of all other forms of defense-the Army and the traditional Air Force will have gone-the long term guarantee for the UK of national survival will remain with the national strategic deterrent-the Strategic Submarine Force.

The above maritime expeditionary warfare strategy is a rational answer for the long term security needs of the United Kingdom, radical change based on a vision totally in keeping with the long term 2151 century interests of the United Kingdom.

Let the UK make this great change, implement this vision, and go forward based on its historic strategic roots-a maritime strategy based on the enduring core strength of the Royal Navy, together with the great traditions and capabilities of the Anny and Royal Air Force, the UK’s industrial base, and its global economic and security interests.

Editor’s Note: Readers may wish to study the first item in Submarine News From Around the World ill this issue for the British Government’s current approach to their defe11se needs.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League