The Red Sea fighting shows the humiliating difference between the US and Royal Navies


I am occasionally accused of being a little ‘cup half full’. When ships collide, or break down, I tend to see it as more annoying rather than embarrassing – a reflection of the complexities and difficulties of operating in a hazardous environment.

But when the Secretary of the Navy of your largest and most important ally comes to the UK and says you need to spend more on defense, then that is unambiguously humiliating.

Secretary Del Toro sits between the US Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin, and the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Lisa Franchetti. The role is comparable to our Armed Forces Minister, if we had one for each service. He therefore has a pivotal role to play between the US Navy, the SecDef and President Biden.

He, like everyone else with an interest in global affairs, recognises that the world is becoming less stable, and that our armed forces remain our best hedge against uncertainty and disruption. But in order to do that, they need to be properly resourced and supported. With the direct charm typical of many senior US politicians, he made it clear that the UK is falling behind in doing this.

The Red Sea is a naval case study in how disruption in a seemingly faraway place has an impact that can be felt at home. Despite the defensive actions of Operation Prosperity Guardian turning to the offensive actions of Operation Poseidon Archer, shipping through the Bab el Mandeb and the Suez Canal is down by 30 per cent.

Container ship transits are down by 80 per cent. A recent report by LSEG Shipping Research, a division of the London Stock Exchange Group, revealed that rerouting an tanker from Asia to NW Europe via the Cape of Good Hope incurs an incremental cost of just under a million USD per voyage, and extends the transit time from 16 to 32 days. Everything in your home is about to start arriving late and costing more.

The US Navy has ‘freedom of navigation’ in their DNA. They currently have an aircraft carrier and five escorts in and around the Red Sea. The standard conversion for ships at sea is (just over) three to keep one on task. So if this mission endures, and I think it will, that’s a commitment of sixteen escorts for this alone – more escorts than the Royal Navy currently owns.

Of all the countries with ships there, the US is probably the one who least depends on keeping the lane open. You can see why they might get a little frustrated when other nations only partially contribute, running political agendas and talking of a Euro-solution.

It’s hard to overstate what not having US military support and logistics means in terms of warfare enablers. Anyone who has seen that machine from close up, once they have finished gawping at the sheer size of it, gets instinctively nervous about offering any sort of military solution that doesn’t have that placed at its core.

Del Toro discussed more than just the Red Sea. The Black Sea remains heavily contested, and whilst the humanitarian corridor is working with trade there restored to 70 per cent of its pre-war levels, the debate over levels of support to ensure this can be maintained are as live as ever.

He touched on the Arctic and the Northern Sea Route there which a combination of increased accessibility, proximity to Russia and value to China means that it becoming contested feels inevitable. And all this before we even get to the big one – China’s increasingly belligerent stance in the Southern and Eastern China Seas and a gradual encircling of Taiwan which many perceive as a precursor to invasion.

That naval recruiting and retention came up in discussion was inevitable. This is a global issue: maritime recruiting across the entire industry is down 9 per cent. UK armed forces are feeling the pinch acutely with figures down across the board. Reviews have been conducted and advice sought from our US colleagues but until the offer matches expectations, this is going to take a long time to fix. But it must be fixed or the whole system fails. The Royal Navy is decommissioning two frigates early due to lack of numbers and Royal Fleet Auxiliary numbers are even worse.

The oil tanker Marlin Luanda on fire after a Houthi attack

The oil tanker Marlin Luanda on fire after a Houthi attack – Indian Navy

I had a discussion afterwards with a young man who had joined the Royal Navy to become a clearance diver, only to emerge from basic training (at which he excelled) to find that there was a waiting list of 6 years. He has now left the service. A gathering with some old and bold types from HMS Ark Royal the other day revealed that literally everyone there knew of someone whose attempts to join had been thwarted by some form of bureaucratic inefficiency, technicality or sheer delay.

Whatever the Haythornthwaite Review of Armed Forces Incentivisation recommended to fix all of these issues, it isn’t working yet. Red lights are blinking on all over the world and yet even now, it appears that the UK Government doesn’t see defense spending as a priority. When the head of the British Army event hints at something like conscription then you know all is not well.

More money isn’t the solution to everything, and there would need to be cast-iron assurances from across Defence that they would spend it better, but we can no longer ignore our funding black hole. The idea that it ‘might increase spending to 2.5 per cent when economic conditions allow’ doesn’t cut it anymore. The US Secretary of the Navy agrees, and very politely told us to do better. We should listen.

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