UK admiral’s key role reflects global naval renaissance
Adm. Sir Tony Radakin is no average naval officer. Having studied law alongside his Royal Navy career, he qualified as a barrister and was subsequently called to the bar. Despite reaching the lofty rank of first sea lord, a title which predates that of prime minister by two centuries, this most exceptional of naval officers is now to sit at the helm of the UK’s navy, army and air force as chief of the defense staff. The first seaman to hold the position in 20 years, his appointment is reflective of increasing great power reorientation toward naval expansion. From the Black Sea to the Taiwan Straits, the naval projection of power is once more becoming a key facet of foreign and defense policy.
A century ago, the pursuit of foreign policy objectives with the aid of conspicuous displays of naval power — known as gunboat diplomacy — was a key facet of international relations. The extraction of concessions, agreements and outright capitulations was frequently secured through the threat of force. In the 19th century, the ominous specter of the Royal Navy ensured British control of the Trucial States (today the UAE). During the Cold War, overwhelming US naval power typified American global hegemony — Henry Kissinger famously quipped “an aircraft carrier is 100,000 tons of diplomacy.”
However, advances in aerospace technology and the increasing prevalence of asymmetric warfare began to forewarn of the impending obsoletion of the battleship. Increasingly sophisticated land and air-launched anti-ship missiles, submarines, and cyberattacks brought home the prospect of billions of dollars in investment being undone in minutes. The increasing range of coastal missile batteries has increased just as fighter flying ranges have decreased. In a hypothetical engagement, American aircraft carriers would have to remain more than 1,000 nautical miles (1,850 km) off the coast of China to retain operability. To many, the large, sophisticated vessels that typified naval might increasingly began to highlight the susceptibility of conventional armies to attacks by smaller, irregular foes.
The naval projection of power is once more becoming a key facet of foreign and defense policy.
Zaid M. Belbagi
The advantages of maneuverable floating military bases and runways, however, seemingly exceeds increasing concerns about the vulnerability of large naval vessels. It is for this reason that increasing the Royal Navy’s forward presence around the world was a key facet of Radakin’s time at the admiralty and why his appointment to the head of the armed forces shows a marked slant toward rebuilding naval capability.
Given the long lead times in the building and funding of naval infrastructure, current plans show that the UK can expect its fleet to grow to 24 frigates and destroyers (from the current 18) by the 2030s. The recently constructed aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales are central assets in a fleet that is expected to become more global in its focus.
Mixed prospects for NATO, an ever more disengaged US and continued lackluster European defense commitments have forced nations to reconsider engaging unilaterally rather than in concert. Recent British naval maneuvers in the Black Sea, off the coast of China and in the Barents Sea have shown a renewed interest in meeting the increased insecurities of the international order with its naval presence.
The UK is not alone in this regard. The US remains bound by law to maintain 11 supercarriers in its fleet. The USS Gerald R. Ford is the largest warship ever constructed, with the 100,000-ton juggernaut’s $15 billion price tag showing America’s enduring commitment to naval power.
China, which only three decades ago bought a scrap Australian carrier as its first foray into this space, is now constructing the Type 003. Only its second domestically built aircraft carrier, it will be the largest ship that has ever served in its fleet. Though it will intentionally match the Gerald R. Ford in size, its bulk is not representative of the growing trend for nimbler, more maneuverable vessels that are being commissioned by the likes of India and Japan.
India’s indigenously built aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, which is expected to be fully operational by 2022, has focused on being a base for unmanned vehicles. This is reflective of the changes in warfare that have necessitated the development of new technologies. This trend is a central pillar of India’s 15-year Maritime Capability Perspective Plan to mitigate the growing risks faced by conventional navies.
Radakin, therefore, takes the helm at an incredibly interesting moment. The UK, like others, is responding to the increased vulnerability of the international order in the gradual folding of the post-Cold War status quo. History has taught China and Russia all too well the perils of inadequate naval resources. Both countries have found the Royal Navy on their doorstep, giving a distant power influence in their affairs.
It is impossible to imagine that the UK’s plans for its navy will not be echoed elsewhere. But it is apt that the small island nation that projected itself over the four corners of the Earth through “ruling the waves” is now leading a naval renaissance that will have wide-reaching repercussions.
* Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).