Mark Fox is Chief Executive of the Business Services Association and a former Parliamentary Candidate. He writes here in a personal capacity.
“Without a supreme Navy, whatever military arrangements we may make, must be utterly vain and futile.” – Winston Churchill.
The Royal Navy is the most sophisticated, highly trained and flexible part of the British Armed Forces. Every day, it is on active operations at home and around the world promoting and defending British interests. In a world where value for money and dynamic flexibility are key, the navy provides superb value for money.
The navy as we know it can trace its roots back to the creation of the modern British state itself, in 1707. Of course the ‘Senior Service’ can trace its roots much further back than that, and pre-dates most other Scottish or English institutions, the Church in England being one of the possible exceptions.
For well over 500 years, the navy has provided Britain with its principal line of defence and its most effective way of projecting power and influence around the world. Its very being is embedded into the soul of the nation. Just think how many of our favourite songs and tunes during the Last Night of the Proms are related to the sea and the navy, for example.
Many of our most famous people have made or lost their careers because of close connections with the Navy. Think of Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, and the disastrous First World War Gallipoli campaign. Yet it was in 1939 that a signal to the fleet was sent – ‘Winston is back’ – that marked his return from exile and back into government.
Or consider Jellicoe and the battle of Jutland – judged by some to be the ‘man who could lose the (First World) war in an afternoon.’ The victories of Nelson remain the stuff of legend, and it is this small admiral who has the tallest monument in the centre of our capital city – an enduring reminder of the legacy we still feel today.
Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805 sealed Britain’s dominance of the world’s sea lanes for the next 200 years. During both World Wars, the navy’s ability to hold its own on the global stage ensured that Britain was able to survive as an independent fighting force until the entry of the United States.
And it was a head of the Navy, Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, who encouraged Mrs Thatcher to believe that the Falkland Islands could be retaken after the Argentine invasion, and then delivered on his promise: the navy’s finest hour in the modern era. It has always been at the heart of our national life, part of the warp and weft of our identity as a people. Today’s navy ranks as the most sophisticated, technically advanced and highly trained in the world, respected and admired for its professionalism. The range of its duties and abilities is extraordinary.
Yet the navy remains oddly under-appreciated at Westminster. It is flexible in its capabilities, and deployable to any part of the world. With its ships can go air power – currently helicopters and, with the new aircraft carriers, fighter planes too – and land power, in the form of the formidable Royal Marines. It is first in line for operations such as tackling piracy, safeguarding trade routes and providing disaster relief and humanitarian aid. The navy also supports a huge range of trade opportunities and showcases the extraordinarily talented stream of British technology and craftsmanship.
It does much more than that, of course. It carries the nuclear deterrent, the merits and demerits of which can be argued back and forth. But while we have it, the navy carries the responsibility for delivering it. The submarine service also delivers other less well-known but vitally important services to the nation’s defence. If Russian submarines are encountered in home waters, it is the navy that must respond.
And in an age when cyber and intelligence-driven warfare are more and more critical, submarines also provide a highly capable and valuable intelligence-gathering capability. So the navy can deal with anything short of a full-scale sustained land engagement. Once the two aircraft carriers are in service, they can be deployed anywhere in home waters or overseas. The capacity to mount airborne operations is huge.
On the sea, under the sea, on land and in the air the navy continues to provide the backbone of Britain’s defence capability, and the heart of the nation’s projection of its power and interests around the world.
Defence, aid, trade: the navy does it all. Every day, the navy is on operations protecting and promoting Britain’s interest. In an era of ever-tightening budgets but increasing national and international threats, the navy clearly provides the best single source for national defence capability. We need to focus on the huge opportunities that this affords us, and continue to invest heavily in naval equipment – ensuring that it comes into operation, and has the manpower to go with it.