Tuesday, 7 February 2012
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Straits of Hormuz (or how to sail in international waters with the USN)
The Telegraph had a wonderful story about its favourite bête noirs today - the decline of UK military power, the waning special relationship, and the fact that France appeared to get one over on us. The story of course, is the supposed revelation that the UK had to 'beg' to participate in the international flotilla that transited the Straits of Hormuz recently, and which only occurred due to Sarkozy interfering.
Without wishing to comment on the merits of the report, this author would suggest the following - that the story appears to have all the hallmarks of a massive exaggeration by what is now rapidly becoming a tabloid newspaper in order to sell print. The fact that it portrays the French as being responsible, and some internet sources have appeared to indicate that this story appeared in Russian press first, indicates to his mind at least, the potential for mischief making.
Looking at the international stage, there is a clear desire by elements within France to try to push the French leadership and influence piece, even to the detriment of other nations. Recently, a number of stories have appeared which have tried to malign the UK in some way, and this feels similar - an effort to try to do the UK down and play up French influence.
It's worth noting that the UK remains in an intensely close relationship with the US - it's a relationship built on trust, and mutually converging policy goals and objectives, and underpinned by the ability to project power through a variety of means, both hard and soft, to further these goals. While the RN may be smaller now than in the past, it's worth remembering that the USN is also downsizing too - the US military budget is being reduced by the equivalent of the UKs annual defence budget each year for the next ten years at present.
There has been a continual RN presence in the region for over 30 years, and the RN works closely with both the USN and a range of other maritime forces in the area. The RN regularly passes through this region, as the UK (along with other allies) routinely demonstrates the right to freedom of navigation. At present an RN 1* is the second in command of the maritime component command, a permanent position for the UK, and there are a wide range of UK military assets present in the region. In other words, the UK and USN are so closely integrated out there, that in reality, the fact that an RN vessel was, or was not, with the USN at the time of the transit is irrelevant. The beauty of sea power is that it can be wherever you want it to be, when you want it to be there.
What is perhaps being forgotten here is the inherent flexibility offered by a maritime capability - it may be the case (and the author has no knowledge at all on this issue) that the UK was not intending to transit with the USN, but the fact that there is a strong UK maritime presence in the region, and that the UK is able to operate so closely with the USN means that if this was the case, then it was quickly able to change its position. This is the beauty of sea power - it lets you change your mind two or three times and still lets you preserve your options for the future. Landpower and airpower lack this flexibility, as once committed to a course of action, it is inherently more difficult to retrieve them without a visible change in posture.
What should also be taken from this is the depths to which the UK and MN vessels were truly integrated into the USN battle group. This author would venture to suggest, based on the opinions of people he has known who have worked in USN CVBGs that the RN ship was almost certainly a fully integrated component of the battle group, and able to contribute to it. The French ship may have been there in physical presence, but its ability to work as a fully worked up integrated vessel is perhaps open to question (supposedly). Presence isn't always the be all and end all to being part of a battle group. You need to be there in body and electronic spirit!
The authors point is this - it is easy to quickly concoct a story claiming that the UK is somehow losing influence or face because it allegedly chose to do something, or not do something. However, the relationship with the US remains exceptionally strong, and the reality is that this story may owe much more to efforts to subtly denigrate the UK and bolster French positions, than anything else. One website to which the author is a long time subscriber noted that the UK and France are in a mutual sales battle at the moment over future vessel orders (FREMM and T26). It is, of course, immensely advantageous to France to portray their own vessel as more easily integrated into a USN group than an RN one, as it plays easily into the sales pitch of their industry.
While without doubt the relationship will evolve over time, this feels like a story knocked up quickly and not necessarily one which takes into account the full situation. This author suspects that there is far more than meets the eye to this situation.