Friday, 27 April 2012

Are we ‘Sea Blind’, or merely suffering from ‘Sea Myopia’?

Humphrey is on the verge of departing for a much needed holiday and has been extremely busy of late, thus reducing the amount of time available to update this blog. One thing that has caught his eye this week, and something that he’s been musing on for a while is the concept of ‘Sea Blindness’. This was spurred by listening to a discussion where it was noted that even the US Navy felt that they were in a nation suffering from ‘Sea Blindness’.

The first question that comes to mind is ‘what is Sea Blindness’? Arguably it simply means that the public, and by extension Governments of nations do not understand the maritime domain, and do not understand the case for the maritime domain – not just from a military, but also from a wider sector perspective. Personally this author dislikes this term, as it implies a state of permanence towards the public view of the sea. The phrase implies that there is no cure to the notion that the public will never understand the maritime case, and that instead it is the role of senior leaders in the maritime community to act as guides or aids to a public which will never understand the importance of maritime power.

The next question is surely, has the public ever not been sea blind? Arguably since time immemorial the public have been unwilling to support the long term interests of the maritime case – one can only look back through history at the maritime wars fought by the UK, and other nations, and see cases of weak defences needing bolstering at a desperate hour. Conversely, the major combat indicator of a potential threat has often come through the augmenting or enhancing of fleets in other nations. It is rare through history to find examples of nations maintaining powerful fleets in a state of permanent existence – rather it is the case that great fleets are maintained only for the duration of a crisis and thereafter disposed of. Simply look to the case of the Royal Navy after the Napoleonic Wars, where the manpower was disposed of and ships returned to the Reserve. It seems fair to argue that the public have no interest in funding a great fleet when there is no threat – the demands on their pockets are simply too great to bear.

If one looks at the history of the Royal Navy, it is clear it is one of both expansion and contraction to meet a threat. One could find dozens of examples through history where a small cadre of RN vessels and manpower was rapidly augmented to meet whatever threat was posed to the nation, and then rapid expansion began anew. This would only continue until the threat had passed, and then the retrenchment once again kicks in. Classic naval treaties, such as the Washington Treaty owed much to the public desire to avoid great expenditure and arms races for unnecessary purposes.  

Indeed within living memory the UK (and other Western powers) has fought two wars which were existential in nature, and in which maritime power played a key role in the battle for survival. Despite this, and despite the UK arguably facing potential defeat, there has been no longer term clamour from the public for the maintenance of large fleets at public expense to deter against this sort of problem emerging again.

The reality is that people have short memories – while they remain keen of the concept of the Royal Navy as an institution, and there is a keen sense of national pride in the values, history and tradition of what it represents, there does not seem to be a groundswell of popular support to pay to maintain a large standing navy. While many people in the pub or around the dinner table would willingly make the case for further defence expenditure, or to buy more ships, it does not seem that this is something which translates into a genuine public desire to put pressure to fund. The public want to see a strong navy, but equally they don’t want to pay more than is necessary to achieve this. This has been the same case since time immemorial, and almost all nations with a navy face the same challenge. Outside of the purposes of satisfying bruised national pride (see the South American battleship races in the late 19th and early 20th century) there is rarely any sign of huge public demand for significantly increased defence expenditure.

More broadly, this author would argue that ‘Sea Blindness’ when it comes to understanding the maritime domain is not a new condition – people have historically not understood the dependency that humanity has on the sea. In reality, although the UK is an island, very few people relatively speaking actively involve themselves in maritime matters. Outside of the small fishing / trading community, or those who work in the maritime support sector, it is probably fair to argue that most  people simply don’t have the professional links to see the sea for what it is – an essential gateway to prosperity and survival. But then again, one could make the argument that few people really investigate or seek to understand the many different networks, links or dependencies that nations have on all manner of objects, trade and supplies. It’s likely that few people in the UK knew that the IT industry was reliant on factories in Thailand to make hard drives until the floods damaged production and prices soared. Similarly the automobile industry is struggling after a fire in a factory in Germany shut down production of resin, reducing the ability to make cars globally. The reality is that we live in an interdependent world on many fronts, but it is so complicated, and so networked that it is almost too difficult to follow.

Therefore, the challenge for the Royal Navy is to continue to make the case for the importance of seapower in a nation where people appreciate, but do not understand the Navy or why we have one. To that end, Humphrey would argue that we’re not sea blind – people get the case for the Navy at the times in their lives when it really matters to their own daily existence – such as convoys in the North Atlantic bringing food to the table, or Drake fighting off the Armada to prevent an invasion. This is when people understand the navy, when they get that expenditure is required and that the case for it is strong. But this is only a short term matter – in 1945 the Royal Navy was the largest it has ever been, or is likely to be. By 1948 the Home Fleet had about three active warships, with the rest rooting on their moorings. The public, and by extension their elected representatives will only lose their sea blindness for the length of time it takes for them to see off a threat to their existence.

Arguably the case the Navy needs to make is not one of ‘Sea Blindness’ which as a term implies the Navy exists as a form of guide dog or white cane, to be used daily as an essential tool of existence. Rather this author prefers the phrase ‘Sea Myopia’, which implies that the public are able to see the case for maritime power, for maritime investment and the importance of the maritime case, but that often it’s a little bit blurry and fuzzy beyond their own close in vision. In this case the Navy should serve as a pair of reading glasses – able to bring clarity and vision when required, and which can easily be put to one side when not needed.

We live in a sea myopic nation – the public know of the navy, they see snippets on the news and media which make them proud of what their armed forces are doing. But equally they don’t want a guide dog, and they don’t need a white cane. They want to know the Navy is there when it is required, and want to be able to put it to one side and forget about it when the threat no longer exists. Humphrey believes that the public can see the Navy through a blurry view – we’re not completely sea blind, we just don’t need to look at the maritime piece very often. Arguably, if we as a nation reach the stage where we are ‘sea aware’ it is because a fundamentally life changing event has occurred which has had negative impacts on the UK, and which is placing our very way of life and existence under threat. Arguably if the Navy is doing its job properly, then the indicator of success is that the UK population remain in a pleasant state of ‘Sea Myopia’.


  1. Although there is little public call for a "large" standing navy, there is little blogospheric call for such either.

    I ferequently bang on about out our lack of maritime focus, but I do so staunchly on the basic of fact.

    Comnpare the historical peace time navy budgets to the peace time army budgets, and 1946 onwards is simply perverse.

  2. Can we start by simply mooring one of the carriers in portsmouth until we can afford to use? Waste of time and money to get rid of it. Perhaps keep one or two ships a bit longer before they do goto the scrap yard.

  3. "in 1945 the Royal Navy was the largest it has ever been, or is likely to be. By 1948 the Home Fleet had about three active warships, with the rest rooting on their moorings."

    Even if "warships" means "battleships", which is a particularly egregious mistake, this still isn't true. KGV, Duke of York, Anson, Howe and Vanguard were all still in service. Not to mention all the carriers. The RN shrank after the war - of course it did - but to say that it was rotting (or even rooting) on its moorings three years later just isn't true.

  4. Ajay - Thanks for your comments, but I'm afraid you are misinformed about just how bad the RN was during the late 1940s.
    After the end of WW2, the RN finished the war with approximately 800,000 personnel in service. The challenge for the next few years was the rapid loss of trained 'hostilities only' manpower, coupled with an urgent need to focus limited resources on rebuilding the nation and the merchant navy. This meant the RN struggling with the reality of few ships, relatively limited resources and an ever shrinking pool of manpower, many of whom as concscripts had no interest in supporting the RN.
    I would strongly recommend to you to read either Desmond Wetterns 'decline of British Seapower' or alternatively Eric Groves 'Vanguard to Trident' - both of which provide a first hand account of the massive reduction in the RN, the loss of trained personnel to run ships in the Home Fleet, and also the lack of funding to do anything substantial about it.
    By 1948, I would argue (as have many far more experienced naval historians) that the RN really was at its lowest possible ebb - barely any active vessels capable of going to sea, plenty of old worn out wartime vessels desperately needing refits and repair, and not enough manpower due to the need to restart the civilian economy. It really wasnt until the start of the Korean War that a boost of funding emerged that helped save the Royal Navy.

  5. It always amazes me how many hulls from the WW2 building programmes were still around by the Falklands. Hermes being exhibit A (laid down in 1944, construction suspended in 1946, eventually commissioned in the mid-50s having been launched in the meantime because the yard needed the slipway for another project), Bulwark was still hanging about Portsmouth (having already been retired twice) and they considered recommissioning her, Blake was still in reserve and they looked at mobilising her.

  6. A lot of the hype re. the decline of the RN is more concerned with symbolism than real defence need. The truth is that we are no longer a colonial power and the Cold War is over. The size of the RN compared with, for example, ascendant forces like the Chinese or Indian navies, is actually pretty irrelevant. Ultimately, the only thing that really matters is that the RN is able to adequately defend our security and national interests. This is what the 1966 Defence Review was all about. The new carrier(s) were cancelled because they were hugely expensive and not essential to the RN's primary ASW role. Then as now we did not have the resources to do everything, and maintaining carrier strike was not a priority.

    1. Well its a good job the navy found a way of partially reversing the frankly treasonous 1966 defense review, because every conflict we have been involved in since has required some form of carrier strike! Oh except Libya of course where it cost a ridiculous amount to contribute a lot less than the French. This is a good article and sea myopia is indeed an apt term for the problem. We as a nation had better put the glasses on a bit more often though, because one thing about the uncertain future is that things change very fast and rapidly augmenting may no longer be quick enough. The core capability needs to be a lot more flexible and adaptable than it is and we need to have a plan in place for expanding, the ability to build your own ships for example.

  7. I think part of the 'sea myopia' at the moment is linked to Afghanistan. It is perhaps hard to explain to the public why seapower is so important when we are currently engaged in a high profile land campaign.
    Of course the fact that the RN has been heavily involved in Herrick has often been missed, for example a lot of people don't realise that the RM is part of the navy.