Friday, 16 May 2014

Why you should read the UK National Strategy for Maritime Security

For the first time the UK has published its National Strategy for Maritime Security, a document which sets out in one place the entirety of the challenge facing the UK when trying to protect UK national security interests in the maritime domain. The full document can be found at this LINK.  There were some comments suggesting that the piece did not fully focus on the role of the Royal Navy, placing it at the centre of UK strategy, whereas to the author the document serves as a timely reminder that maritime security is about so much more than just your nations navy.

Humphrey wanted to do a short piece to set out why this paper is important and why it is worth a read. The paper is important as for the first time it sets out how complex maritime security is, and the range of stakeholders who have a part to play in protecting the UK. While many people traditionally associate the Royal Navy with this role, in fact the Border Force, Police, Department for Transport, Fisheries and all manner of other government organisations all play a part too. There are many stakeholders out there, all of whom have a valid interest and role to play in this field. It is useful to be reminded of that fact. The fact that the document is signed by no less than four Cabinet Minister should highlight the range of interests at stake here.

In practical terms the document summarises why the maritime domain matters to us – the UK maritime domain is over 298,000 square miles in size, and 95% of UK trade (worth some £500 billion) is exported / imported by sea. There are over 24000 active British seafarers at sea and approaching 2000 ships with a direct UK interest (owned, flagged or managed) at stake. In short, the maritime domain is an utterly critical part of our national economy, and damage to it threatens our long term national security.

The strategy sets out five maritime security objectives(although it deliberately avoids assigning a level of importance to them), which govern how the UK maritime strategy will evolve.

UK Maritime Security Objectives

1. To promote a secure international maritime domain and uphold international maritime norms;

2. To develop the maritime governance capacity and capabilities of states in areas of strategic maritime importance;

3. To protect the UK and the Overseas Territories, their citizens and economies by supporting the safety and security of ports and offshore installations and Red Ensign Group  (REG)-flagged passenger and cargo ships;

4. To assure the security of vital maritime trade and energy transportation routes within the UK Marine Zone, regionally and internationally.

5. To protect the resources and population of the UK and the Overseas Territories from illegal and dangerous activity, including serious organised crime and terrorism.

Underpinning these objectives is an exposure of the current risk assessment to the UK from the maritime domain – setting out where the greatest risks to our security currently judged to be:

• Terrorism affecting the UK and its maritime interests, including attacks against cargo or  passenger ships.
• Disruption to vital maritime trade routes as a result of war, criminality, piracy or                  changes         in international norms.
• Attack on UK maritime infrastructure or shipping, including cyber attack;
• The transportation of illegal items by sea, including weapons of mass destruction, controlled drugs and arms;
• People smuggling and human trafficking

What though do these objectives really mean? In practical terms they highlight the importance of the Royal Navy in delivering maritime security overseas, not only through the traditional presence of grey hulls on foreign stations, but also through participation in multi-national headquarters and operation, and also through training. The paper rightly highlights the huge importance of capacity building, and providing other nations with the means to do the job for us so that the UK doesn’t have to carry too large a burden. It also rightly highlights the importance of participation in international organisations like the UN or IMO and how working with others can help create regulatory environments to help protect merchant ships (e.g. implementing standards of protection).

The paper goes into significant detail on the sort of training efforts put into place by the UK and other countries to improve maritime capacity in poorer states. It notes that poor governance of maritime security, coupled with a lack of capability not just in the traditional naval area, but also in governance, rule of law and policing can lead to a vacuum which can be exploited and cause wider economic and security problems. While it is often fashionable to mock the more obscure training courses offered by groups like DFID, in fact these can often play a direct role in improving security at sea. This is where the RN can play an important role in the provision of international defence training, or by occasional ship visits, but also in helping increase the capacity of the nations in question.

The issue of protecting UK citizens through port and offshore installations is rightly highlighted as being of significant importance. But, is this work for the Royal Navy, the Police or the UK Border Force? It perhaps highlights the grey area in which RN vessels can play an important part in reassurance through patrolling offshore, but at the same time there are plenty of other HMG assets capable of doing the same work. It came as mild surprise to read that the UK Border Force has five cutters assigned to it to conduct maritime security patrols (a good press release on the latest vessels is HERE). At some 500 tonnes and up to 50m long, these are not insubstantial vessels and in fact are often forgotten when considering the wider HMG security piece. While it is easy to decry the loss of RN OPV numbers, there remain plenty of other vessels in UK waters (as well as both Scottish and Welsh fishery protection vessels) capable of doing this role. Similarly the paper refers to the extensive maritime aerial surveillance assets in place to support offshore fishery inspection – a role people perhaps assume is dead without the Nimrod.

UK Border Force Cutter

It is all too easy to forget that you do not actually need the RN to do much of the regular maritime constabulary tasks undertaken day in day out in UK waters. The natural temptation is to call for more RN presence, but ignoring that service personnel are extremely expensive to recruit and employ – why use them in roles which can be done by civilians just as effectively? The real area which the Royal Navy has a perhaps unique role to play is in objective four when considering securing trade routes overseas – this is where the RN adds real value, deploying platforms at distance in support of this sort of work.

The final objective of protecting against crime on population and resources highlights how challenging this issue is. The scope of the problem is vast, ranging from fishing to smuggling to threats to offshore oil rigs and data cables, through to the more conventional terrorist threats. The paper highlights the importance of information sharing as being of equally high value as actually having ships at sea – there is little point in having a grey hull in the water if you don’t know where to send it. To that end there is a fascinating study into the importance of the National Maritime Information Centre (NMIC), which is a good example of how multiple data feeds can be brought together to provide one central co-ordination point. The UK is a world leader with NMIC in providing a truly integrated picture, and an example of where a headquarters can add real value. When information is properly co-ordinated, analysed and fused together, it is possible to get a much better sense of where the threat lies. The final area of interest is the Annex B which sets out the range of organisations and agencies who have direct involvement in maritime security in the UK. It is worth studying to understand how complex and multi-faceted this area is, and how much work is needed to join the dots together sometimes. I

So, why does this all matter and why is this document worth reading? Ultimately it matters because it tells the world how the UK is able to address on a global scale the challenge of maritime security. It recognises that problems occurring thousands of miles away in Africa or Asia can have a direct impact on our way of life here (e.g. closing shipping lanes in Asia could massively reduce electronic or car imports into the UK). It realises that the threat is very complicated and that no one organisation is able to handle it all alone. While the Royal Navy plays an absolutely critical role in this, it is also important to understand that there are many other actors playing a key role too. It is all too easy to forget how many agencies and actors help protect UK maritime security, and this should be remembered. Its an extremely interesting and thought provoking read and Humphrey earnestly recommends taking a look at it to understand the importance of maritime security to the UK today. 


  1. The person who wrote that must have been on "happy baccy" I don't read anywhere that we are going to expand our military forces to cope with these "pie in the sky" objectives.
    To put it very crudely " its not worth the paper it was written on"
    Its not even good propaganda.

  2. Nothing like an opening bouncer, @Ianeon, to concentrate the mind, but, in military terms, the subject has been very much the poor relation. Trade and commerce are politely directed to the back door when submitting their invoice and bluntly advised to get their act together when complaining about the price of bread. Herding cats is relatively simple compared to the task of coordinating a bunch of traders to act together in the national interest. Soldiers do as they are told, and smart about it, shippers are inherently selfish and fierce in protection of privileges and rights. Someone has to bang heads together.
    It has taken a long, long time, but, when the International Maritime Organisation speaks, everyone stops and listens. We all speak about, a global economy', but few understand what it entails and how fragile it is.
    Above all, it is a vast and complex flow process and a minor hiccup can bring vast economies to the brink of disaster. Think of the M25 and what a minor accident does to the morning rush hour.
    We react with an explosion of military activity when people are hurt by acts of terrorism, but such terror barely scratches the commercial blood flow. I once demonstrated how 5*1lb blocks of explosive could bring the UK to it's knees for 14 days. Once terrorists learn that asset stripping furthers their cause more than kidnapping, the more important this report will be ringing bells and that time is with us now.

  3. 60 pages of nothing new.

  4. But Gabriele UK armed forces would disagree with you. He wants more more and more spending on all armed services. No spending else where.

    1. But what more would you expect from an Italian civvie?
      All such people see is the equipment and management, but not the core issues of inter-dependence//inter-operability between agencies, and spending when you have other departments screaming for funding too, and play just as much a role in the UK and abroad.

      This 'new' report is much like the last... why do we seem to want to publish something every couple of years telling us the same? Perhaps just to ensure it doesn't fade into obscurity, but keep piping the same tune and it'll become background noise just as soon.

  5. Good paper telling us what we already knew, but all that has happened is cuts to the Armed Forces. How are they going to achieve this?. The use of emotive language like 'the T45 being the most powerful destroyer' trying to convince the general public that we have got world beating battle winning armed forces. But look what we really have 200 aircraft (approx), 19 ships and soon to be 80,000 troops to take on this role. No industrial might to re-build, no more equipment once these are gone if shot down, sunk or killed. Compared to our possible foes, our ships are very lightly armed, our aircraft/infantry too few. If you know what you should be doing then lets make sure we have the equipment and manpower to do it.

  6. A spot of shameless link spamming :)

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