Political will, military capacity: maritime security in the Middle East

Speech by Sir Nick Harvey, Minister for the Armed Forces.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Sir Nick Harvey


Ladies and gentlemen, good morning and thank you for inviting me to speak today.

This provides me with the opportunity to set out the UK’s approach to an issue of critical national importance.

One in which defence, and particularly the maritime element of it, plays a vital part.

And one in which there is a great deal of international consensus.

While my comments are made on behalf of the UK, our position reflects thinking across a wide and very capable set of international friends and partners.

In that context, I want to talk about 2 facets of maritime security, international law and military capacity to enforce it, and, in doing so, address the following key issues:

What do we mean when we talk about a right of passage?

How does this apply to the Middle East with its unique geography and politics?

What force structures exist to respond to maritime insecurity?

And what contribution does the UK make to maritime security in the Middle East?

Political will

So, the right of passage; what is it and why is it important?

The great majority of world trade moves by sea; it underpins the global economy.

As an island nation, 95% of UK trade in goods transits by sea.

Our prosperity and security is dependant upon energy, raw materials and other trading markets that we access through the sea lanes and maritime trade routes.

This dependency will increase in the years to come as the UK becomes more reliant on imported energy.

It is therefore vital that the free flow of shipping is maintained so that the import and export of goods on which the nation depends can continue.

This concept, the freedom to use the seas, is not new; indeed the maritime regime has been based on it for the past 500 years.

The concept of the ‘Mare Librum’ or ‘The Free Sea’ is the basis upon which the modern UN conventions are built.

As Grotius, one of the founding fathers of international law, put it in the 16th century: ‘by the law of nations, navigation is free for any to whomsoever’ and that the liberty of trading it ‘hath a natural and perpetual cause and therefore cannot be taken away’.

This is a position that the UK government fully supports today.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) recognises the importance of the key strategic maritime chokepoints.

Hormuz, Bab el Mandeb, Malacca, Gibraltar and Dover, all of which exist within the territorial waters of coastal states.

To challenge the right of transit for all vessels in these straits, the right of passage through them, is to challenge the international system itself.

The impact would be felt on the global economy and the national security of any state that regularly trades through them.

Middle East

This is particularly so in the Gulf region.

In terms of the UK’s national interest we have a confluence of a number of factors:

Markets and energy supplies vital to the UK, and many other nations;

Friendly and partner nations who we wish to support;

And a particular maritime trading route, the Strait of Hormuz, that is vital to the stability of both the region and the global economy more generally.

The UK and other major maritime powers have long had a permanent presence in the region.

The Royal Navy has had a constant patrol in this area since 1980.

The deployment of naval assets form a routine part of our commitment to the free movement of international shipping in the region.

This commitment serves 3 key purposes:

  • first, to protect the essential arteries of international trade
  • second, to reassure our international partners
  • third, to deter aggression

So the UK is committed to the security of this region and will maintain a naval presence in the long term.

There are a range of priorities in the region, the most acute of which is the Strait of Hormuz.

Our naval presence in the Gulf long pre-dates some of the current difficult issues facing the region and the international community.

It is based on a belief that the free movement of international maritime traffic is fundamental to regional prosperity, fundamental to international prosperity, fundamental to the regional security and fundamental to international security.

Strait of Hormuz

So, focussing in on the Strait of Hormuz, what are the UK’s principles for defining an international strait and therefore determining where a right of passage exists?

As I outlined earlier, the ‘Law of the Sea’ is designed to ensure freedom of navigation within international waters, and in international straits as well.

The boundaries of a strait are defined by the practicality of making a passage through it, the need of the mariner to use a particular route.

It is safety, ship-handling, navigation and seamanship, not necessarily proximity to land, that is at issue.

So the right of passage starts at the first point from where such free passage is required, and finishes at the final point at which it is not.

This is the basic calculus against which the UK will make decisions.

Simply put, and based on all that I have outlined before, we take all threats to undermine peace and stability in the region seriously.

Threats or attempts to block the Strait of Hormuz show a contempt for international law as it is seen by the majority of the states in the region, if not the world.

In terms of our will to ensure that this does not happen, I will paraphrase the Defence Secretary’s statement of 5 January this year [2012]:

It is in the interest of all nations that the arteries of global trade are kept free, open and running. Disruption to the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz would threaten regional and global economic growth.

Any attempt by Iran to do this would be illegal and [ultimately] unsuccessful.

Military capacity

So let me now turn to the military capabilities that underpin the right of passage, because there is little point in having the legal basis with which to protect our national interests and those of our friends and partners, without the ability to enforce it.

As Professor Colin Gray put it:

Strategy is a practical business. If troops cannot do it, policy is a mere vanity.

Maintaining the broad capacity to protect our national maritime interests was a key component of the UK’s recent Strategic defence and security review.

The naval forces we are building will be some of the most powerful, flexible and capable units afloat.

Protecting and projecting UK influence is a key role for the frigate and destroyer force within it.

And our world-leading niche capabilities can also do this, particularly our oceanic survey and mine clearance capability.

This force will provide an enduring presence within priority regions of the world, of which the Gulf is clearly one.

And there are and will continue to be additional and powerful intervention capabilities available, ships, submarines, helicopters and amphibious forces ready to support this enduring presence if needs be.

The SDSR created a ‘high readiness force’ which is available to allow us to respond to protect our own national security interests, or to form a potential UK contribution to a multinational operation.

The maritime component of which is delivered by the Royal Navy’s Response Force Task Group, which is able to bring a range of capabilities to bear.

It has its own afloat headquarters staff and commander.

It can plan and execute the full range of maritime operations.

It can be forward deployed in parts or as a whole.

Its ships, submarines, aircraft and commandos are all trained and ready to work together.

And it is not geographically constrained.

It can move forward and deliver force anywhere on the high seas, travelling over a 300 miles per day without any need for additional sea-based and more importantly land based support.

It can project power ashore through firepower, Apache attack helicopters, and the insertion of special forces.

It is agile and flexible, able to fight, deter, contain, project power, stabilise, reassure, and deliver training to our friends and allies without any need to reconfigure.

It is a smart power tool, with a hard power capability.

Current force laydown

With regard to our current military presence in the region, the UK has maintained at least 2 frigates or destroyers in the Gulf and Indian Ocean region since 1980.

They now contribute to the Coalition Maritime Force based in Bahrain and comprised of sailors and ships from 25 nations.

Its mission is to conduct counter-piracy and counter-terrorism patrols and ensure the safety of the internationally important arteries of global trade in the region.

We have a UK naval staff in Bahrain, co-located with the multinational maritime headquarters and we provide the Deputy Maritime Component Commander.

We will seek to provide this key leadership position and for as long as the coalition mission is needed.

Since 2003, the UK has maintained a presence of mine countermeasure vessels in the Gulf to support operations, conduct historic ordnance disposal and maintain freedom of navigation.

These vessels initially cleared the routes into Iraqi ports after the war in 2003 and have subsequently cleared hazards left over from the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s.

They are very capable units, highly regarded, regularly practised and fully acclimatised to the unique operating conditions found in Gulf waters.

Together with those of other like-minded nations, the UK naval presence forms part of a powerful force that is in place now, and can be called upon to ensure the peaceable use of the seas.

Of course, the Royal Navy’s Response Force Task Group could quickly deploy to the region if required.


So, to conclude, I believe the answer to the question posed by this conference, do politicians have the will and legitimacy to act in defence of the shipping industry, has to be yes.

Our will is based on a clear understanding of the vital importance of the flow of trade and energy to and from the Middle East

There exists an economic necessity to preserve the free and legal use of the seas and access to critical strategic areas such as the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb and Hormuz and key maritime trade hubs such as Dubai and Singapore.

Legitimacy is based on the universal ideal of the freedom of navigation, a right under the maritime regime for the past 500 years.

Our presence in the region safeguards our legitimate interests and acts as a deterrent.

We retain formidable armed forces; equipped with some of the best and most advanced technology available; and able to project significant power to almost any part of the world.

But defence is as much about preventing conflicts as it is about winning them.

And the maritime security role the UK plays in the Gulf is part of that.

It is not the gunboat diplomacy of the 19th century.

But we can, and will, use all our unique assets, economic, diplomatic, military, political, legal, and cultural, to ensure that our citizens are secure and prosperous in this new era.

Published 21 June 2012