Navies in an age of austerity

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speech by Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, First Sea Lord.

Thank you Ty [Rear Admiral Tyrone Pile RCN (Retd)] for your kind introduction……and may I add my thanks for such a splendid dinner this evening.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a privilege to share in this conference……and a pleasure to be in Canada again.

And living in an island nation, I feel very much at home here in Victoria.

Picture the scene.

In the House of Commons, during World War 2……when our navies fought courageously to keep the sea lanes open……the Conservative politician Irene Ward asked the Minister of Supply……”why Wrens [Women’s Royal Naval Service] of the Royal Navy had to wait for their uniforms”.

The Minister replied that there were problems in providing uniforms for the navy, and that sailors had been given priority over Wrens.

To which Ward responded……”How long is the Minister prepared to hold up the skirts of Wrens for the convenience of His Majesty’s sailors?”!

Ladies and gentlemen, I do not intend to hold up tonight’s proceedings……but I do want to make a couple of points on an important subject.

It’s often tempting, and certainly understandable, to look at today’s issues through today’s lens……but perhaps looking at our challenges through tomorrow’s lens instead could offer a useful additional perspective.

So……fast forward, if you will, to say 2024 please……12 years hence.

World in 2024

Wow……looking at you now, you’ve all aged remarkably well!

We’ve all just enjoyed yet another fantastic summer Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Some of our mid-seniority officers back in 2012 are now running our nations’ navies……grateful, I hope, for the legacies we left them……enjoying the mutual fruits of our Anglo-Canadian Joint Declaration.

And the US has finally ratified UNCLOS!

Whilst inevitably, our world of 2024 has changed in ways which were unforeseen……some of the forecasts appear to have, for good or bad, come to pass:

  • the threat environment is certainly more complex……as well as more contested, congested, cluttered, connected and constrained
  • the world now has a billion more mouths to feed than it did back in 2012……a 14% increase
  • almost everyone in Africa has a mobile phone
  • and if 2012 predictions are still correct, then next year, in 2025, China will constitute around 30% of the world’s GDP

Maritime Environment in 2024

All this has had profound consequences; culturally, economically and militarily.

And, just as many of us forecast 12 or so years ago……the maritime environment has indeed become the space in which threats, opportunities and interests have presented themselves.

Back then, in 2012, the Defence Reviews of Canada, the US, the UK, China, Japan, India and Australia, amongst others, had a common theme……one of ‘looking seaward’.

And with the benefit of hindsight, they were right to do so.

Reflect for a moment upon the extent to which our international straits and our oceans have occupied our attention over the last decade……I suspect they will continue to do so.

Not that we should be surprised by any of this.

After all, 5 of the 6 “pivotal regions”……regions, in which global trends have converged, giving them an importance disproportionate to their geopolitical status……5 of the 6 regions have a maritime dimension.

They include the wider Middle East, the Asian Meridian, sub-Saharan Africa, both Polar regions and the Korean peninsula.

But I highlight just 2 regions where our navies have prevented the arteries of trade, of the global economy, from hardening.

First, the Asian Meridian……from Hong Kong to Darwin.

15 years ago, the region….sitting astride the Malacca and Lombok Straits……saw a fifth of global oil production transported through it……including over 80% of China’s oil imports and 80% of all Japan’s imports.

Since then, that dependency has continued to grow……placing the region today as an increasingly important intersection of major-power spheres of influence.

The growth in defence spending along the Meridian has continued……and substantial investment increases in maritime and air capabilities are by no means an accident.

And then there is the access and resource in the High North……which has, with the opening up of the Northern Sea route, transformed patterns of global maritime trade.

And it would appear that previous forecasts of regular transit of the north west passage by 2030, just 6 years from now, will indeed come to pass.

It is with gratitude that we look back to those in positions of influence……in the arctic nations and the wider international maritime community……for embracing the safe, ecologically sound and sustainable use of this magnificent polar ocean.

They were a perceptive lot in 2012 weren’t they?!

Indeed, they were also right when they argued that there would be two main emerging maritime themes in the first half of this Century……increasing littoral complexity and growing oceanic competition.

Legacies from 2012

But back then in 2012……in the midst of those 7 lean years……do you remember how global austerity brought an added complexity to our deliberations?

They were difficult years for us all, but allow me to remind you of 3 things in particular which I think have since stood us in good stead.

First, those in 2012 contributed to a narrative that helped the world recognise it was about to embark on an emerging maritime era……and wake it up to the consequences.

Nations, even those with limited coastlines, began to realise that……with an increasing global economic dependency upon the sea……their ability to control or deny access to the sea was, even more so than before, a security issue.

And since then, our “economisation of international security affairs” has indeed had a strong maritime dimension, playing out as it has in those ‘pivotal regions’……as it will continue to do I suspect in the years ahead.

But the narrative was not of course just economic. It was about the largely ungoverned space of our global commons becoming a security issue in itself.

Ungoverned space which, if unchecked, could become a vector for global security threats like piracy, international maritime terrorism, human trafficking, and potential conflicts over energy security and resource depletion. Issues which the conference in Victoria in the fall of 2012 discussed.

All of which remain de-stabilising influences with the potential to descend into conflict. And, in turn, with disastrous consequences for global trade and international and domestic security.

Even now, there are still some ‘continental’ commentators who persist in asking “so what?”

I said back then, and I say again……from my perspective, as sure as the wind blows from high to low pressure, so the high pressure of future insecurity will fill the low pressure of our largely ungoverned global commons.

That narrative is still important, but it was vital in 2012.

Because, and my second point, it ensured that……especially under the microscope of austerity……navies were seen to be relevant, as of course they remain today.

Austerity demanded that navies contributed to that maritime narrative by being ‘at sea’ and ‘at readiness’.

In doing so navies demonstrated their value for money.

By being at sea, forward deployed, our navies provided persistent presence in regions of interest……ensuring that navies delivered maritime power.……that ‘effect from the sea’……with the greatest expression:

  • by maintaining confidence in sea trade……upon which countries like ours have been built
  • by building trust with international partners
  • by bringing reassurance to fragile states
  • by preventing the consequences of illegal activity reaching our shores
  • and by deterring potential aggressors from challenging our national interests

But the bottom line was this……the navies that remained relevant were the navies deployed ‘at sea’.

And, as I’ve always maintained……navies need to be ‘at sea’ because……”the more one deploys, the less one needs to be kinetic”.

It was not just about being ‘at sea’ of course……it was also about being ‘at readiness’ for any contingency when on station.

It was about having the ‘spectrum of capabilities’ to respond swiftly at the right level……and right across the ‘spectrum of uncertainty’……as world events have served to remind each and every one of us……on a number of occasions since 2012.

Such security came with a cost, magnified in an age of austerity. But I would still maintain that given the events in recent years we were wiser to spend money on prevention early, rather than on intervention late.

As Professor Colin Gray once observed……”the greatest value of the navy will be found in events that fail to occur because of its influence”.

Which at a time when value for money was uppermost in our minds, the small marginal cost of operating ships with their organic aircraft and submarines at sea, rather than being garrisoned in naval bases, simply made good sense.

But perhaps, as we look back on 2012, it is my third point that gives us greatest reason to be…….just a little smug!

Together, we ensured that the flame of cooperation was not extinguished by austerity.

Instead, together, we allowed it to ignite a larger beacon of multinational maritime co-operation.

Together, we ensured that the provision of maritime security was a global solution to a global problem……a global solution based upon global cooperation.

Take, for instance, in the Middle East region, the 26-nation Combined Maritime Force……which still provides maritime security for the benefit of all.

Or back in 2011, where the 16-nation maritime element of Nato’s Operation Unified Protector helped liberate Libya.

And so the list goes on……but it is such levels of multinational maritime cooperation that gives confidence to the international community.

Both to maritime users and the commerce that depends upon global trade. Keeping seas safe as we would wish our streets to be safe.

At one level, it has promoted trust between the military forces of different nations, encouraged transparency and, over time, has crucially expanded intelligence sharing……so fundamental to making the most efficient use of our increasingly limited number of ships and aircraft in targeting areas of crises and contacts of interest.

It has also, over time, led to greater international technical collaboration……so important in those austere times……as we sought to secure greater value for money in future procurement.

But I would suggest that the biggest benefit of maritime cooperation……has been and remains strategic.

Maritime security operations are an example of the successful use of ‘soft power’. The ability to influence events on land, by being there at sea. For example:

  • it has been a demonstration to the international community of national commitment to protecting the global good
  • it has reinforced shared values
  • and widened the circle of cooperation


Ladies and gentlemen, as we bask in the benefit of hindsight that the year 2024 bestows upon us……as we reflect on our collective wisdom of past decisions……and give ourselves self-congratulatory slaps on the back……I am reminded of the possibly apocryphal story of an Education Department’s inspection of a junior school.

The inspection was going very well indeed until the last lesson……a religious studies period.

The teacher was expounding on the Old Testament and, seeking greater pupil involvement, asked a question……”Who knocked down the walls of Jericho?”

Johnny, a small boy at the back of the class……a perpetrator of a number of classroom misdemeanours……thrust his hand up and gave his answer smartly……”It wasn’t me”!

Ladies and gentlemen, as I finish, let’s wind the clock back to 2012……to the decisions we are taking this year……as a result of this conference, amongst others……and in our dialogue with governments, departments and navies.

Such decisions represent an opportunity to get maritime security right for the future……for 2024, and beyond.

So let us ensure that it is not us who have to admit in years to come that……”it wasn’t me”.

Instead, let us ensure that we are ready to operate in the maritime security environment as we experience it today……but more importantly, as we perceive it tomorrow.

I hope that:

  • by contributing to the maritime narrative
  • by turning austerity into an opportunity……to demonstrate maritime power’s relevance and value for money……with navies being ‘at sea’ and ‘at readiness’
  • and by ensuring that the beacon of maritime co-operation burns brighter

……I hope that we will leave our successors in 2024 a legacy……of which they can be pleased……and of which we can be proud.

Thank you……and I look forward to your questions.