The fighting in the Red Sea shows the humiliating difference between the American and Royal navies.


I am sometimes criticized for being a little “cup half full”. When ships collide or break down, I tend to see this as more annoying rather than embarrassing – a reflection of the complexities and difficulties of operating in a hazardous environment.

But when the Navy Secretary of your biggest and most important ally comes to the UK and says you need to spend more on defence, that is unambiguously humiliating.

Secretary Del Toro sits between U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Lisa Franchetti. The role is comparable to that of our Minister of the Armed Forces, if we had one for each service. He therefore has a central role to play between the US Navy, SecDef and President Biden.

Like everyone interested in world affairs, he recognizes that the world is becoming less and less stable and that our armed forces remain our best protection against uncertainty and disruption. But to achieve this, they must have adequate resources and support. With the direct charm typical of many senior US politicians, he made it clear that the UK was lagging behind in this area.

The Red Sea is a naval case study in how disruptions in a seemingly distant place has an impact that can be felt at home. Despite the defensive actions of Operation Prosperity Guardian turning into the offensive actions of Operation Poseidon Archer, shipping through Bab el Mandeb and the Suez Canal is down 30 percent.

Container ship transits have decreased by 80 percent. A recent report from LSEG Shipping Research, a division of the London Stock Exchange Group, found that rerouting an oil tanker from Asia to northwest Europe via the Cape of Good Hope incurs an additional cost of ‘a little less than a million dollars per trip and prolongs the transit. delivery time of 16 to 32 days. Everything in your house is about to arrive late and cost more.

The U.S. Navy has “freedom of navigation” in its DNA. They currently have a aircraft carrier and five escorts in and around the Red Sea. The standard conversion for ships at sea is (a little more than) three to keep one on a mission. So if this mission continues, and I think it will, that will represent a commitment of sixteen escorts just for this – more escorts than the Royal Navy currently has.

Of all the countries with ships there, the United States is probably the one least reliant on keeping the lane open. You can understand why they might get a little frustrated when other nations only partially contribute, driving political agendas and talking about a European solution.

It is difficult to overstate what the absence of U.S. military and logistical support means in terms of the means of war. Anyone who has seen this machine up close, once they have grown amazed at its size, becomes instinctively nervous about proposing any sort of military solution that doesn’t have it at the core.

Del Toro didn’t just talk about the Red Sea. The Black Sea remains hotly contested and, while the humanitarian corridor is functioning and trade there has been restored to 70% of pre-war levels, the debate over the levels of support needed to ensure its continuation is hotter than ever. .

He pointed to the Arctic and the Northern Sea Route, where a combination of increased accessibility, proximity to Russia and value relative to China means a challenge seems inevitable. And that’s all before we even get to the big part: China’s increasingly belligerent stance in the South and East China Seas and a gradual encirclement of Taiwan that many see as a precursor to an invasion.

The fact that naval recruitment and retention came up during the discussions was inevitable. This is a global problem: maritime recruitment across the sector is down 9 percent. The British armed forces are feeling the effects of the crisis hard with falling numbers across the board. Reviews have been carried out and advice has been sought from our American colleagues, but until the offer meets expectations it will take a long time to resolve. But it has to be fixed, otherwise the whole system fails. The Royal Navy is decommissioning two frigates ahead of schedule due to understaffing, and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s numbers are even worse.

Oil tanker Marlin Luanda on fire after Houthi attackOil tanker Marlin Luanda on fire after Houthi attack

Oil tanker Marlin Luanda on fire after Houthi attack – Indian Navy

I then had a chat with a young man who had joined the Royal Navy to become a clearance diver, only to come out of basic training (which he excelled at) and find that there was a waiting list of 6 years. He has now left the service. A meeting with some old and daring types from HMS Ark Royal the other day revealed that literally everyone knew someone whose attempts to join had been thwarted by some form of bureaucratic inefficiency, technicality or simple delay.

Whatever the Haythornthwaite study recommends about incentivizing the armed forces to solve all these problems, it’s not working yet. Red lights are flashing all over the world and yet even today it seems the UK government does not see defense spending as a priority. When the head of the British army event refers to something like conscription then you know all is not well.

More money is not the solution to everything, and all of Defense should have firm guarantees that it will spend it better, but we can no longer ignore our black hole in terms of funding. The idea that he “could increase spending by up to 2.5 percent when economic conditions permit” is no longer enough. The US Secretary of the Navy agrees and very politely asks us to do better. We should listen.

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