Gunboat diplomacy for the 21st century

Let's strengthen the Navy, even at the expense of the Army, argues Christopher Bellamy
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The first phase of the Government's "Strategic Defence Review" is nearly complete. Never before has Britain conducted a top-down review of security policy in this way, with the declared aim of reappraising the size and composition of the armed forces to meet foreign policy objectives - some of which are now a matter of choice. A paper setting out those objectives, signed by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook and the Defence Secretary, George Robertson, will shortly go before the Cabinet. The Government insists the review is not a cuts exercise. But the Defence budget is unlikely to be increased - and even if it is kept at its present level, hard choices have to be made.

In an essay, "Britain sounds the retreat", published on 15 April, I looked at some of the options. Britain's air forces looked fairly safe, because of the overwhelming importance of air power in every kind of operation, from a large-scale war such as the Gulf through to humanitarian aid, and peacekeeping. Therefore, the choice boils down to one between maintaining the first-division Army able to fight high-intensity war and cutting the Navy. Or cutting back on the Army further and putting more emphasis on the maritime dimension. Because the Army is currently actively involved in Bosnia and Northern Ireland and the Navy, by and large, is not, I said that if a choice had to be made, the Army had the better case.

Maybe I was wrong. The foreign policy objectives emerging from the Government's review, stressing the globalisation of society and the need to ensure security through diplomatic means, and to protect British and European interests worldwide, begin to suggest a return to a maritime strategy. Maybe, for Britain and the US, a new maritime era is dawning.

The new government's election manifesto leaves it little room for manoeuvre. It remains committed to Trident - the ultimate deterrent against attack on these islands with nuclear or equally horrible weapons, to collective security through an enlarged Nato, to Britain maintaining its seat on the UN Security Council, and thus to playing a prominent role in international peacekeeping. The Eurofighter project, like Trident, is exempt from the review.

The new government looks as if it will continue to ensure Britain plays a prominent role on the world stage - not necessarily punching "above its weight", as the old and overused phrase has it, but "at its weight" - which is not inconsiderable. It is clear that we cannot continue to try to do everything - only the Americans can. The Defence Review will look at areas where Britain might specialise and do what it does best. For 50 years of the Cold War, the principal concern for European countries was a land-air battle in central Europe. Navies and sea-based aircraft were sidelined, used primarily to keep open the transatlantic sea lines of communication and to protect the submarine-borne nuclear strike forces. Now they have been freed from the immediate threat of a land invasion.

Consider the world as it is now and as it probably will be in 2010. The only military threat to these islands is from missiles with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads fired by unpredictable and not always rational dictators. Trident, to deter the rational, is sea-borne and needs other vessels to protect it. The best way of shooting down incoming missiles, if deterrence fails, is over the sea. A Ballistic Missile Defence system, designed to shoot down missiles fired by the irrational before they reach these islands, is likely to have a strong sea-borne component.

Another compulsory task is the defence of British civilians abroad. There are currently 10 million British passport-holders living abroad, some in very unstable places. Last month provided a brilliant example of what can happen. The USS Kearsarge, a 40,000-ton amphibious assault ship, pulled 2,000 foreigners out of Sierra Leone - including the British diplomatic staff. The sea not only covers 70 per cent of the planet; it is also a wonderful place to park concentrated slabs of military power. But only the Americans had the ability to carry out this operation.

Seventy per cent of the world's population lives within 100 miles of the sea. Navies are particularly good at deterring or coercing people without actually shooting them or filling their towns and villages with soldiers. Navies can "poise" offshore for a long time and provide "leverage". The role of the US Navy in heading off Chinese threats to Taiwan in the South China Sea in spring last year was a clear example of modern gunboat diplomacy. Navies can be used for keeping options open and signalling resolve. They can match the pace and tone of diplomatic activity in a unique way. Besides providing visible signals and, sometimes, neutral venues for talks, warships can also threaten to land troops anywhere along an extended shoreline. So they can tie down disproportionate numbers of land troops - the perfect kind of "preventive diplomacy" and "conflict prevention".

The neutrality of the high seas is particularly useful in delicate international situations. Last year, when the US wanted to have another go at Iraq, the Gulf states closed ranks and would not allow attacks from their territory. So the Americans launched all their strikes from the sea, with carrier- based aircraft and cruise missiles.

Why should Britain specialise in this area? Given our objectives and much of our history, it makes sense. If we want to make a real contribution to international security in the new world order, a maritime contribution would be most welcome. Very large ships, able to launch aircraft, carry significant numbers of troops and rescue lots of people, fit in very well with our future security objectives. And they are good for jobs.

If the Strategic Defence Review were not underway, newspapers would, by now, be reporting the next big equipment decision - the replacement, or not, of Britain's three small aircraft carriers, the 20,000-ton Invincible class, the first of which was launched 20 years ago. The Navy would like to replace them with something bigger - maybe even 40,000 tons, like the Kearsarge - but not necessarily more expensive. The new commando carrier, HMS Ocean, has been built to "commercial standards", but that does not mean it is not robust. The ending of the "gold plating" traditionally applied to military equipment is likely to be an important factor in saving money on future systems.

If we took the bold decision to revert to a more maritime-based strategy, the Army would have to be further reduced. With imagination, I believe we could preserve the British Army's hard-won expertise in first-division warfare, perhaps by reducing the pounds 1bn-a-year armoured division (25,000 troops) in Germany to a brigade (5,000) through which units were continually passed, and the remaining equipment put in store. That way, the rest of the British Army could be restructured on a basis more suitable for Bosnia or Northern Ireland-type operations, or for rapid reaction overseas, without losing the genie kept in the bottle for use in the unlikely event of large-scale war.