Reports Security & defence

Tacking The Ship by Gwythian Prins

Written by Gwythian Prins

‘BRIEFINGS FOR BREXIT” SYMPOSIUM ESSAYS. Britain’s Global Strategy after Brexit
TACKING THE SHIP: British Defence and Security after Brexit – Part I.

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The Context: From the Congress of Vienna to the 2016 Referendum

Geo-politics prescribe Britain’s basic choice about its security relationship with the adjacent Continent. Will we, in adaptation of Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism, be ‘of’ the Continent or ‘with’ the Continent?  Shall we have ‘on-shore tethering’ or ‘off-shore balancing’? Since our victory in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, with one period of exception, we have opted for ‘off-shore balancing’ as recommended by Viscount Castlereagh in his great State Paper of 5 May 1820, whose advice was followed by Canning and indeed consistently across the British Century, through to Prime Minister Salisbury’s administrations, but ending with the Great War.  The strategic objective was never more plainly stated than by Churchill himself in The Gathering Storm, writing (when not painting) in his favourite Hotel Mamounia in Marrakesh in 1947 with the clarity that distance brings: “…to oppose the strongest, most aggressive, most domineering power on the Continent and in particular to prevent the Low Countries from falling into the hands of such a power… it has nothing to do with rulers or nations: it is concerned solely with whoever is the strongest or potentially dominating tyrant.”

The approach of the exceptional period could be espied from the dark valley of the inter-war years, during which appeasement was an understandably popular choice for a generation traumatised by the horror of the trenches, exhausted and grief-stricken by its loss of friends and relations.  But in those years, the old reflexes still prevailed. In particular the Royal Navy was big enough not to atrophy entirely and was then rebuilt in the later 1930s through the agency of the Defence Requirements Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence under Admiral Sir Ernle Chatfield’s firm hand (much less well remembered than Churchill’s voice, but equally essential for eventual victory[1]) and fought as a global force when war returned. Recent research on the RN’s eastern strategy underlines how indispensable the Navy’s successful holding of the Indian Ocean was to eventual victory overall. Just as Jutland shut down thoughts of German sea-borne invasion in the First World War and maintained a devastating blockade on the German economy, so during the darkest hours, RN success in blocking the Imperial Japanese Navy at its apogee kept open the main arteries to all theatres of operation – and notable North Africa – for men, matériel and especially for Persian oil.[2]  The Royal Navy also won and held control of the Mediterranean, won the Battle of the Atlantic with help from Bletchley Park and Ultra and was the main vehicle for D-Day.  In short, the foundation of victory was control of the seas.

But it was really after the Second World War that the deepening Cold War drew Britain into a predominantly continental commitment, when after the defeat of the Third Reich, the Anglosphere remained focussed on Europe, through NATO: to keep the “Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down” in the pithy statement of purpose by its first Secretary-General, Lord Ismay. That trend accelerated under very different motivation, much of it bitterly anti-American after the Suez debacle, with accession to the EEC in 1972 a prime consequence, and most especially after Prime Minister Blair’s poorly judged St Malo Treaty of 1998 which paved the way to the EU’s current threat to British defence and security, laid bare in Part 2.

The last forty years have been laced by three perverse trends in British defence and security policy and one eccentric thread.  The three trends have been first,  ever more complex entwining in European defence procurement; second, emphasis on  the British Army of the Rhine at the expense of the Royal Navy after withdrawal from east of Suez; and third, steadily declining funding of defence, both in absolute amount and relative to other uses of taxation. After the collapse of the USSR there was a revival of wider global ambition, signalled in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review; but it was derailed, and the moral case for humanitarian intervention by the West was compromised by the, in my view, unforgivable botching of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tacking The Ship

The shrinkage has been most damaging in effect since the Coalition’s 2010 Defence cuts. The House of Commons Defence Select Committee report on the 2% of GDP ‘target’ shows not only that it has not been met in reality, but that it is the culmination of a long term trend across this period of ‘onshore tethering’ by the Continental commitment.[3] Most defence specialists agree that the 2010 ‘Defence review’ cuts of key enablers reduced the fighting power of the UK by between a third and a half. No, that is not a mis-print. The reduction is 2/3 since 1997.

The eccentric thread is the one upon which our safety actually hangs today. It is the British engagement in the world-wide, informal but super deep ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance of the Anglosphere and our genuinely deep and special relationship with the USA through our shared geo-political goals and the intimate engagement and mutual rapport of our respective armed forces and Intelligence services.  These are vital force multipliers upon our attenuated and misshapen order of battle. It means that despite the self-inflicted injuries of the last four decades, Britain still remains Europe’s pre-eminent power across the spectrum from cyber to kinetic effect in defence. We are also Europe’s only global Intelligence power, despite grievous and continuing ‘politically correct’ self-harming to MI6 in recent times, diminishing it compared to the days of the Great Game in which it was truly formidable as recently as the turn of the 21st century.

And then came the momentous 2016 referendum decision. For Britain’s defence and security, Brexit is a point of fresh departure as important in our history as that marked by the Congress of Vienna, which prompted Castlereagh’s analysis. As the world’s second most geo-politically competent power, after the USA, according to a recent and innovative analysis by the Henry Jackson Society[4], it is plain that the safest course of action for British national security, that is also congruent with steps to advance the leading-edge globalised strengths in our economy in the early 21st century, is to revert to our historic norm of ‘offshore balancing’ in our relations with the Continent. Our American, Commonwealth and Anglosphere friends (including the Japanese as vital Pacific associates) await our return with enthusiasm: they have said so. The departing Australian High Commissioner, Alexander Downer, spoke for many in his now famous BBC interviews.

By our vote to take back control of our laws, our borders and our future into our own sovereign hands, the end of the forty-five year aberration of our subordination to an increasingly dysfunctional and autocratic EU is a moment for immense rejoicing and national pride, particularly as the EU is in the zone of risk of its own collapse, and certainly has been in decline since the turn of the century for lack of popular legitimation. (I have explained the dynamics of institutional collapse in general and in this particular case in a Report for ‘Briefings for Brexit’ in April.[5]) We are leaving the failing power and returning to the rising power in the nick of time.

What we should do

What then should happen to our defence and security establishment to align it with our needs? Four things:

  • First, to maintain, to do no further damage to and to repair the golden thread of our Anglosphere, wider Commonwealth and ‘Five Eyes’ alliances, upon which our security hangs today.
  • Second, to disentangle cleanly and consistently from the searching tentacles of the EU’s newly growing ambitions to develop a ‘Defence Union,’ as other limbs of its offering to its ever more disaffected subjects, notably the fatally flawed experiment of a single currency and the shattered ideal of open borders within the Schengen Zone, wither or crack.
  • Third, to bin the Levene reforms of 2010 intended to rectify defects in the MoD’s governance of defence but which have shown themselves to be a thoroughly bad idea and to have made things much worse by disempowering the ‘uniforms’ viz à viz the ‘suits’. Therefore, as constant gardeners ought, to conduct hard domestic pruning, root and branch, and reconstruction thereafter of the Ministry of Defence and especially digging out of the newly planted and inept national security apparatus, which has no place in our constitution, to make institutions fit for our future needs, which currently they most certainly are not.
  • Fourth, to fund adequately the rebuilding of our chronically atrophied order of battle to make it commensurate once more with our global standing and requirements.

As the FCO wrote correctly in its audit of national capability at the time of the Scottish Independence Referendum, we are indeed a ‘soft power superpower.’ But soft power is not autonomous. It is merely limp without credible hard power standing behind it. The USA has just demonstrated this by the remarkable recovery of its full spectrum of power since 2017 after – to the dismay of loyal allies like Japan – eight years of self-inflicted decline.

For Britain, the single most drastic course correction that this old new world requires is a rebalancing back towards British sea-power in all forms. By its unique nature, permitting poised, motionless and unspecified threats from sovereign assets off any coast in the world and domination and protection of the trade routes above and internet super-highways beneath the waves, sea-power is the peerless foundation for global influence today. As the great Foreign Secretary Lord Grey of Falloden once remarked, “The British Army is a projectile that is fired by the Royal Navy.” Updated to the age of cyber and information warfare, that simple truth has not changed as Admiral Blackham and I explained in 2010.[6]

But today’s Royal Navy is the palest shadow of its last global incarnation. It is below critical mass as a whole and lacking in many essential skills and trades. Too small in all dimensions, the Naval Staff is compelled to play a manic shell game with too few men and ships and too little money to cope with distorting internal demands from an unbalanced force mix of too few, too large or too expensive or too complicated or insufficiently armed major platforms. It will be a considerable challenge to stop the rot and then to re-generate. But it has been done several times before since 1588; and this, after all, is the Royal Navy – the world’s first.

Fortunately, HM Royal Marines have so far been less injured than Dark Blue parts of the Service, although they have currently lost brigade-strength amphibious landing capability which is the minimum safe level for national security requirements. The Corps is  – still, just –  the only organically coherent high readiness force in the whole British order of battle and is a world-class asset: from its 7,760 men are drawn almost half of all Special Forces recruits. There is a hot political battle, with many MPs much engaged, to prevent the indecently premature decommissioning of the first-rate and indispensable ALBION class specialist Amphibious Assault ships, made the more vital after the sudden and recent loss of the RN’s only large Helicopter Carrier, HMS OCEAN, just sold to Brazil, and the sale of one of four barely used Amphibious Support Ships, RFA LARGS BAY, to Australia, a victim of the 2010 defence cuts. Amphibious capability of a quality that currently only the US Marines also have – brigade level minimum – is a red line. It is our most usable force and therefore our most powerful conventional deterrent: it shows that we are serious about being a global power; and there are encouraging signs that the new Secretary of State is up for the fight to defend it.

As I explained recently and at length in a technical article for The Naval Review (which is the closed, professional journal of the naval service), the Corps is the RN’s primary weapons system. The best plans are always to be where the enemy is not; and the ability to have that choice is what amphibiosity gives. Responding to real-world circumstances, amphibiosity should be one of the Navy’s three primary missions. Amphibious warfare at scale is one of Britain’s three world-class military capabilities (the others being in its Special Forces and Mine Counter-Measures Vessels) and is the one which carrier strike – which is not a main but an ancillary mission – principally supports. On the Russian model, the costs of providing the nuclear deterrent ought to be removed from the naval budget (without it being reduced, of course), into a protected central national fund from which the RN is paid and contracted to provide this capability, permitting the naval budget to be spent on naval capabilities – which strictly speaking, the Continuous At Sea Deterrent is not.

The Defence Select Committee held a Special Inquiry into the threats to the Royal Marines; and hearteningly, its report published in February took very much the same stance that I do here.[7] The Government’s response was published on 15 May and is sadly mealy-mouthed: at a time of low trust in the management of defence, “there are currently no plans” is a typically casuistic form of words that can easily change and it is applied to the hot topic of the amphibious shipping (paras 13 -15). Generally the Government response kicks the issues of principle into the future for the next MoD internal defence review (Modernising Defence Programme) later this year. Predictably the Government response repeatedly points to the new heavy carriers as cover for capabilities which they are not optimised to provide. It plainly fails to understand the basic principles of sea-power (“Amphibious ships are one of the options available for the UK when deciding to globally deploy military force” – yes, but aeroplanes can’t stand still and need to land on someone else’s airfield.)[8] So I anticipate that Mr Williamson will have a fight with the civil servants who wrote this response if he intends to have his way.

We are fortunate to have the deep and special relationships in defence and security that really matter to us with ‘Five Eyes’ allies across the globe and in Europe and its close environs, formally, in NATO and through NATO. To this is to be added co-operation on a case-by-case basis on ‘Palmerstonian’[9] terms with our close European partner friends and nations who, at this time and in certain places include, for Palmerstonian reasons, our sweet enemy, France.

Therefore, in particular we should be aware of the tensions between the current French government and the French military which has already led to the de facto sacking of Général Pierre de Villiers, the hugely respected Chef d’état-Major des Armées (CEMA) in July 2017 in a clash with the surprising new ‘pop up’ President Macron. The French military have broad but shallow capabilities and are keen to ensure that the EU politicking of the Macron administration does not cut them off from state-to-state, pragmatic and for them indispensable operational support from British airlift, special forces and security services in particular, such as we have just quietly been providing for French-led operations against Islamists in Mali. It is a quid pro quo for the indispensable help which the French gave us in 2000 by use of their West African bases for staging and logistic support for our rescue of the people of Sierra-Leone: Blair’s one wholly successful and morally uncomplicated war. So we should not forget that we have allies on the Continent in powerful places and with credible – because self-interested – motivations upon which we may rely, even if they cannot speak up in public. Many in the French political elite view the prospect of the return to a power-struggle with Germany without British intermediation with foreboding. (It is another reason, by the way, for judging the EU ‘project’ to be well within the zone of risk of collapse.) Britain used to excel at these balance of power games; and with a renovated foreign service, in which scarce skills in foreign languages and profound knowledge of history and culture are once more properly valued above all else, can become so again. And there is more.

The Commonwealth has benefitted formatively and indispensably from the skilful leadership of Her Majesty the Queen. During her reign, the Commonwealth has become one of the most solidly grounded global alliances of shared interests. Her loyalty and efforts mean that the returning prodigal, Britain, has somewhere exceptional to come home to.  No-where else and in no other organisation does such a kaleidoscope of different nations from all hemispheres freely associate in so many ways. This is much more than is captured by the thin concept of ‘soft’ power. Commonwealth peoples share what anthropologists would call a ‘thick’ cultural narrative (including cricket).

Congress of Vienna

Global phone call routes by volume. (DHL Global Connectedness Index): Note the UK-India/Pakistan volume. UK ranks No 1 for breadth of total ‘inter-connectedness’. Singapore No 1 ‘all-round’ connectedness

Look, for example, at maps of the destination and volumes of email and telephone traffic from Britain. The ‘phone ties that bind’, (highlighting family to family contacts) which stand out are to and between the Anglosphere and its allies.

There is already intersection with ‘Five Eyes’ and if we are wise, we will give high priority to rapid renovation of our defence and security relationships with the Indian sub-continent. Without question for this monumental lifetime achievement Her Majesty is today’s pre-eminent candidate to receive the Nobel Peace prize.

Then there is the indispensable ‘Sixth Eye’ which usually we do not acknowledge. Israel is a small country bursting with innovation, with more start-up companies listed on the US NASDAQ index than the entire EU plus Canada and Australia combined.  As General Lord Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff, recently wrote[10], it would be good if, on the seventieth anniversary of its re-establishment,  we could find the courage to acknowledge just how deep our shared mutual interests and co-operation with the Middle East’s only true democracy are. Israel may be tiny in size, but it is a disproportionately global power in the new world of cyber war and defence and of secret intelligence. When the chips are down, as soon they may be, in our national security interest Britain with the USA (now along with dynamic Mohammed bin Salman’s rapidly reforming Saudi Arabia) is on Israel’s side against its enemies, just as Israel has long been on our side as the ‘window of the west’ in a troubled region.  While we might criticize the policies of some Israeli governments, as we do with those of other friendly countries, our support for its security and right to exist is unwavering. That is especially relevant now. As The High Level Military Group’s report on Hamas terror tactics, written by a former British commander in Afghanistan, explains in detail, we must be careful not to become unwitting accomplices of terrorists who are willing to sacrifice their own people to force the IDF to retaliate and thus be criticised.[11]

So in sum, after Brexit we need a major boost to UK defence engagement with the wider Commonwealth to complement those extant already in the Anglosphere. In Europe we need to focus on NATO plus non-NATO state cooperation but all uncontaminated by EU authority as I will explain in Part 2. Defence industry co-operation should be in an open market and state-to-state as it used to be. We need defence industrial freedom from EU rules, policies and structures. If European companies want to benefit from co-operating with us, then it’s up to them, not us, to devise ways to do so outside EU control. We should have Observer status only in the European Defence Agency to facilitate ad hoc equipment development projects. There must be stringent rejection of any and all EU defence directives that require EU-wide contract awards for defence procurement and no EDA benchmarks for cross-border development projects. This will avoid the current anomaly whereby Royal Fleet Auxiliary contracts cannot be placed in British ship-yards but must be competed under EU rules.

In no area of defence and security is the United Kingdom the supplicant party. It is time that our negotiators acted accordingly and took control of any such conversations as we may have with the EU between now and 11.00 pm on 29th March 2019. Meanwhile, our main effort should be focussed elsewhere, in building and strengthening our Five/Six Eyes, Anglosphere and wider Commonwealth defence relationships, NATO and ‘Palmerstonian’ case-by-case, state-to-state links, such as that with France.

After Brexit, once again it will be time for Britain to resume its historic posture towards the Continent: ready to rescue, when the latest, current experiment of European federation collapses.  That role was eloquently explained by Castlereagh in 1820 and reiterated by Eyre Crowe in his 1907 Memorandum where he wrote that, “more than any other non-insular Power, [Britain] has a direct and positive interest in the maintenance of the independence of nations.” This, he observed, was best achieved by a balance of power. Britain, “therefore must be the natural enemy of any country threatening the independence of others, and the natural protector of the weaker communities”.

However, in order to do the things that we need to do, we must first of all stop doing the things which we are currently doing that we ought not to be doing, which impede doing what we ought to be doing. That is only common sense.

In the second essay of this pair, I will look downwards to examine much darker and more troubling matters. I will explain in detail the ambushes and traps that the EU has set for us in the fundamental areas of defence and security as we seek to leave it; for on the face of the evidence that I will set out, the shaky but defiant Brussels nomenklatura has no intention of giving a friendly exit to this departing member. It sees its own best interests served by doing us harm. I will also publish evidence on the conduct of British civil servants who are supposed to be delivering the decision of the British people to leave the EU and which shows how they are making it extraordinarily difficult for us to do this cleanly.

In this first essay, I have looked up to the mountains, whence cometh our help, and outwards to a world where our true – because tested – friends await our return to assume our proper role as one of the most significant pivots of the defence and security of the west. My intention has been to provide the facts which blow away the myth of decline which has oppressed the minds of the British elite for half a century and which clouds their vision still, too much feeding the ‘remainiac’ disloyalty which I discussed in my April Report and which is the subject of special attention in a series of analyses being released by ‘Briefings for Brexit’

In doing this work, I have found Churchill to be right on something else too: distance does lend perspective and Morocco is a splendid place in which to find it. So I have contemplated and completed these essays in the High Atlas Mountains.

L’audace, toujours l’audace!

Kasbah du Toubkal                                                                                            15 May 2018




Professor Gwythian Prins is Emeritus Research Professor at the LSE and Senior Academic Visiting Fellow at L’école Spéciale Militaire de St Cyr. He was Visiting Senior Fellow in the Defence Evaluation & Research Agency of the UK MoD and on the Chief of the Defence Staff’s Strategy Advisory Panel. He was a Fellow of Emmanuel College and taught history and politics at Cambridge for over twenty years and is the Academic Board Member of Veterans for Britain.




[1] G.Prins, The British Way of Strategy-Making: Vital Lessons for Our Times, 2011,           

[2] A. Boyd, The Royal Navy in Eastern Waters: Linchpin of Victory, 1935-1942, 2017

[3] Defence Committee, Shifting the goalposts? Defence expenditure and the 2% pledge, Second Report of Session 2015–16, HC 494, 12 April 2016, Graph at Annex 2, p39



[6] J.J.Blackham & G.Prins, “Why Things Don’t Happen: Silent Principles of National Security”. RUSI Journal, 155 (4), 2010, pp. 14-22.

[7] House of Commons Defence Committee, Sunset for the Royal Marines? The Royal Marines and UK amphibious capability. Third Report of Session, 2017– 19, HC 622 4 February 2018

[8] House of Commons Defence Committee, Sunset for the Royal Marines? The Royal Marines and UK amphibious capability: Government Response to the Committee’s Third Report, Sixth Special Report of Session 2017–19, HC 1044, 15 May 2018

[9] In Lord Palmerston’s own words, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow (emphasis added)…. And if I might be allowed to express in one sentence the principle which I think ought to guide an English Minister, I would adopt the expression of Canning, and say that with every British Minister the interests of England ought to be the shibboleth of his policy.” In the Debate on the Treaty of Adrianople, HC Deb 01 March 1848, Hansard, vol 97 col 123


[11] Col R. Kemp, Smoke & Mirrors: Six Weeks Of Violence on The Gaza Border, HLMG, May 2018

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Gwythian Prins