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Two Serious Strategic Mistakes

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Written by Gwythian Prins

The geo-strategic blunders of the ‘tanker crisis’ show that the PM must comprehensively and urgently change the security team.

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Adroitly navigating the treacherous tide races of the ‘Today’ programme, Dominic Raab, the new Foreign Secretary, was plumb on course in his statement on 29th July that the detention of the two tankers GRACE 1 and STENA IMPERO at the centre of the current developing Iran crisis are entirely incommensurate cases. He was correct also to dismiss out of hand the Iranian proposal of a swap.

The detention off Gibraltar on behalf of the Royal Gibraltar Police by Royal Marines of GRACE 1 with Iranian oil for Syria was perfectly legal and indeed required under the Syria sanctions regime. The forced diversion by a swarm of Iranian Revolutionary Guards fast attack boats of Red Duster flagged STENA IMPERO exercising transit passage of the Straits of Hormuz under UNCLOS (The Law of the Sea), which allows ships and aircraft of all nations (including warships and submerged submarines) freedom of navigation “for the purpose of continuous and expeditious transit including throughout the entire strait” (not just that area overlapped by contiguous states’ territorial waters) was the opposite: legally an act of war. But in what he said next, Mr Raab sailed into treacherous waters.

It appears that he has been as badly advised as his predecessor in calling for some sort of European naval task force (which currently we do not have, nor will for a long time) to bolster our humiliatingly feeble presence in the Gulf. The only difference from Jeremy Hunt’s policy is that Mr Raab hopes for American participation in such an hypothetical force, never mind that the hope is futile. He. like Hunt, spoke of enlisting “our European friends and allies”.

Be quite clear: in this matter they are not. The central raison d’être of the accelerating drive towards an EU Defence Union, which, following the Brexit decision, took off on after-burners in November 2016 and is championed by Ms van der Leyen and the hard federalists now in the ascendant in the EU Institutions, is precisely to exclude and to challenge the USA and to fracture the Anglosphere alliances that keep the free world free. Indeed, in his Armistice Day interview at Verdun, President Macron was explicit in identifying the USA as one of the EU’s potential future enemies.

As the entire EU ‘project’ lists and founders, holed by the Euro and sinking from widespread lack of popular legitimation, the hard federalists are doubling down in this very area in their ‘one last push’ strategy to try to save their leaky craft, their quasi-religious faith, their perks and their jobs. These are not the words of “friends and allies”. Global Britain is currently on the wrong side over Iran. Course correction starts with recognition that the USA is right to have up-ended the Obama era approach and the EU’s FCO-led policy. Anyone looking for a good psychological and military model of how to deal with Iranian adventurism would do well to study the IDF’s relatively new and successful ‘mabam’ (campaign between the wars) strategy and specifically operations House of Cards and New Card which degraded Iranian proxy capabilities in Syria. Israel studies its enemy intently and so should we in meeting the particular challenge from the IRGC’s elite Quds Force. It has become the regional expert at taking its opponents to the very brink of open warfare whilst protesting that the provocation comes from the other party. The West requires a strategy beyond sanctions to restrain the activities of the Quds Force and to raise the cost of Iran’s systemic destabilisation of the Middle East. The Israeli model works. We should emulate it.

Amidst all the domestic excitement of finally acquiring a government that believes in Brexit and a Prime Minister who has galvanised the country with his bravura debut in the Addled Parliament, it must not be forgotten that in the dying days of her tenure, Mrs May committed as big a strategic error as we have seen in a generation and that Jeremy Hunt compounded that error.

It began with a monumental blunder by the former Prime Minister. Just as the decision to decommission the Ice Patrol Ship HMS ENDURANCE in 1982 coming on top of the infamous Nott Review of 1981 which would have gutted the Navy, was interpreted by the Argentinian Junta as an invitation to probe further British resolve in the South Atlantic, it was seriously reckless to authorise the detention of GRACE 1 without simultaneously ordering adequate deployments pre-emptively to the Straits of Hormuz to convoy British tankers through one of the most consistently inflamed of Admiral Jacky Fisher’s nine ‘choke-points’ which, in his words, are the keys that lock up the globe. Those ‘choke points’ are a geo-political fact as true now as at the beginning of the last century.

The naval specification of adequacy does not change either. During the late 1980’s ‘tanker war’, an unsuccessful attack on a Shell tanker by an Iranian frigate firing five (Italian) Surface to Surface missiles, all of which missed or malfunctioned, was witnessed by HMS ANDROMEDA (a Leander class frigate). The following day the Commander in Chief Fleet (Jeremy Hunt’s father) called on the Chief of the Defence Staff (Admiral Fieldhouse). Rules of Engagement were rewritten and the Armilla Patrol was immediately increased to three Destroyers and Frigates and a Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker at which force level it remained until the end of the Iran/Iraq War.

But for this to be possible, along with the other standing tasks that Fisher’s choke points prescribe, that in turn requires a minimum blue water surface fleet of 32 destroyers and frigates, plus RFA support. That was the goal set in the last strategically literate defence review which was Secretary of Defence George Robertson’s and Chief of the Defence Staff Charles Guthrie’s, of July 1998.  In a letter of 2 July to Dr Julian Lewis the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee,  now made public, Candidate Johnson pledged to increase the defence budget by at least 0.5% per annum over the NATO floor of 2% of GDP.

This will give sufficient headroom to embark at once on rebuilding the surface fleet and re-recruiting the Navy as a top defence priority. The same point has just been made in an unprecedented letter from seven former First Sea Lords, published since this article was completed.  The convoluted and unproductive stop/start story of the Type 31 General Purpose Frigate design competition for the successor to the elderly Type 23 (like HMS MONTROSE) which, for political reasons mainly, has been on and off since 2010, needs to be gripped fast and hard by the new MoD team. Almost a decade ago I first argued in the professional literature jointly with Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, who created the Equipment Capability directorate in the MoD, that if our defence contractors cannot come up with good designs quickly then why not buy licences from close allies, like the Dutch or the Danes, who can?

But for now, as all the world knows, all that could be done was to send just one frigate. Poor HMS MONTROSE (sans RFA) has heroically scurried around; but, in the event, closing at flank speed, she was just too late to deter the taking of the STENA IMPERO. She has been reinforced and now replaced far too late by a single new Type 42 destroyer HMS DUNCAN with her dodgy propulsion systems. It doesn’t matter how wonderful the radars are. One ship can only be in one place at one time. This sort of constabulary role requires hulls in the water. Many hulls. The Iranians have opted for ‘swarm’ operations with 1,500 fast attack boats. It was a shrewd choice for them to have made. We need to deploy more than the firepower of a single vessel, however capable and accurate.

The Americans have substantial naval forces in place in or near the Straits and they offered Mrs May help. She declined it. Why? Some reports say out of pique at a President who had made no secret of his contempt for her all-round inadequacy in the office which accidentally she held. The Alan Duncan FCO (as it still was then) would reflexively opt for anything that would keep the UK engaged with – and under – the EU. And my goodness, participation in such an enterprise under the Global Strategy of the EC Common Foreign & Security Policy (CFSP) really does that. So this episode has a strong Brexit dimension too.

As Sir Richard Dearlove, Field Marshal the Lord Guthrie and I have explained, the ramified web of acronymic institutions that compose EU Defence Union is so designed as to legally entwine parties in such a way that to engage with any one element brings us under the command authority of the EU Global Strategy. Everything is connected to everything else. So anyone advising the UK to embark on this course is either ignorant of how dangerous the defence and security initiatives of the EU currently are, and of how they are indissolubly part of the toxic tar-baby of May’s Treaty of colonial subjugation (named a ‘withdrawal’ agreement with Orwellian irony); or they understand it well and are content to produce that effect and the associated fracturing of Five Eyes and the core UK-US defence and security relationships. As earlier noted, that is explicitly the EU federalist intention. The former Security Minister in the May era, Ben Wallace, informed the three of us that we were wrong. We were not and are not. Now Mr Johnson’s Defence Secretary, we shall be seeking an early meeting to straighten things out.

How then could Raab be as poorly advised as Hunt?  How too could May have been allowed to refuse American aid at a moment when our supreme national interests required it? The common factor across all these decisions is the current National Security advice. The buck stops there and it has no valid excuses for the serial failures that were made.

If the detention of GRACE 1 without the other essential steps mentioned above and also May’s decision to refuse US assistance were approved and allowed, then the security advice to both Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister was negligent and therefore culpable. If the dangers of which Sir Richard, Lord Guthrie and I have warned were known and properly understood, yet Hunt was allowed to touch the EU’s toxic tar-baby, the “Defence Union”, then the security advice was culpable. If these dangers were not properly understood then the security advice was negligent and therefore also culpable. On this record, there needs to be urgent root and branch change with properly competed and qualified personnel brought into post; and if the new PM is wise, he should end Cameron’s unsuccessful experiment with a ‘National Security Council’ at the same time, abolishing the associated civil service posts. It is an American import that fits ill with our constitutional ways of government. Manifestly results show that it is not working.

In an earlier, more principled era, Lord Carrington was not personally responsible for the failures of his department that contributed to the invasion of the Falkland Islands. But he took personal responsibility and resigned nonetheless. Civil servants serve – the clue is in the job title – and when they do not come up to scratch and allow their Principals to drift into harm’s way, as has just happened, then off they should go.

Happily the Johnson Government is returning to proper Cabinet government. The new Cabinet committees stood up to deliver the FTA with the EU (or, if it refuses as it probably will, to take the country out regardless) should be joined by a reinstituted Defence and Overseas Policy Committee (DOPC) reformed by perhaps making the CDS a full member and requiring the COS to attend when matters primarily involving their Service are under discussion and supported by advice from a modern form of well-tested and successful British ways of strategy-making.[3]  At the same time the Chiefs of Staff should be unshackled from the Levene ‘reforms’ of the MoD, which should be cancelled, to resume strategic leadership of their services, not merely to be ‘budget-holders’; and the Chief of the Defence Staff should become once more primus inter pares and not a politicised appointment and glorified shop steward. (In another part of repairing this battered Ministry, from his welcome new post, Johnny Mercer should press for the restoration of Queen’s Regulations.)

In the short term, Raab, Wallace, the Chancellor and PM should terminate forthwith any discussions of or with a European naval initiative (which has not yet occurred). Instead they should invite and allow the RN and the USN to form the nucleus of the necessary Anglo-American frigate force (which has happened since this article was drafted), perhaps with Commonwealth and Japanese navy units (which has not happened yet) and with the USS BOXER amphibious ready group (USS BOXER is a large amphibious assault ship named after HMS BOXER captured from the RN in the War of 1812) and the USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN carrier strike group (which includes full air wings, an Anti-Aircraft cruiser, five or six destroyers and nuclear hunter-killer submarines) both of which are currently on station, at its back. They – the ‘Five Eyes’ navies – can act as one reflexively. Such a determined show of truly allied naval power would give the Iranians cause to think again.

As it makes clear by its actions that Great Britain has chosen once more the open seas over an increasingly unhappy continental commitment, the Johnson government should also, in the next few days, pull the UK out of all the engagements made with the burgeoning EU Defence Union and, most particularly, the clutch of dangerous agreements made without Parliamentary vote or scrutiny by Sir Alan Duncan at the European Council meeting of 19th November 2018. Much as the FCO will hate it, the UK should of course side with the USA and Israel in facing down the ayatollahs. Why do all these things? It was never better explained than by the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Henry Leach on the evening of 31 March 1982.

Having read intelligence reports pointing to an Argentine invasion of the Falklands in the early hours of 2 April and having read Defence Secretary Sir John Nott’s equivocating refusal to authorise the dispatch of more than a couple of SSN’s, Sir Henry asked himself, “what the hell was the point of having a Navy if it was not used for this sort of thing?” He donned full dress uniform and went to the Commons to find Nott. Asked by the Prime Minister if the Falklands could really be recaptured if invaded, Leach famously replied, “we could and in my judgement (though it is not my business to say so) we should. The reason: because if we do not, or if we pussyfoot in our actions and do not achieve complete success, in another few months we shall be living in a different country whose word counts for little.” Mrs Thatcher trusted the Navy and the rest is history.

We stand now at the next inflection point of similar portent and we are currently put at grave risk by systemically bad security advice.

The Prime Minister has just shown intelligent precision and vigour in reconstructing his Cabinet. Similar focus and energy must now be applied, urgently, to changing the civil service guard in the national security area some of which is, in any case, inappropriately too closely associated with the May era. We should stand with our tried and trusted allies and clear the decks for action.  By showing resolve with such deeds, of course we reduce the likelihood of war. Si vis pacem, para bellum is a principle as enduring as the geography of the globe and the flows of ocean trade that together prescribe the Fisher choke-points that Global Britain’s Senior Service must once more be able to police properly.

[1] Brig Gen Michael Herzog (former Head, IDF Strategic Planning Division), “Iran across the border: Israel’s pushback in Syria,” Policy Note 66, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, July 2019.


[2] J. Blackham & G. Prins, “Why Things Don’t Happen: Silent Principles of National Security” The RUSI Journal August/September 2010, Vol 155 No 4, pp. 14–22

[3] All spelled out in G.Prins, The British Way of Strategy-Making: Vital lessons for our Times, RUSI/HRI Buckingham Occasional Paper, 2011;jsessionid=EF748A73907376B201926CFF78DF86C4?doi=


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Gwythian Prins