By James Rogers
The latest Channel 5 documentary – “Warship” – is an interesting foray into life on a Royal Navy destroyer, in this case HMS Duncan. This vessel, commissioned in 2013, is an impressive symbol of British naval power and maritime design. Its advanced radar, covering a large area around the vessel, can track up to 1000 objects the size of a golf ball travelling at 2-3 times the speed of sound. Its main armament – the phenomenal “Sea Viper” missile system – can engage several of those potential targets simultaneously, providing a defensive blister to encase an entire naval fleet. The Type 45 destroyer is perhaps the most advanced vessel of its kind in the world.
In the last episode of “Warship”, HMS Duncan cruised through the Bosporus and Dardanelles into the Black Sea, before moving on to within 30 miles of Crimea – illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. Shortly after arrival, numerous Russian fighter-jets took off to “buzz” over the vessel, sometimes to within 200 metres. So hazardous was their behaviour that HMS Duncan’s communications officer had to send signals warning the Russians not to come too close to the vessel’s powerful radar system, to avoid scrambling their own electronics systems. Russia certainly disliked the British naval presence, which flies in the face of Moscow’s seemingly growing notion that the Black Sea should become something of a Russian lake.
In the Black Sea, the Royal Navy found itself in a hostile environment. It found itself in another hostile environment in late August, when HMS Albion – an amphibious assault ship – sailed through the Paracel archipelago in the South China Sea to counter and deny the illegal establishment of so-called “straight baselines” by China. The People’s Liberation Army Navy sent out a warship and jet fighters in an attempt to shoo the British warship away.
As the world’s authoritarian powers attempt to contest freedom of navigation through strategies of “anti-access” and the “continentalisation” of the sea (as the naval historian, Andrew Lambert, calls it), the Royal Navy will be needed more than ever. To no small extent, ready access to the sea and freedom of navigation is one of the fundamental elements of the rules based system on which the existence of free societies depends. Autocrats cannot be allowed to shut the ocean off or to assert special privileges over areas of sea close to their territories.
The United Kingdom certainly has sophisticated warships. The question is: does it have enough of them? Like no time since the cold war, Britain needs a larger naval fleet. Having vessels like HMS Duncan is good. Having more advanced warships is better. The motto of the Royal Navy is “Si vis pacem, para bellum”. It is important that we remember it.