The point of no return
Britain’s world role and influence has owed much to its importance as a strong maritime nation, with a powerful Royal Navy complemented by stong Merchant and fishing fleets and a substantial shipbuilding capacity with associated skills. Much of that has now gone.
The Royal Navy has been cut to shreds, both in terms of ships and men; the decline in the Merchant Navy since 1960 – in fleet numbers, tonnage and associated manpower – has been cataclysmic; the fishing fleet has been decimated and Britain, once the world’s leading shipbuilding nation, has little capacity remaining. In February 2012 when the UK Defence Minister, Peter Luff, placed an order for four new replenishment tankers for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (a contract worth circa £452 million), the order went not to a British shipyard, but to Korea (see Sea Breezes, May 2012). Korea, Japan and China now dominate world merchant shipbuilding and all are situated in a region of present uncertain political stability. It should be understood that naval power and the ability of an island nation to continue to trade goods, receive supplies and function in times of peril is reliant on powerful and professional Royal and Merchant Navies, but just as importantly on a pool of skilled seafarers to draw from in times of need.
Both the Royal and Merchant Navies are now at dangerously low levels in terms of fleet size, but equally concerning is that Britain, an island maritime nation is in danger of having a shortage of skilled seafarers. This situation is being exacerbated as shipowners seek to reduce costs by replacing British seafarers with cheaper crews from elsewhere - this in some cases even on ferry routes around the British coast. This may well make financial sense for the shipowners, but is it in the long term national interest?
In America with its powerful US Navy, the penny is beginning to drop – a stong US Navy must be complemented by a strong mercantile marine manned by seafarers who will still be available in times of national emergency. In Britain, successive governments have led us into a very dangerous situation, where naval power, provided by the combination of Royal and Merchant Navies, has been significantly weakened, perhaps already beyond the point of no return?
HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR