Christian Bueger

The Royal Navy’s Quest for Seapower in the 21st Century – A conference visit

The First Sea Lord’s Seapower Conference is the Royal Navy’s annual flagship event, and I had the pleasure to attend and speak at this years iteration.

The 2024 edition was titled “Future navy: Maritime in the 2040s” and the debate firmly focused on the question of what mid-term challenges the Royal Navy faces and through what posture it could address them.

The event was co-organized with the Council on Geostrategy. The Council, founded in 2001, is a relatively young think tanks — if compared to the traditional British intellectual power houses, such as RUSI or Chatham House. The Council’s mission is “to strengthen Britain and re-assert [its] leadership” and it wants to “promote robust ideas” to boost the countries “discursive, diplomatic and military power”.

Where to look to find a global role?

This mission was directly reflected in the event, as the debates concentrated on the UK’s continued search for its post-Brexit role in the world and how to enhance its status as a sea power with a medium sized navy.

The sea power events of other international navies are often outward looking and tend to be seen as opportunities for naval diplomacy and the advancement of soft sea power. In contrast, the 1st Sea Lord’s event was inward looking. It focused on the question of what kind of navy the UK needs, rather than what maritime security problems it could address with others.

Three keynote speeches by the Secretary General of the International Maritime Organization, the UK’s minister of defense and the minister of state for Indo-Pacific were given and seven panels explored the question of how to enhance the UK’s naval power.

Each of the panels was composed of one representative from military, one from academia, and one from the defense industry, with the majority of speakers based in the UK (with 9 of the 34 speakers and panelists from abroad). Navies that were represented at high level, included Denmark, France, Japan and the United States.

Doomsday thinking and club structures

The predominant narrative at the event was one of emergency – sometimes bordering on doomsday thinking. Participants argued that the UK finds itself in a pre-war situation where major escalation is immanent, even making historical comparisons to 1940. Moreover, panelists suggested that the country finds itself in a naval ‘arms race’ in which major investments in high end naval capabilities are needed.

It became, moreover, visible how much the UK thinks its security relations not in multi-lateral terms, but in club structures, where the preferred term is ‘partnership’ not institution or alliance. Indeed, bilateral or mini-lateral relations were suggested as the backbone of the UK’s naval strategy and the importance of the relations to Australia, Denmark, France, Norway, Japan and the United States frequently stressed, with NATO being an additional reference point.

The proto-type for such club thinking continues to be the AUKUS partnership between Australia, the UK and the US and its ambition for developing nuclear submarines and automated vessels which was widely seen as the key corner stone of the UK’s naval strategy. Japan was welcomed into this club as a contributor recently.

At the event, Europe and the European Union were the elephant in the room. None of the participants addressed or even mentioned the question of how the country aims to relate itself to the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the Union and how security could be achieved together.

Panel on critical maritime infrastructure

Maritime infrastructures on the agenda

Panel 2, the one I was presenting in, focused on “securing critical maritime infrastructure”. The panel documented that infrastructures are now seen as a security priority with frequent emphasis to subsea data cables and wind farms made also in the other panels.

Yet, the same time, navelists have not quite woken up to how profound the expansion of maritime infrastructures challenges naval strategy and requires a rethink in terms of new rules, new institutions and reconsiderations of what military organizations can actually contribute to the protection of critical infrastructure, and what not.

Indeed, any meaningful understanding of a rules-based order does not only mean to follow rules, but also commitment to develop new rules that allow to address problems collectively. This, however, implies a multi-lateral mindset.

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