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Announcement of Placing Royal Navy on Standby Very Poorly Handled By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.



We used to be a nation that many other countries around the world looked up to when it came to our skills in diplomacy but that is no longer the case! These days when it comes to placing announcements in the public domain the government has a tendency of shooting itself in the foot.

I am not sure that  I do my level best to support government in relation to matters relating to UK defence strategy and policy when it is right to so do and, in the event of a post Brexit trade deal failing to emerge by December 31st , potentially placing four Royal Navy ‘River Class’ Offshore Patrol Vessels on standby in order to challenge European Union registered trawlers and fishing vessels encroaching British waters would ordinarily for me be on the list of acceptable measures to envisage.

However, although I am bound to regret things possibly coming to this, I am not arguing against such a policy if a no-deal situation emerges. My real gripe is in the manner of how the policy intention was announced as a direct threat, the result of which led to ridiculous and damaging newspaper headlines and some very poor media reporting. Heaven only knows what the public at large felt about all this if by what followed left even myself scratching my head with dismay wondering whether I might have missing a point about the ridiculous stance taken by HMG and that not surprisingly was soon being tagged by many as gunboat diplomacy.

Somewhat to my rescue, House of Commons Defence Select Committee Chair Tobias Ellwood came to my rescue on Saturday calling the ‘threat’ made by the UK Government as “irresponsible” following the MOD having said that four ships (OPV’s) were ready for “robust enforcement” when the transition period ends and was prepared for a range of scenarios.

It was all as if no-one appeared to know already that Royal Navy vessels are already deployed to enforce UK and European fishing laws for large parts of the year. In the interview Mr. Ellwood added “This isn’t Elizabethan times any more, this is global Britain – we need to be raising the bar much higher than this”.

With 80,000 square nautical miles of sea and 24,000 UK workers that depend on the UK fishing industry to protect the UK has taken fishery protection very seriously for as long as anyone can remember. The UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which extends to 200 miles for the coast is the fifth-largest in the world. The EEZ is the internationally agreed area in which the UK can use its resources from the sea and sea bed including fishing.

The Royal Navy takes great pride in doing this work and the Overseas Patrol Squadron is the oldest front-line squadron in the Royal Navy. With a small headquarters staff based at Portsmouth Naval Base, the OPS is made up of four River-class offshore patrol vessels and one helicopter. The Royal Navy may be stretched and patrolling 80,000 square miles of sea, upholding international law, treaties and agreements and protecting the UK’s precious fishing rights is no small order but they have an excellent record of success.

Designed for the very purpose of carrying out a range of economic exclusion zone management tasks that also include maritime security, border control, routine patrolling, disaster relief and constabulary such as counter-terrorism, anti-smuggling, it is worth noting too that the River class vessels in service with the Royal Navy which were built in two batches from 2001 with the last of the five Batch 2 OPV’s, HMS Spey having only sailed from BAE Systems Govan yard in Glasgow shipyard six weeks ago to her home base in Portsmouth.

For the record, Batch 2 River Class OPV’s are larger that the Batch 1 vessels and are fitted with the Kelvin Hughes Sharp Eye integrated radar systems for navigation, Term SCantar 2D radar for air to surface surveillance and the BAE Systems CMS-1 Combat Management System and Shared infrastructure operating system. They are fitted with Bushmaster 30 mm cannon, two Miniguns and two General purpose machine guns.  

The Royal Navy Overseas Patrol Squadron also has a secondary role conducting inspections of all fishing vessels sailing in UK waters and acting as an arbitrator between rival vessels when disputes arise. The versatile River Class Offshore Patrol Vessels can also be used in maritime counter-terrorism, counter-drug surveillance, and pollution control.

Clearly, with the EU apparently responsible for 60% of the catch of fish in UK waters this was bound to be one of the most awkward issues to handle in the trade negotiations. I understand the issue and the problem completely but the use of some very poor language by HMG whilst ‘negotiations’ to agree a deal was in my view, very unwise.

As it was and not surprisingly, out came all those withering memories of the two decades of regular altercations that occurred between Britain and Iceland back in the very early 1970’s when Britain attempted to defend fishing rights in the North Atlantic – a battle that I seem to remember that despite the so-called gunboat diplomacy tactics used, Britain failed to win.

I don’t know what has happened to Government PR but it doesn’t appear to be getting any better. I wonder too whether the Government’s National Security Advisor David Frost who doubles up as Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator was even consulted or indeed, was the Foreign Office even consulted?

Anyway, my message to HMG particularly on issues of potential national security is simple – Put the diplomatic brain into gear and think of the potential damage that could be caused before allowing policy to be let loose! Indeed, I would add, stop deciding policy on the hoof!

CHW (London – 14th December 2020)            

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