This was written for the Naval Review in 1995 by Captain Richard Sharpe OBE when he was the editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships. It speaks to the ongoing debate about the military’s freedom to communicate, sparked yesterday (21 Apr 20) by the reissue of the MOD’s guidance on “Contact with the Media and Communicating in Public”.
The habits of Dartmouth training die hard, and I found myself instinctively applauding Admiral Essenhigh’s [then Hydrographer to the Navy and went on to be First Sea Lord] riposte (As It Really Is Now – NR, Oct. ’94) to my dreary recitation of Orbat facts and new construction projections (As It Is Now – NR, July ’94).
Comment is free, facts are sacred. If Essenhigh is right, then the Commons Defence Committee is wrong. The former comments that the Navy is being fine-tuned to match the new challenges we face. The latter, in its Eighth Report published in September 1993, took evidence on the existing and projected numbers of operational ships and concluded: ‘In the event of war, the Royal Navy would be incapable of defending our sea routes on which we depend for our trade and the movement of Armed Forces. It is our view that this shortcoming poses a potentially fatal threat to the long-term security of this country’.
The Defence Committee’s judgement looks sound to me, but the issue here is that those who make decisions on defence expenditure are recognised by the Navy as being accountable to public opinion, and not just to the worthy labourers in the Ministry of Defence, a few of whom may sometimes be inclined to believe that their carefully crafted and detailed submissions form the only basis for government decisions. If you need to be disabused of this natural conceit, read Alan Clark’s diaries.
A point made many times in the NR is that the public’s knowledge of defence, and particularly of the sea services, is now far shallower than even 30 years ago, when a lot of people in every part of society had first-hand experience of either war at sea, or at least of national service in the Navy. Dealing, as I do almost daily with brilliant young, and some not so-young, researchers and reporters for the media and other opinion formers, you have to keep your sound bites very simple because most have no feel for what you are talking about. In these circumstances, an answer taken from the otherwise admirable Naval Staff Back Pocket Briefs is like presenting differential calculus to a primary school classroom. Even an experienced and well known television news producer was recently astonished by a day in a warship, which he said was quite unlike anything he had ever encountered before. ‘Why’, he asked, ‘were the purposes and workings of this remarkable institution kept secret from people like himself?’ This is not a criticism of DP(RN) [forerunner of RN Media and Comms and predates the centralisation to DDC] who is not a free agent and, although working in a culture which is institutionally secretive, does his best with a tiny staff to bring the Navy to the public’s attention. But why, in the days when Britannia ruled the waves, as the US Navy does now, did we never think to create a Navy League, as they have, with its own outspoken and freely available monthly magazine, and an organisation in Washington and every other state dedicated to never letting the American people forget the nation’s dependence upon the sea? Answers on a postcard to be sent to the Hydrographer of the Navy.
The issue of exposure to the media needs labouring because in the present defence climate, when the public perceives no military threat to these islands, the fight to turn even an ‘invitation to tender’ into effective warships needs more than the passive acceptance that the skilled internal management of decline is the only option available. Even brand new ships are now vulnerable. The four ‘Upholders’ lying alongside in Barrow set a precedent which we may regret. OTH, in his article ‘Who Will Speak For The Navy?’, puts the same question with greater clarity. The LTC is necessarily the top line to the Central Staff, but it certainly is not to those of us working outside Whitehall. It can be argued that the example set by Mike Graydon, the Chief of the Air Staff, with his outburst last year, achieved nothing because he was immediately forced to withdraw his public criticism of what was happening to his service. This is just another way of making the same point, which is that there is a defined limit to what you can achieve from inside a controlled. bureaucracy.
If you believe we need a strong Navy, it is a grave mistake to express public satisfaction with where we are now, particularly if you can be quoted as an authority. The Treasury is listening, and you may also discourage your less robust friends who want to help. This country can afford to spend more on defence, and if we wish to retain both the international influence and the expertise that our senior Ministers are always boasting about, we had better reverse the current decline in new ship orders, and soon. The era of explicit western dependence on the US Navy is drawing to a close, but is not yet over. Advocates of a Eurofleet, while earning good conduct points in some parts of Whitehall, are in danger of selling what is left of military reality for an excuse to cut even further into national capabilities. The effective use of military force requires a close connection with a credible political process.