Hormuz Strait tensions highlight naval capability challenges
Political pressure for a maritime-security response in the Strait of Hormuz is fueling debate in the United Kingdom over the size of the Royal Navy. This has shed light on the difficulty of responding to naval shortfalls and re-growing capabilities in the short term, Nick Childs explains.
On 12 August, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Kent deployed at short notice from Portsmouth naval base as the latest part of the United Kingdom’s effort, amid tensions with Iran, to up its presence in and around the Strait of Hormuz. Those tensions and the naval response are fueling debate in the UK over whether or not the Royal Navy is too small, and whether there is any short-term solution.
The difficulties both the UK and the United States have experienced in mobilising an international response to the maritime security concerns around the Strait have also shone a light on the broader naval capability challenges faced by many of the potential participants.
Declining fleet sizes
In some ways, these recent events have shown that the Royal Navy remains agile and responsive, even with its limited resources, and retains a global deployment capability. Nevertheless, the IISS Military Balance shows that during the tanker war in the late 1980s, the Royal Navy was able to call on a force of 49 destroyers and frigates. That number now stands at 19. Other Western navies have seen similar declines, while over the same period the asymmetric and other capabilities that Iran can bring to bear at sea in the Gulf have become significantly more comprehensive and challenging.
The latest debate in the UK over the size of the Royal Navy has provided the most recent example of how difficult it is to respond to naval shortfalls and re-grow capabilities in the short term. This is particularly true for medium-sized powers like the UK, where the critical mass not just of the defence establishment but also the industrial base has been reduced.
Even if more funding were rapidly made available, there are not necessarily any quick or easy answers. In the Royal Navy’s case, a number of vessels have been laid up recently and are potentially available, but bringing them back into service would come up against the hurdle of finding sufficient trained personnel to crew them. Buying second-hand platforms, if suitable and available, would run up against the same problem.
In the past, a classic way of generating increased force levels quickly was simply to hold on to older vessels as new ones came into service. But that requires a steady drumbeat of ship manufacture, as well as the reserves of supporting services to crew and sustain an increased number of platforms. The hiatus in the UK’s surface-combatant orders means that the earliest a new platform is likely to be available is 2023, while most of the navy’s existing hulls will be or are already well beyond their planned service lives.
Ironically, the UK has two new frigate programmes in place or in the offing, the Type-26 and Type-31e. But accelerating those would require additional resources and would still achieve results only in the medium term at best.
Like others, the Royal Navy is embracing forward deployment as a way of increasing operational availability at range (the reason why the frigate HMS Montrose was on station in the Gulf when tensions with Iran flared), plus new technologies such as remote systems. But these will help only up to a point. Probably only a combination of all of the above – more new ships, forward deployment and new technologies – will deliver a significant uplift over time. Again, this would require additional resources and could – and no doubt should – only be pursued as part of a well-funded long-term strategy.
Another approach to countering the general thinning of naval resources has been to emphasise increased international partnering. However, the latest Hormuz tensions have challenged assumptions over the extent to which the US would be ready to take the lead and others ready to follow, not least because of differences on overall policy towards Iran.
Both the UK and the US have courted European states for naval contributions, while Asian states have been in the frame because they are now the main recipients of Gulf oil. The table below shows a significant pool of naval resources in Europe, in terms of destroyer and frigate numbers. But beyond the issue of political will, there are significant question marks over force readiness for several of these fleets and therefore their ability to deliver capability quickly. Again, that is not a problem that is easily overcome.
European states did mobilise for the counter-piracy mission off Somalia from 2008 (as did a number of states from other regions), with a substantial force of ships for some years, although now much reduced, but that was at a time when navies had fewer other pressing commitments. For Europe, in as much as readiness issues are being addressed, the focus is now closer to home in the NATO context. The threat posed by Somali pirates was also rather different from that posed now by Iran. This makes a difference in terms of what capabilities nations may be ready to deliver today in a maritime security contingency in the Strait of Hormuz.
IISS data reveals a significant pool of capability among Asian navies. But for many, political constraints and considerations remain a factor in terms of taking any leading role. The ability to deploy at range in significant force is also still a limiting factor for Asian navies, even China, and so contributions to an international flotilla in the Strait of Hormuz are likely to be modest.
The extent to which the political pressure will remain for some kind of enhanced and sustained maritime-security response in the Strait will of course depend on how tensions play out. Moreover, whether it is the UK or other potential contributors, and whatever the potential misgivings about overall policy and strategy towards Iran, one of the sobering truths to emerge from recent tensions is that the only player still able to deliver the breadth and scale of capability needed to lead a robust international maritime-security effort in the Gulf, if that is what is required, is the US.
This analysis originally featured on the IISS Military Balance+, the online database that provides indispensable information and analysis for users in government, the armed forces, the private sector, academia, the media and more. Customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime. The Military Balance+ includes data on numbers and types of destroyers and frigates, as well as other surface and sub-surface vessels, for navies worldwide.