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Patrick Benham-Crosswell: We need more little ships to protect our coastline


Over the weekend, the redoubtable Major General Julian Thompson (winner of the Falklands War) made starkly clear how poorly patrolled our coastline is.  He did so in the context of battling illegal immigration via small boats crossing the channel, highlighting the woeful lack of small craft.  The suggestion was the Royal Marines might fill the capability gap (the Marines, part of the Navy, are specialist small boat operators – among other things).  He also pointed out that this could be achieved quickly through the Government using the Ships Taken Up From Trade mechanism (STUFT).

Well, perhaps.

For sure the much diminished Navy lacks the smaller craft required, and the Border Agency remains inadequate, and probably poorly resourced, trained and organised for such work at sea. Let’s look at the problem in more detail.  The first challenge is to identify a boat full of immigrants.  This may be a RIB travelling at 30 plus knots, a sailing boat travelling at 3 knots or anything in between.  These are small targets that do not show up well on radar, particularly maritime ones.  Military search radars could be used, but these are usually attached to military helicopters – which are expensive to operate and would not be capable of providing 24/7 coverage of even the Straits of Dover.  The RAF has recently ordered 9 P8 Sentinel aircraft, but they will not be arriving any time soon. The RAF also operates an aircraft called the Sentinel, which are being upgraded at the moment.  But the primary job of  both these platforms is sub hunting and other mainstream naval operations.

It would, of course, be possible to fit radars and thermal imagers to other, cheaper to operate aircraft, but that will not be quick.  Given Brexit the surveillance of UK territorial waters is likely to require more effort, equipment and thought.  Protecting the fishing grounds, for a start.  At the moment the Royal Navy has four (River Class) Fishery protection vessels, one of which is in the Falklands.  It is a farce – for some reason the Royal Navy does not have the right to inspect fishing vessels in Scottish waters.

While the Royal Navy is spending a fortune on building an aircraft carrier-based fleet that will no doubt be eminently capable of dealing with blue water navies, much has been sacrificed on the budgetary altar of that capability, which is pretty much powerless to do anything about rogue fishing or RIB riding immigrants.  Most warships are (rightly) far too large, complex and expensive to fritter away their time chasing small boats, and have more important stuff to do.  Somewhere along the line the Navy needs some more, smaller boats.

I do not see this as being so urgent a problem as to exercise STUFT – which is expensive and requires the ships to ultimately be returned to the owner in good condition.  As winter sets in, the risks of crossing the channel in a small boat will rise, so I do not anticipate a swarm of RIB borne immigrants actually arriving – some may drown and some may die of hyperthermia, but that is not a border security problem.

It may even be that there is room in the defence budget already.  As it stands, we intend to increase defence spending by 2 per cent (real terms) per year, in line with NATO policy. That is just shy of £750 million to play with, which should buy a few small boats off the shelf (or even better, second hand) with a few minor modifications.  Manpower already exists, so no cost there.  Of course, defence procurement administration will get in the way (although there are ways to circumvent this though citing an Urgent Operational Requirement).

I have written earlier that Brexit may save the Army from lawyers.  With a bit of common sense, it could also pave the way to enabling the Royal Navy to protect our territorial waters and shores.

(Image: Shawn Spencer-Smith)

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here. He is the Reform Parliamentary Candidate for Swansea West.

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