A lesson to be relearned, again

There is an interesting opinion piece in the United States Naval Institute‘s Blog by someone posting under the pseudonym of CDR Salamander.*

The issue, as reported by the Associated Press, is that “Britain announced plans Monday to develop and deploy a Europe-led “maritime protection mission” to safeguard shipping in the vital Strait of Hormuz in light of Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged tanker in the waterway last week … [but] … Hunt announced precious few details of the proposed protection mission, but said Britain’s European allies will play a major role in keeping shipping lanes open. One-fifth of all global crude exports passes through the narrow strait between Iran and Oman.” The AP reports goes on to say that “It was unclear which countries will join the protection force or how quickly it can be put in place. Hunt said he had consulted with foreign ministers of Oman, the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Finland, Spain and Denmark.

This lead CDR Salamander to observe that “Too many rosy assumptions and peace-time perspectives can leave any nation short when reality and hard decisions break through the white-board ponderings, think tank panelizing, or the faculty lounge chat-fest that all the smartest people in the room are relying on … [and] … To justify smaller budgets and fewer ships at sea, it is easy to come up with comfortable sounding concepts like “1,000 Ship Navy” or “Cooperative Maritime Partnership” to allow assumptions of what other nations might join in peace will be of use in war … [and] … The Royal Navy is re-learning this essential reality that goes back centuries; nations have agency, friends can get wobbly, and you need to be ready to do what you need done without any significant outside help … [thus] … If you can’t do it yourself, then … well … it may not get done … [because] … Nations often make promises to each other in peace that as things heat up, don’t quite get kept in full. Especially when military conflict is a non-zero probability, a nation’s circle of acquaintances and friends pulls in to an every tighter radius.

CDR Salamander uses examples from recent conflicts in Afghanistan when American (and British, Canadian and Danish soldiers, too) did most of the “heavy lifting” while many Europeans, NATO allies, hid behind walls of caveats that were written into their agreements to join the fray. He cites “the Belgian forces guarding a gate who, if you are attacked 100 meters outside the gate, will not support you because … reasons … [and he suggests that] … If that is the direction the Europeans are going, then well … we’ve seen this movie before. Good luck with that and pray for peace.

CDR Salamander goes all the way back to 1945 to take dredge up a poor example but one that allows him to a dig at Canada. In the Spring of 1945 Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced that “the Canadian Government no longer intended to deploy personnel, other than volunteers, to the Pacific Theatre. 86b7876167dfe9ac660823a38cb179e9The “Volunteers Only” policy, as it was called, required that all naval personnel specifically re-volunteer for service in the Pacific Theatre before they would be dispatched to participate in hostilities.” HMCS Uganda, a Royal Canadian Navy cruiser, was already en route to the Western Pacific. When a vote was finally taken “344 members of the ship’s company had re-volunteered, while 556 of their shipmates had not. As a result, and due in no small part to the logistical nightmare of trying to send home personnel who opted not to re-volunteer, the Admiralty decided that UGANDAshould return to Esquimalt to disembark the non-volunteers. Still, it took some time to organize this, and she continued on operations until relieved by HMS Argonaut on 27 July, when UGANDA departed the Pacific Theatre.” In fact, Canada did not “run out” on its allies. The British fleet commander, being well aware of the political policy problem, sent it home.

That quibble aside, CDR Salamander concludes, correctly, using the Uganda story as his “hook,” that “Such is the nature of such alliances at sea. It is much easier for a nations fleet or ships to leave – like the HMCS UGANDA off the coast of Okinawa – than it is to extract an army in the field … [because] … Alliances at sea are tender devices … [and he suggests that] … Everyone is re-learning a lesson that will be eternal for any nation’s naval forces; friends are nice to have, but are often fleeting – be prepared to fight alone or go home … [and] … Design your nation’s navy accordingly.” In other words a country, like, say, Canada, needs a navy that will be able to meet its probable needs for the next 25+ years. I have, just recently, updated my estimate of what that should be.

CDR Salamander offers some sage advice for Canadian taxpayers and politicians. The rosy assumptions that underlay Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s isolationism were, always, false. The Americans have told us, flat out, that they will not provide, for example, automatic ballistic missile defence against, say, North Korea … if we want protection we must join the programme and foot part of the bill. Now, successive Canadian government, Conservative and Liberal alike, have run away from making hard decisions about unpopular defence projects.

We did that in the 1930s, too … and we paid a fearsome price, in blood and treasure, in the 1940s for those “rosy assumptions” (which we are hearing today as “sunny ways“). The situation may not be all that much different 90 years later.

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* CDR is The US abbreviation for the navy rank of commander. In the Royal Canadian Navy (and Australian, British and US Navies, too) a commander (Cdr in Canadian terms) commands a major warship like a frigate or destroyer.

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As an aside I see that I have made over 1,900 posts since I started this blog almost four years ago.

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