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The Guardian & The Observer Digital Editions - The Guardian - 11 Ma...

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11 Mar 2011 The Guardian

The navys relevance in todays world is not always obvious to the public. We call it sea blindness We are all concerned by [events in the Gulf]. We can provide reassurance to Gulf states My message [on piracy] is we do have global interests and we are a nation that depends on trade

Admiral Sir Trevor Soar has the expression of a worried man. From his desk on the third floor of the Royal Navys security-heavy headquarters in Northwood, north-west London, he can see a large map of the world, on which he can pinpoint exactly where all his ships are and what they are doing.

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13/3/2011 01:40

The Guardian & The Observer Digital Editions - The Guardian - 11 Ma...

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This time last year the commanderin-chief of the fleet, who was appointed in 2009, had more ships and fewer problems. This year the balance of the equation has changed and not in his favour. It is his job to stretch the Royal Navys diminished resources across the high seas and ensure that British interests, as he calls them, are protected. This is not about projecting power, he insists, but keeping sea lanes open at a time of great instability and unpredictability. Though it is obvious that Soar is not comfortable giving interviews, he is speaking now because he sees his forces under huge strain, buffeted by events abroad and funding cuts at home, and he suspects their work is not well understood and perhaps not properly appreciated. The daily juggling act sees him pitting his wits against Somali pirates, who can now hijack boats across a million square miles of ocean; evacuating Britons from Libya (and providing support for the Special Boat Service, which is operating there); and preparing for the deployment of 3,500 Royal Marines and other navy personnel who are on their way to Afghanistan. That country remains the Ministry of Defences strategic priority, and Libya is the current preoccupation. But neither of these are the issues that keep the 53-year-old admiral awake at night. The Gulf is his special worry, particularly the strait of Hormuz, that narrow, potentially vulnerable channel between the south of Iran and the peninsula of north Oman, through which gas and oil supertankers travel all year round. Between 16m and 17m barrels of oil pass through the strait every day, 40% of the worlds supply. At its narrowest point, the passage is only 1.5 miles wide. The secretary of state made it very clear when he took over that he regarded the Gulf region as the second most important after Afghanistan, Soar says. I would agree. Its very important. We have been there over 30 years, we have seen the tanker wars [when Iran and Iraq attacked each others ships in the 1980s] and various other things over that time. Now there are new threats. If the sea lanes closed, even for a short period, the UK would be hit hard, and quickly. It would have such an impact with a just enough, just in time UK, he says. If we didnt have gas coming into this country we would run out in two weeks, so the lights start going out, or the shelves become empty. The navy has four mine warfare vessels in the area, and they are prized, especially by the Americans, who have privately made it clear they will not tolerate their decommissioning as part of the MoDs ongoing spending crisis. Though some of them are old HMS Middleton has been in service for almost 30 years the ships and their support vessels have special protected status. They are the jewels in the crown. We are, as the UK, very dependent on energy trade and energy flow. If the straits of Hormuz were closed, as they could quite easily be, by even one mine, then we provide a capability to be able to remove the risk. There are over 200,000 UK nationals in that region so its not just about oil and gas. Its about the number of people we have [there] and providing a real capability to protect those energy supply routes. The admiral is tiptoeing through what he knows is a diplomatic snakepit as he weighs up how he describes the risks and dangers, and who poses them. The region, he says, is unpredictable, and the potential for trade paralysis real, even if caused by accident. The navy has six ships in the area at the moment, involved in different operations and under a variety of commands, and seven more in the Indian Ocean. The submarine HMS Tireless is also east of Suez, having passed through the canal. The heavy commitment reflects the anxiety he has, and he chooses his words carefully. We have got Iran my worry is, really, events that may happen in that region. We are all concerned by [this]. We can provide reassurance to the Gulf states because there is a

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The Guardian & The Observer Digital Editions - The Guardian - 11 Ma...

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nervousness. What we dont want to see is an over-reaction because of a single event. The MCMVs [mine countermeasure vessels] have a unique capability, which I am happy to say is the best in the world. The US will tell you that. The threat posed by Somali pirates has made the task of keeping the peace in the region even more complex. The pirates are spreading further afield for their attacks, getting closer and closer to the strait of Hormuz, encouraged by enormous ransom payments and their classification in law as criminals, rather than terrorists. This means the navy cannot blow them out of the water indiscriminately, and many pirates are released even if they are caught on their way to a likely attack. The navy has growing suspicions that Somali pirates are linking with al-Qaida terrorists in Yemen, which, if true, would completely change the way the problem is approached. Until then, the pirates are unlikely to be deterred. At the moment they have 29 vessels and 653 hostages; there has been a big escalation in attacks this year, including an audacious attempt to seize a 300,000tonne supertanker. Soar says: This is about legitimate use of trade across all oceans, and with piracy we will start to see costs increase, and that will be reflected eventually on the shelf in how much we pay for our goods. So this is about UK interests worldwide, and I think my message here is that we do have global interests and we are a nation that depends upon trade. Part of the job of keeping the area secure will shortly fall to the Iraqi navy, which has been trained by British forces over the past three years. Out of the spotlight, the Royal Navy has had people in the port of Umm Qasar, and Iraqi naval officers have been trained in the UK at Dartmouth. The handover will take place within weeks. The only forces left in Iraq are navy, says Soar. We have been doing the Iraq maritime training mission helping [it] to provide protection of two oil platforms. Well over 65% of their GDP flows through them. That mission comes to an end this spring, when we effectively hand over security to the Iraqis. They have been given or sold various patrol boats and we have trained them to use them. This is about Iraq standing on its own two feet. The navy will not withdraw from the northern gulf it is too sensitive and volatile an area to leave to a fledgling force but Soar has not yet decided what will come next. Before then, he has Afghanistan on his mind. It obviously irritates him that the navys role in the country has not been recognised, and that the army has taken most of the credit for the decade-long operation there. He says he blames the media, partly. Because you tend to talk about soldiers and troops. Royal Marines suddenly becomes army so, yes, there is a level of frustration. We are clearly not getting the message over how much the Royal Navy is involved with defences main effort. For instance, we are now deploying 3 commando brigade to Afghanistan in the summer of this year we will have 3,500 naval service people in Afghanistan 40% of UK forces will be navy. This is the nub of the navys problem. Soar does not say it directly, but it hangs in the air around every sentence he speaks the feeling that the navy has been taken for granted. Reeling from cuts in last years strategic defence and security review (SDSR), he is trying to keep the show on the road, keep morale high, and remind people that the navy is not an optional requirement for the UK. For him, its a must. Soars task, he says, is to ensure in a very uncertain world that has been proved quite clearly over the last few months the navy has the ability to deliver. That means that the navy has to operate globally and it has to have the capability to meet that very uncertain world. The navys relevance in todays world is not always obvious to the public; we call it sea blindness. I firmly believe that we are relevant, we have a part to play. He acknowledges the SDSR has made his life more difficult, and there is now no spare capacity in his fleet. If he is appalled by the changes to the navy, which lost four frigates and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal in the defence cuts last year, he hides it well, and will not be drawn on the battles taking place in Whitehall, which are being fought, behind the scenes, by the First Sea Lord, Mark Stanhope, his boss.

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13/3/2011 01:40

The Guardian & The Observer Digital Editions - The Guardian - 11 Ma...

http://guardian.newspaperdirect.com/epaper/showarticle.aspx?article=...

Soar will only say: The navy has to take its share of the pain theres no point pretending that we cannot play our part in this we have to.
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