The Decline of European Naval Forces

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The Decline of European Naval Forces: Challenges to Sea power in an Age of Fiscal Austerity and Political Uncertainty. By Jeremy Stohs. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2018.
Reviewed by David Hobbs

JEREMY STOHS is an Austrian American defence analyst at Kiel University’s Institute for Security Policy and its associated Centre for Maritime Strategy and Security. He is also a non-resident fellow of the Austrian Centre for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies and this book is one of a series produced by Kiel University on sea power. The author is, therefore, well connected and his subject is a timely reminder of the importance of sea power that has the potential to stimulate thought and discussion.

The book is divided into three main sections although the appendix is, arguably, as important as the main text and should ideally form part of it. In part 1 Stohs outlines the principles of sea power and the recent redirection of the United States’ focus from the Atlantic to the Asia Pacific Region, APR. In part 2 he considers individual case histories with the UK, France, Italy, Spain and Germany being given individual studies. Turkey and Greece, Denmark and the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway are treated in pairs that are analysed together. He does not say why other nations are omitted. Part 4 contains analysis and conclusions. All the case studies are illustrated with graphs that show total expenditure on defence as a percentage of GDP between 1990 and 2016 and numbers of warships in 4 main categories over the same period. The appendix lacks text but illustrates total defence expenditure and warship numbers over the same period for the USA, Japan, South Korea, China, India and Russia. Since the earlier arguments about European naval decline make comparisons with these navies throughout parts 2 and 3, it would have been interesting to see them given the same coverage and more direct comparison. Other navies that have grown in relative terms, such as that of Australia, would also have made an interesting comparison.

I found parts 1 and 3 to be convincing and the author makes a cogent case for the importance of sea power and the need for governments to understand the lessons of the past. I was less impressed with part 2, especially the analysis of the RN. The text in this part needed to be limited to a few short, sharp sentences or expanded in greater depth but the author has fallen somewhere between these two alternatives by pointing out some of the headlines but not the full picture. For instance I was surprised that the author made no mention of the cancellation of the CVA-01 aircraft carrier project in 1966 which resulted in the resignation of both the Navy Minister and the First Sea Lord and left the RN traumatised and forced to abandon the method of sea control and power projection that it had built up over decades. To understand the RN of the late Cold War era I would argue that you must first understand the shattering effect of scrapping the strike carrier fleet and pay more attention South Atlantic War of 1982 in which shore-based aircraft of the RAF designated for maritime operations sat uselessly on the ground at airfields in the UK while embarked Sea Harriers and helicopters fought 8,000 miles away to liberate the Falkland Islands.

Stohs begins his case study on the RN with a sentence in italics ‘keep calm and get those carriers operational’, referring to the two ships of the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ class but he fails to mention the complicated command structure inflicted by Government on the F-35B strike fighters intended for operation from these ships. They are to form Joint Force Lightning, manned 50% by the RN and 50% by the RAF, to become a ‘swing force’ capable of operation on land or at sea, a method of operation that has not been adopted by any other nation and must be, therefore, worthy of comment. On the one hand these aircraft have the potential to offer a huge technological edge if properly used to gain and maintain sea control or project power but on the other hand they demonstrate the UK Government’s failure to maintain its original aim in buying the aircraft. First referred to as the Future Carrier-Borne Aircraft, FCBA, it has evolved into the joint force which has demonstrably given greater priority to operations on land. Its predecessor, Joint Force Harrier, proved to have minimal naval value after 2006 when its aircraft were deployed to Afghanistan leaving the decks of ‘Ark Royal’ and ‘Illustrious’ empty for long periods and making any sort of continuity training for the ship’s company and the fleet impossible. Aircraft cannot be in two places at once and I would have welcomed the author’s view on the subject given the fundamental importance of the F-35B if the UK is to use its new carriers effectively. There is also no mention of the stated intention to embark USMC F-35B squadrons on a regular basis.

At first I thought the author might have omitted mention of CVA-01’s cancellation, limited analysis of the South Atlantic War and avoided discussion about the relative merits of the F-35B for reasons of space because he intended to stick ruthlessly to a time-line that began in 1990 with the end of the Cold War. However, when I found that the study of the French Navy began with defeat by Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805 and the Spanish Navy with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 I began to wonder. A whole page is devoted to the Spanish/American War of 1898 which, surely, is of little relevance. If background is to be given such a broad brush treatment , more could have been made of the RN’s evolution after 1945.

Despite these comments on the case studies, I would still place this book in the ‘good’ category with the rider that with a wider remit and case studies of greater depth it could have been ‘very good’. It will be interesting to see if recent events which have lead to a rapid worsening of relations between Russia and the West will make any noticeable different to the outlook for European navies. I would certainly recommend this book to those with an interest in, or even responsibility for, contemporary naval affairs as an introduction to the subject that will hopefully stimulate readers to study the subject more widely and deeply.

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