Dark clouds on horizon for the Royal Navy, says academic
The future of our dwindling naval capacity is placed under the spotlight this week at a major conference. Defence reporter Rebecca Ricks speaks to Dr Harry Bennett about what lies ahead.
THE ROYAL Navy is facing problems having lost much of its "critical capacity" during hard hitting defence cuts, says a maritime academic.
Dr Harry Bennett, who said the Navy had not been as small as it is now in 500 years, will today be leading a conference into the future of our maritime sphere.
Key seafaring figures, senior Royal Navy officers and academics will be speaking about the future prospects of a dwindling fleet.
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Focus will also be made on merchant shipping, the continuing threat of piracy and Plymouth's maritime and defence future.
Speaking to The Herald ahead of the two-day conference, Dr Bennett said: "We are facing problems in terms of the size of the Royal Navy, in terms of maintaining an efficient fleet, maintaining the role and maintaining ourselves as one of the world's leading Navies which is what we are and what we should be; so there are concerns about the way government policy doesn't take recognition of that."
Last year, former Devonport frigate, HMS Cumberland was decommissioned just months after playing a vital role in rescuing hundreds of British and foreign nationals from Benghazi during the Libya campaign.
The warship was one of four frigates to be sent to the scrap-yard during defence cuts alongside aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.
"At least for the moment, the Royal Navy has lost a lot of critical capacity especially not having any aircraft carriers – that creates all sorts of issues if we face problems like conflict in the South Atlantic but it could be evacuating British nationals from a war torn region. What would we do?" Dr Bennett added.
"We are an island nation, we need a powerful Navy to protect our interest overseas and safeguard our economic future.
"Heaven forbid we have another war."
Dr Bennett said the main threat the UK faces is a Royal Navy that is too small – one that faces burgeoning demands.
And despite a downward trend in piracy, it remained one of the great threats to both the Navy and merchant shipping.
"A lot of our shipping lanes are prey to pirates and the Royal Navy has got a critical role to play in safeguarding those lines of communication because with something like piracy every cargo has to be fully insured against it and it's the consumer paying the price and this is where the conference is coming from.
"Plymouth University is the leader in the marine field and we have a particularly strong relationship with the Royal Navy. We have a long term practical interest as well as an academic interest."
The city's role in the UK's maritime future was also "vital" according to the associate professor.
"A prosperous Royal Navy is a prosperous Plymouth which is one of the reasons perhaps why this conference is being held here. Plymouth is a guardian of the nation's maritime affairs."
The 45-year-old explained that in light of the Olympics and rise in sea sporting culture, the public's attitude to the sea has not helped the situation.
"One of the things we are trying to do is find ways forward, remind people of the connection with the oceans," he explained.
"If we went back 50 years in schools and asked almost every child where bananas come from they wouldn't be saying Sainsbury's or Tesco. They would have been saying Costa Rica or the Caribbean; people had an acute importance of where food come from.
"Now our connection with the ocean is much more sport and leisure, yes you can win gold medals at yachting but there is a big professional network out there on which the future of UK plc depends."
Some of the guests speaking at the conference include Julian Parker, head of the Maritime Foundation and Rear Admiral Clive Johnstone head of Flag Officer Sea Training.
Dr Bennett added: "I think the key thing about the conference and what it really signals is that those people who are involved are getting together to find ways forward, to say we need a bigger Royal Navy and we must safeguard our nation.
"One of the things people will have to do is convince the government that investing in the Royal Navy will pay dividends and is necessary to prevent the kind of unforeseen consequences that will come out of the woodwork, that could hurt us as a nation. We have to make the case."
Britain and the Sea: The Maritime Sphere and the Past, Present and Future of the UK is taking place today and tomorrow in the Roland Levinsky building at Plymouth University.
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