Aaron Ellis at Thinking Strategically has stirred up some debate in arguing that dragging out war in landlocked, Central Asian Afghanistan, to the extent it compromises British defense expenditures on naval capacity, is a bad strategy for a “maritime country” such as the UK. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense, since historically British grand strategy has been maritime oriented. The question is whether the geopolitical context has rendered the traditional British emphasis on seapower and a maritime strategy obsolete.
One of the criticisms of Britain as a maritime power has been that effective force is now based on “joint” operations and not service-centric capabilities. This may be true, but to the extent Britain is engaging in independent military operations, it needs power projection, and given the likely distances involved, it needs maritime power. Having a maritime grand strategy does not mean forgoing involvement in land wars, but it does mean that putting ground forces before the sealift and power projection capability that allows them to operate abroad is putting the cart before the horse.
Forward basing still matters immensely for power projection capability, and unless Britain simply wants to bind itself to the United States or the EU for its maritime capability, the most competent and COIN ready army in the world will not be of very much use if is stuck on an island. This is an extreme scenario, but consider that British land power and air power have proven inadequate, even in combination with other European states, to accomplish much in Libya without significant US support. It is not a given that the current steward of the global maritime commons, the United States, will always be interested in the same extra-European operations as the United Kingdom. Where those operations involve either extended ground deployment or intensive ground or aerial operations, the UK will need some form of supporting seapower to bring its military capabilities to bear.
If we are assuming Britain will ever want to get involved in situations where the enemy will be equipped or organized sufficiently to attempt to deny Britain access to its territory, then British sealift and airlift capability will need the ability to conduct combat operations far from home, and that will likely mean carriers and carrier based aircraft. To the extent the UK relies on other states to provide these capabilities, it sacrifices its ability not just to conduct activities such as protecting its sea lanes (which, given the rising naval power of other states, will be more a task for the US than it will be for the UK), but to respond to crises out of its allies area of operations. The difficulties in the intervention in Libya show that Europe still faces severe geostrategic challenges in mustering the capability to conduct combat operations in its near abroad, and Britain is no exception. If Britain identifies failed states as the primary threat in its current strategic environment, it still does well to have a robust naval capability with air support, which is as necessary for extra-European COIN operations as it is for higher-intensity conflicts. While I’m an American and not a Briton, I suspect it would be wise for the UK to maintain a healthy maritime capability – carriers included – unless it wants to become the gendarmerie or reserve forces for an ally with a stronger navy. The shift of US interests towards Asia and the Pacific and Indian Oceans is going to render US and European interests increasingly divergent on a variety of issues, and if Britain wants to be a major military power abroad, either it must foster a strong naval capability or begin working seriously with the European Union to do so as a bloc.