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The Nepalese earthquakes and subsequent rescue efforts have distracted the international media from a most significant week at sea. Two Maersk ships were detained by the Iranian Republican Guard (IRGCN), including the use of warning shots to force the commercial ships to co-operate, and elicited a tense response from United States Navy in the Straits of Hormuz.
Despite the flurry of inaccurate news reporting, one of the ships intercepted last Friday did have a US connection. More importantly, an outcome of the incident has been an announcement that American warships from the Fifth Fleet will escort US flagged merchant ships (and perhaps UK flagged ones too), through the international strait into the Persian Gulf, bringing back memories of the Tanker wars between 1980 and 1988.
Meanwhile off Yemen, the Iranian Navy (IRIN) has been waving fists at both the Egyptian Navy and elements of the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group off Aden. The French Carrier Strike group has been undertaking some ground breaking exercises against its Indian counterpart in the Indian Ocean whilst the first indigenous built Indian nuclear ballistic missile submarine, INS Arihant (based on the Russian Akula class design), are said to be going extremely well. The global reach of the French was also demonstrated as it was coincidentally conducted exercises off Wellington, New Zealand.
But there have been other events that focused minds at sea. Whilst NATO maritime forces geared up for more exercises off Norway, the Finns were doing it for real. Last week the Finish Navy proved that it had lost none of its anti-submarine warfare skills when it detected a suspected Russian submarine off Helsinki and dropped sound signals on it. The Russian submarines from the Baltic fleet have been increasingly busy of late, following on from a similar mission off Sweden late last year. Moscow’s base at Kaliningrad possesses one new Lada-class submarine and two older Kilo class diesel electric submarines, but these are to be improved in due course. One of the new boats destined for the Baltic fleet was launched this week from the Admiralty Yard in St Petersburg. The Project 636, Varshavyanka-class (known in the west by its NATO codename Kilo), Krasnodar, is the fourth in a series of six vessels being built for the Russian Navy as part of Project 636.3. It is a significantly improved version of the original design that exploits Russia’s expertise in stealthy underwater vessels.
The Russian naval headquarters also announced a plan for joint Chinese-Russian naval exercises to take place in the Mediterranean Sea in mid-May. A total of nine warships from the two countries are to participate apparently. The forthcoming exercise will not see Moscow using either of its new Mistral class landing platforms in those exercises as the French government appears likely to buy Russia out of the deal for a reported $1.2 billion.
Whether the exercise even goes ahead will not be certain when the Beijing learn that the Moscow has just sold Vietnam fifty more Klub (submarine launched land attack) missiles as protection against an expansionist China in the South China Seas. But perhaps the exercise in May might be able to make a meaningful contribution to counter immigration efforts in the Med, as more than 6,800 migrants were picked from the sea by the Italian Coast Guard, supported by French vessels, over the last weekend.
What is significant about these events? As was clearly articulated at the 2014 RUSI International Sea Power conference, naval power, politics and economics are inextricably linked: action at sea is usually a clear demonstration of national intent. Governments across the world are making statements about their values, intent and national interest through the medium of the sea – a new generation of politicians from Moscow and Beijing to Helsinki and Tokyo is starting to understand this.
But the UK is distracted by the urgency of emergencies in Nepal and national commemoration events, and Britain seems to be missing these important signposts. The UK Ministry of Defence might well be focusing on making ‘understanding’ central to politico-military decision-making in the future, but the lack of a coherent British response to any of these maritime events makes such a change appear to be more about process than substance.