The Seizure of the Stena Impero: the geopolitical risks posed by British naval policy

Dominic McClaran is a third year War Studies & History student, as well as serving as Editor-in-Chief of GPRIS, whose current interests include Anglo-American foreign policy, UK naval policy, grand strategy, and ‘Great Power’ conflict. 

In July 2019, illusions of the United Kingdom’s (UK) naval primacy in the Persian Gulf were shattered with the seizure of the Stena Impero. The 36,000-ton British oil tanker – operating in the Persian Gulf and carrying 2.1 million barrels of crude oil – was taken by troops from the Islamic Republic of Iran, creating shockwaves in a region already riven with a wave of similar attacks that month.[1] Carried out by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard corps, the Stena Impero was transported to Bandar Abbas port on July 19 and its 23-strong crew were held captive by Tehran. As announced by the Iranian Foreign Ministry on 23 September, the tanker has subsequently been released and its remaining crew kept unharmed.[2] While this is undoubtedly a moment for celebration among the crew’s families and the international community in general, the implications of this seizure should continue to be a cause for concern for UK defence planners and businesses operating in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Indeed, an examination across the last thirty years shows that the opportunity for Iran to pursue such an audacious move was provided by prevailing issues in UK naval policy – a reality that may provide further geopolitical risks in the future.

The UK’s currently untenable position in the Persian Gulf – along with the geopolitical risks that have arisen from it – can be traced to the actions taken by successive governments following the end of the Cold War during 1989-91. Capitalising on the so-called ‘Peace Dividend’ that the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the collapse of Communism (1991) apparently offered, Britain’s domestic problems were given greater attention at the expense of its existing naval commitments. As announced by Prime Minister (PM) Margaret Thatcher at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet Speech of 1990, ‘the threat of attack on Western Europe [had] been radically diminished’, and as such Defence was no longer a top priority.[3] In turn, this ushered in a radical restructuring of UK naval policy: from a ‘capacity’ based approach to one that favoured ‘capabilities’ instead. Before taking this analysis further, however, it is crucial to define the changes that the shift from ‘capacity’ to ‘capability’ entailed. Simply put, this progression pivoted on quantity giving way to quality. Up to the end of the Cold War, the UK had committed 4.5% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – or the overall economic activity of the nation – on maintaining a sizeable fleet of medium-to-high grade quality: 138 ships and 33 submarines, to be precise.[4] However, the delusion of declining interstate conflict and a growing awareness of ‘unconventional’ or intrastate threats led British defence planners to increasingly praise smaller amounts of top-end, technologically advanced vessels. However, the rising expense of such ships resulted in the steady reduction of defence spending as a function of GDP, along with the numerical strength of the Royal Navy.

As ‘Great Power’ rivalry returns and risks to commercial shipping – from the Arctic to the Asia-Pacific – rise, it would seem that a naval policy prioritising width over depth would be more proficient. However, while the current approach of the UK may be facing difficulties in dealing with contemporary threats, it is true that it was well suited to the UK’s naval commitments during the early 2000’s: specifically, its involvement in the invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). Namely, the operational doctrine of the Royal Navy from 1990 to 2015 prohibited the regular pursuit of unilateral action, in favour of ‘plugging in’ to multilateral coalitions – usually led by the United States (US). While the benefits of cooperating with allies has been evident to UK defence planners since 1945 at the very latest, the transformation of this understanding into operational dogma was a novel development. Moreover, it has also had placed the UK in the unprecedented position of lacking its own agency in naval commitments. Ideologically, this was embodied by rhetoric that tied the UK ever closer to American actions; practically, spending became ‘less focused on scale…with the emphasis moving to quality’ as the proportion of GDP devoted to defence fell even further from levels prior to Cold War.[5] Indeed, British naval power was reduced by an alarming 60% between 1990 and 2010: the number of ships was halved from 138 to 66, submarine strength was reduced to a third of its former strength – 11 out of an original 33 – and the UK’s number of aircraft carriers were wiped from two to zero.[6]

While Britain’s diminishing naval presence did not prove to be overtly damaging geopolitically during 1990-2008, subsequent events have shown that the UK is not fit to protect its geopolitical considerations in the world that emerged after the 2008-09 Financial Crash. Crippled by spending cuts and ‘economies’ initiated in the Strategic Defence and Security Review of the Coalition Government (2010-2015), the overstretched Royal Navy has become dangerously unprepared to deal with the multiplying geopolitical risks that have accompanied the decline of the post-1945 liberal-international order: the spread of authoritarianism and the ‘democratic recession’; the emergence of populism and the Brexit vote; American isolationism and the election of President Donald Trump; and the rise of revisionist powers such as China, Russia, and Iran.[7] What may have worked well in the past is not always the best basis for preparing for the future. The dangerous implications of the UK’s current defence policy have been voiced by individuals with increasing strength, from within Westminster and without. In a 2017 report titled ‘Gambling on “Efficiency”’, the House of Commons Select Committee for Defence warned that the current level of spending cuts had left the UK unable to defend its core interests – including the oil shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf – overseas.[8] Meanwhile, Dr Sidharth Kaushal of the Royal United Services Institute, commenting on the capture of the Stena Impero, stated that the naval policies of the 1980’s might have offered ‘a more robust protection to British oil tankers in the region’.[9] In this light, it becomes clear that Iran’s actions – while prompted by British movements in Gibraltar – were facilitated by a failed naval policy that left the UK woefully unprepared to protect its oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.

The prevailing ‘capabilities’ approach of UK naval policy, therefore, left it unused to pursuing unilateral actions in defence of its international interests. While British vessels have become increasingly sophisticated in design, their actual utility has been consistently undermined by the extraordinary expense it has cost to create them – expense that UK defence planners do not want to risk wasting on low-grade actions such as naval patrolling. In turn, this led to a dearth in ships that might have been lesser in quality but greater in practicability and undermined Britain’s naval presence in the Persian Gulf to a single ship prior to the seizure of the Stena Impero. However, the promising possibilities offered by a return to a ‘capacities-based’ approach seem to have started to sink in. Ben Wallace, the current UK Defence Secretary, recently announced the order for a cost-effective set of Type 31 frigates, citing them as ‘fast, agile and versatile warships, projecting power and influence across the globe.’[10] Moreover, the long anticipated arrival of HMS Elizabeth, the first of the UK’s next generation of aircraft carriers, this year may provide further opportunities for geopolitical power projection. In this case, it may seem that modicum of stability might be returning to the Persian Gulf region, and the potential of calming international markets with it. UK naval policy has not sunk just yet; something new may be on the horizon.

Bibliography:

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/23/iran-says-uk-flagged-tanker-seized-in-july-is-free-to-leave

[2] https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-iran-tanker-legal/british-tanker-stena-impero-free-to-leave-iran-ambassador-to-uk-idUKKBN1W80TK?utm_source=applenews

[3] https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/108241

[4] Chalmers, Malcolm (2001), ‘The Atlantic Burden-Sharing Debate – Widening or Fragmenting?’, International Affairs, Vol. 77, No. 3, pp.569-585 and https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/06/21/cuts-britains-military-mean-no-longer-rule-waves-fleet-halved/

[5] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmdfence/345/345.pdf

[6] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/06/21/cuts-britains-military-mean-no-longer-rule-waves-fleet-halved/

[7] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmdfence/345/345.pdf

[8] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmdfence/431/431.pdf

[9] https://rusi.org/in-the-news/dr-sidharth-kaushal-royal-navys-presence-gulf

[10] https://www.naval-technology.com/features/why-the-uk-royal-navy-needs-the-type-31-frigate/

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