Nautilus: Shrinking UK Merchant Fleet Creates Risks
On Monday, the UK maritime union Nautilus International warned Parliament that Britain faces strategic risks from its increasing dependence on foreign-flagged shipping.
The union's general secretary, Mark Dickinson, wrote in a letter to the House of Commons' Defence Committee that "maritime security is of immense importance to an island nation that relies on shipping for 95 percent of its imports and exports. We continue to be concerned that the strategic implications of the decline of the Merchant Navy and the UK’s maritime skills base have been grossly neglected."
His warning echoes a recent paper by two American shipping experts about the same strategic threat – that the decline of the U.S. merchant fleet exposes America to the risk of "sea strangulation" in the event of a conflict.
Dickinson added that he hoped the committee would investigate the delayed delivery of the first Royal Fleet Auxiliary Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability vessel, the RFA Tidespring. (The Royal Fleet Auxiliary is the UK analogue of the U.S. Military Sealift Command, which operates civilian-crewed vessels in support of naval operations.)
Will the UK pull out of EU NAVFOR after Brexit?
Separately, Nautilus called for the UK to continue its participation in EU NAVFOR Operation Atalanta, the European Union naval mission in the High Risk Area off Somalia.
In a letter to UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson, Dickinson urged him to ensure that Britain continued its participation in European anti-piracy operations.
"I am sure you can understand our concern about the future commitment towards the protection of UK ships and UK seafarers in the light of the UK’s planned withdrawal from the European Union," he wrote, calling for "assurances of the UK’s continued and tangible support for counterpiracy operations, off Somalia and in the other high-risk areas, such as the Gulf of Guinea."
Piracy is down worldwide, and there has only been one attack off Somalia since February 2014. Last week, NATO ended its Indian Ocean operations in order to free up resources for patrols in the Baltic and the Black Sea, citing the drop in pirate attacks and the changing global security environment.
However, EU NAVFOR task force commander Maj. Gen. Rob Magowan has called for continued vigilance in the High Risk Area, and the European Council has extended the EU mission's mandate until at least 2018.
The full Brexit process is not expected to be complete until the spring of 2019 at the earliest, so the UK would formally be a member of the EU until Operation Atalanta's next renewal.