UK Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood has warned that the Royal Navy is ‘too small’ to maintain a foothold on the world stage as tensions rise in the Strait of Hormuz.
Ellwood, the under-secretary of state for defence people and veterans, told Sky News that the UK had not ‘taken its eye off the ball’. However, he did say that the Royal Navy needed more funding to maintain its place.
He added: “If we want to continue playing a role on the international stage, bearing in mind that threats are changing, all happening just beneath the threshold of all-out war, then we must invest more in our defence, including our Royal Navy.”
The minister’s comments came shortly before Prime Minister Theresa May held a COBRA meeting to discuss the ongoing tensions off the coast of Iran.
Ellwood told The Times: “The threats we’re facing are changing in front of us, the world is getting more complex. If we are wanting to continue to play this influential role on the international stage it will require further funding for our armed forces, not least the Royal Navy. Our Royal Navy is too small to manage our interests across the globe.”
Tensions between the UK and Iran have heightened after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized the British flagged tanker Stena Impero on Friday. Iran said the ship was ‘violating international maritime rules’.
Iranian Special Forces seized the tanker as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for the British impounding of an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar. However, the country’s Guardian Council said the ship’s seizure was in response to British actions.
A Guardian Council spokesperson, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, said: “The rule of reciprocal action is well-known in international law.” He added that the ship was taken after the ‘illegitimate economic war and seizure of oil tankers’.
The Strait of Hormuz has become a flashpoint in the Middle East with several high-profile incidents taking place across the past month, including Iran shooting down a US unmanned aerial vehicle and the UK sending three warships to help guard shipping routes.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said about the seizure: “In targeting civilian shipping, international norms have been violated. It is essential that tankers and crews are able to pass through international waters safely.
“We call on Iran urgently to cease all forms of destabilising activity. The UK remains in close coordination with international partners to find diplomatic solutions to de-escalate tensions.”
Despite the Royal Navy investing in modernisation, its fleet is still significantly smaller than at any time in the past 40 years. In the 1980s, the Royal Navy had a force of four aircraft carriers and 47 frigates; now the navy only has one aircraft carrier, yet to receive its aircraft, and 13 frigates.
Around 20 British tankers a day pass through the Strait of Hormuz, which is critical to international shipping transporting 22 million barrels of oil from around the world a day; however, the Royal Navy cannot escort each one.
The US has proposed ‘a multinational maritime effort’ called Operation Sentinel to help protect shipping as it passes through the strait.
US Special Representative for Iran and senior policy advisor to the secretary of state, Brian Hook, said: “The goal of Operation Sentinel is to promote maritime stability, ensure safe passage, and de-escalate tensions in international waters throughout the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Oman.”
The British tanker seized by Iran and her crew of 23 are currently being held in the port of Bandar Abbas, in southern Iran. The UK has yet to announce what actions it will take in response.