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The art of Admiralty: How to mobilise naval power

The ‘Art of Admiralty’, the sustained development and promotion of a coherent, positive and holistic long-term approach to the nation’s engagement with the sea, is a cultural concept that extends far beyond any calculus of warships, trade, diplomacy or seafarers. It underpinned the creation and maintenance of the British seapower state. Seapower states combine inclusive political and economic systems under the rule of law, high levels of maritime commercial activity and the necessary naval strength to secure the nation’s extended interests, as well as deter aggression towards allies and partners. Seapowers emphasise the maritime in national strategy, with sea dependence shaping force levels. This combination of progressive political systems and maritime power shaped the modern world, and it still frightens closed economies and autocratic empires.

This ‘art’ is neither new, nor unique to Britain: it can be traced back to ancient Athens, mediaeval Venice, and the Dutch Republic, states which relied on the sea to secure their interests and define their identity. Seapower states use Fleet Reviews and monumental architecture to display strength and assert dominance, powerful signals suitably reinforced by cultural outputs. Having defeated Russia in the Crimean War (1854-1956) a Royal Fleet Review, on St. George’s Day 1856, displayed Britain’s naval might to an audience that included foreign diplomats. The messaging was not subtle, but it was effective. Having defined the language of global power, Britain preserved peace with Russia, and other major powers, for half a century by assembling a fleet to support diplomacy in every crisis. Long before continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD), the Royal Navy deterred great power rivals, backed British diplomacy, supported allies, and delivered the necessary messaging. 

Henry VIII created the Royal Navy to provide strategic security, and an Admiralty to manage it. He understood the visceral power of great warships, displaying images of his fleet on either side of his throne. In 1588 the defeat of the Spanish Armada made naval glory the foundation myth of the English nation, a role taken over by the British success at Trafalgar – celebrated with a universally recognised classical motif of imperial dominion. The famous column, modelled on the Temple of Mars in Rome, made Nelson ‘Britannia’s God of War’, the embodiment of national power. It was all shaped by Admiralty insiders. 

This synergy of fleet, strategy, politics, economics and culture was negotiated with the nation: the defence of floating trade securing support from the City of London, which mobilised the political support and economic strength that sustained sea control strategies that prevented any one power from dominating Western Europe, and kept overseas markets open. Protecting merchant ships in troubled regions has a long history. The City preferred a seapower state to absolute rulers and standing armies, backing the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, a pro-navy partnership between Crown and Parliament.  

Looking ahead, the ‘art’ will be essential to British global interests, key alliances and regional alliances and groupings such as NATO and AUKUS.

The ‘art’ worked because it was sustained by the Admiralty, a great department of State, located on Whitehall, at the centre of political power. While admirals commanded fleets and settled strategy, naval messaging was delivered by civil servants, who spent their entire careers inside the organisation. Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Admiralty, used naval history to explain current policy. His successor, Josiah Burchett, went further. A Complete History of the Most Remarkable Transactions at Sea (1720) highlighted the political importance of naval warfare since ancient Athens, while the introduction instructed the new German King on his responsibilities as the ruler of the seas. George I used naval display to block Russian expansion in northern Germany. In peace and war, the Admiralty sustained the message, raising and lowering the level of implied threat to match the emerging situation.

The ‘art’ also handled more unusual risks. In 1816 John Croker, First Secretary to the Admiralty, bought Nelson’s letters to Lady Hamilton, to prevent any hint of scandal from tarnishing the image of the national hero. He kept them hidden for decades. His colleague John Barrow, Second Secretary, crafted biographies of other admirals, to situate current policy choices, explain the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, and promote exploration. 

The Admiralty, rather than any individual, was critical to the maintenance and messaging of the seapower state. The abolition of the Admiralty in 1964 coincided with Cold War nuclear anxieties, focused on the divided Germany. Without a home in the revised defence establishment ‘Admiralty’ messaging faltered, slowly replaced by the debilitating British condition of ‘sea blindness’. The Falklands War showed how quickly those messages could be revived, alongside a potent demonstration of why they were needed. Tackling ‘sea blindness’ remains a national issue, far beyond the reach of academics, think tanks and policy fora. While all navies engage in messaging, the Royal Navy has the advantage of being the Senior Service, but it cannot afford to become a ‘Silent Service’.  

Ultimately the ‘Art of Admiralty’, sustaining a seapower identity in times of peace as well as war, might ensure the next crisis did not meet the same unreflective response as the last, that aggression on land must be addressed at the point of contact, by soldiers. There are more than enough troops under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) between the Polish/Ukrainian border and the English Channel for that to be unnecessary. Applying maritime pressure on Russia’s exposed coastal flanks would be consistent with the ‘British way of war’, a subtle, elegant and effective concept that maximises national strengths, and minimises weaknesses. For approximately 300 years Britain restrained Russian aggression by applying pressure at and from the sea, using economic coercion, local offensives and working with local allies. Today, Russia remains vulnerable at sea. 

Looking ahead, the ‘art’ will be essential to British global interests, key alliances and regional alliances and groupings such as NATO and AUKUS. It is not an especially difficult message to frame, but it needs sustained, committed and central direction to ensure it reaches the key audiences. We have much to learn from our predecessors.

Prof. Andrew Lambert is Laughton Professor of Naval History at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. He is also a Member of the Advisory Council of the Council on Geostrategy.

Embedded image credit: Royal Navy (Open Government Licence v3.0 cropped)

This article formed part of our conference programme for the First Sea Lord’s Sea Power Conference 2023.

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