Book of the Quarter – The Decline of European Naval Forces

11 Jun 18
Posted by: Kevin Rowlands


In a departure from the norm for The Naval Review, we are starting a new series in which one book is given a greater profile each quarter. The book may or may not be the best on offer, it may or may not be a memoire, a biography, a history, or a new take on strategy, but it will be something to pique the interest of members. It is hoped that the selected book will spark a conversation or a debate on the NR website, and that members will gain personal and professional value from it.
By buying just one book of naval relevance every three months (and selection criteria will include price – overly expensive offerings from academic presses will, sadly, be self-deselecting) members will quickly build up a private bookshelf of quality.
The first choice for this new Naval Review virtual book club is Jeremy Stöhs’ The Decline of European Naval Forces. Please read on and join the debate.

Kevin Rowlands
Capt RN
Book Reviews Editor

by Jeremy Stöhs
(Naval Institute Press – £32.50)
ISBN 9781 6824 7308 5

The image on the jacket of this book is disconcerting. At first glance it resembles the stern aspect of some old merchant ship, its decks a mess of haphazard cargo, and with dockside cranes reaching over to do their business. But it isn’t. It is actually a photograph of the former HMS Invincible taken in 2011 alongside the Aliaga scrapyard in Izmir, Turkey. The once great aircraft carrier, veteran of the Falklands, the Adriatic and the Gulf, plus myriad other deployments to most parts of the world over a thirty-plus year career, is shown being cut to pieces for the value of its metal without a second thought to the value of her service. The image is a powerful visual taster of what this book is about. It is just one example of how the naval forces of Europe (and let us count the United Kingdom in that grouping for geographic reasons, if nothing else) have suffered a seemingly unstoppable decline in numbers, and therefore presence, and therefore efficacy, since the end of the Cold War. It is worth reminding ourselves that if judged on those terms, the Royal Navy has been reduced by 60 per cent since 1990. There are some that would argue that today the RN’s hull number freefall has been arrested, but few would be brave enough to suggest that it has truly been reversed.
The author of The Decline of European Naval Forces is, interestingly, an Austrian. Jeremy Stöhs is not a seafaring man from a maritime state, but an academic with a profound belief in the importance of sea power. He has much to say and his continent-wide sweeping analysis may leave some readers wanting more depth, but it is precisely his big-hand-small-map treatment, looking at themes such as strategy, policy and technology whilst lighting on a series of case studies of all the major European naval actors, that gives this book its edge. It identifies the big picture and is unafraid to tell it as it is. It will make painful reading for some, and so it should. But it is only by confronting uncomfortable truths and not being seduced by easy lies that progress is ever made.
The book is divided into three parts. The first gives a short introduction and an overview on the principles of sea power. The second looks at case studies of eleven leading European maritime countries, most with a dedicated chapter. The third part delivers a concluding analysis. The writing is clear and succinct and the structure is simple and logical. It allows the reader to appreciate the context and then dip into his or her area of personal interest without missing any vital connecting tissue.
Is it worth it? Absolutely. It would be a disservice to try to paraphrase whole chapters here, but it is worth recapping some of the author’s key tenets. To him, there is no debate over whether decline is happening or not; it is treated as a fact. He lays the blame for European naval atrophy on a series of factors. None are revolutionary, but it is refreshing to see them grouped together and leading to an end state that many people in positions of authority today would still try to deny. Stöhs cites the rush to take the early ‘90s peace dividend, the decade and a half of land wars in Asia, the enduring focus on counter-terrorism, the American pivot to Asia and financial austerity as reasons for the present predicament. All are briefly unpicked. It must be said that when laying the foundations of his topic Stöhs does present some quite orthodox views of what sea power is and what it can do. He puts the words of Mahan and Corbett to good use, but he also quotes from Geoff Till and Rear Admiral Chris Parry to give a more contemporary spin to his case. If this reviewer was being honest, however, he would admit to being rather tired of some of the “truths” about the importance of the sea that are so regularly wheeled out: 90% of trade is by sea – no, it isn’t. 90% of international trade by volume is by sea, not total trade and not by value; 70% of the earth of covered by water – so what? 100% is covered by air, what does that tells us?). But, those niggles aside, Stöhs wields the statistics in quick succession to set the scene and in that respect he is successful.
The first chapter in Part 2 is a case study of the Royal Navy which Stöhs readily acknowledges was the pre-eminent navy in Europe and, before that, the world. He writes of reduced spending as a percentage of GDP, of the choice made to go to an all-nuclear submarine force, the decisions of 2010 to cull capabilities such a Maritime Patrol Aircraft and, of course, about carriers. There is discussion of quality versus quantity and, in fact, he packs a lot into twenty pages. It is well researched and it will give readers pause for thought. Keen-eyed amongst them will have noted the use of the past tense when referring to the Royal Navy’s pre-eminence at the start of this paragraph. Stöhs’ second case study addresses that when he delicately argues that France has now overtaken the UK as Europe’s leading sea power. To a British sailor that is a pretty galling statement. Does Stöhs convince the reader of his point? Well, let’s just say that his argument cannot be easily dismissed out of hand; it is not a lazy assertion. That France’s Marine Nationale developed under different strategic circumstances to the Royal Navy through the Cold War and its immediate aftermath is indisputable and it would be remiss of us not to seriously consider the outcomes of these different paths.
Other case studies from Italy and Spain, to Sweden and Norway, Turkey and Greece uncover a series of often different causes but with one consistent effect. European naval power is not what it used to be. Stöhs is in favour of maintaining the broadest possible range of capabilities, and he agrees that NATO could and probably should have a role in reducing duplication. But the coordination required to cohere an entire continent’s sea power is almost certain to be politically unachievable, particularly in today’s febrile climate. Spend more money? We will see. To be fair, Stöhs does not set out to find solutions to the problems he has identified. That would be the work of a whole separate volume.
For anyone interested in contemporary naval matters, twenty-first century international relations, and geopolitics, this is the book to read. Jeremy Stöhs should be congratulated for having the nerve to write it, and for challenging readers to disagree. Thoroughly recommended.

Kevin Rowlands
Capt RN