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Speech by Admiral Sir Julian Oswald, KCB

Admiral Sir Julian Oswald, KCB

Commander-in-Chief, British Navy

On: The Channel Command Atlantic Hinge Point

12 February 2003

(From an Address by Admiral Oswald to the European Atlantic Group in his NATO capacities as Allied Commander-in-Chief Channel and Commander-in-Chief Eastern Atlantic.  He was not speaking in his national capacity as Commander-in-Chief Fleet, and the views expressed are not necessarily those of HM Government.)

Allied Commander-in-Chief Channel and Eastern Atlantic

“I would like to say how nice it is to return to St. Ermin’s Hotel for the occasion.  St. Ermin himself, of course, was no stranger to maritime affairs; born in Wales during the 12th century he emigrated across the Channel Command (as it then was!) to Brittany and thence to Normandy, Anjou and Touraine.  His’ cult was further encouraged by King Henry VII, who believed he was saved from a shipwreck off the coast of Brittany by Ermin’s intercession.  So convinced was the King that he ordered a statue of Ermin to be built in Westminster Abbey where it stands to this day.  Since canonization, Ermin has been invoked to cure headaches, fever, colic, gout and rheumatism.  Records do not reveal whether or not he has yet been called upon to halt the decline in maritime force levels!

The Case for CINCHAN

Having already heard from SACEUR and SACLANT, some of you may wonder what else I, as the other major NATO Commander, can find by way of something different to interest you.  You may even be asking why we have three major NATO Commanders – surely an area as small as the Channel Command could easily be absorbed by SACLANT or SACEUR.  Furthermore, would it not rationalise command boundaries and result in considerable savings in manpower and more cohesion militarily? Isn’t it something of a culture shock formally to include a mere Commander-in-Chief of such a small area as an equal member of a highly select club of three?  Isn’t it also surprising that, in a different capacity, he is also a subordinate commander to SACLANT?

These are all perfectly fair questions and I will counter them with both military and political justifications.  Firstly, military; our predecessors, who had much experience of war and particularly the problem of reinforcement and re-supply, decided that this hinge between the Atlantic and Europe was so complicated to manage in a crisis that there should be one man responsible for it. Furthermore, the area was of such military importance that its commander must have the same weight in the formal military structure as the two Supreme Allied Commanders, to be able to insist on arrangements which he believed would best suit the military requirement.

Having decided this, it became clear that the Eastern Atlantic Area should be commanded by the same man – as a sub-ordinate commander of SACLANT.  This man would therefore have the duty of channelling all the shipping and handling the military arrangements in the approaches to the choke point – the Channel Command.  This EASTLANT requirement is indeed important and the link with SACLANT is valuable – I am formally in his business, as it were.

Politically it is essential that Europe should be represented in its own right at the highest military command level in NATO; after all, the European countries are as important to the Alliance as America and it would be unacceptable to those fourteen countries if they were not to have a man in the club.  There is another, lesser, point; it is often easier for CINCHAN to handle the maritime case in Europe, not only because he is a European, but because he is, unlike SACLANT, readily available in Europe.  He lives and works there and also commands the largest European NATO fleet.

Having argued the case for a European major NATO Commander, examination makes it clear that it should be a British sailor.  No one else amongst the European countries sits astride this focal point; no other country is as strong in maritime terms; in practical terms no-one else is better placed to do the job – and 1 am not aware that anyone else wants to!

1 hope you will recognise, therefore, that whilst CINCHAN commands a small area, he is the representative of a large and important European constituency.  He has the opportunity to present a case at the highest level and, in certain circumstances, would wield important influence.

NATO Strategy

I would now like to address NATO’s strategy of deterrence through flexible response, using its triad of conventional, theatre nuclear and strategic nuclear forces; it is a basic philosophy, applicable as much in the Channel as elsewhere.  I see no alternative to this strategy at present.  The Tripwire philosophy, proposed by some, lacks credibility – the concept of deterring minor incidents by the threat of a full scale nuclear exchange is simply not plausible.  Likewise, those who propose deterrence by only conventional forces can find no counter to the Soviet nuclear capability.  Furthermore, such a philosophy would be cripplingly expensive both in financial and manpower terms; the manpower resources required are simply not available, and the financial penalties would be unacceptable to most NATO publics.  So flexible response – the ability to display a manifest determination to resist aggression at any level – is, I believe, the only viable option.

Forces Required

To fulfil its strategy of flexible response NATO requires two categories of forces – In Place Forces and Reinforcement Forces.  In Place Forces show a day by day political and military resolve; politically they demonstrate the Alliance’s commitment, solidarity and the member nations’ willingness to share the burden.  Militarily, these forces provide an immediate capability.  They allow NATO forces to train alongside each other in peace on a day by day basis and, thereby, become familiar with the battleground and also provide the wherewithal to contain any incidents early.  Reinforcement Forces, on the other hand, enable NATO to counter more substantial incidents and to sustain operations for a longer period.  The reinforcement forces from UK will triple our contribution in mainland Europe; even this appears insignificant compared to the scale of reinforcement from the United States 2 million men, 9 million tons of equipment and 14 billion barrels of oil.  In passing I should also say that other nations also contribute to this reinforcement, Particularly Canada.  Fifty-rive per cent of the land and 90% of the air reinforcements will be in place in thirty days.  Although most of the men involved in this massive transatlantic reinforcement will come by air, the equipment and oil must come by sea; it will require 800 shiploads and 15 major UK/ European ports.  Coordinating this enormous reinforcement programme is my responsibility as Commander-in-Chief Channel.


In peace NATO must train to ensure that we can operate and co-operate to achieve our wartime needs.  Individual nations are responsible for providing trained and ready forces to NATO.  We conduct regular joint training – for example during the three Joint Maritime Courses held each year (two weeks of exercises off the north coast of Scotland) and, weekly, in the Portland exercise areas (UK national areas and facilities used by a number of NATO navies).  We also conduct a number of major exercises each year which not only benefit sea going units but also provide invaluable training for Headquarters Units in their war role.  Although these exercises should ideally involve the whole command, limitations of time and assets dictate that only one campaign is exercised each year.  Over any four year period the Norwegian Sea Campaign (TEAMWORK) is exercised twice, and the ‘Shallow Seas Campaign’ (SHARPSPEAR) and Atlantic Reinforcement (OCEAN SAFARI) are exercised once each.  Typically these major exercises involve 150 ships, 300 aircraft, 30,000 men and will include participation by eleven nations including France and Spain.  In addition to these live exercises (LIVEX), three or four command and control exercises and several more smaller maritime LIVEX are programmed annually.

Beyond the exercise scenario, NATO displays its solidarity on a day to day basis with its two full time squadrons.  Standing Naval Force Atlantic (SNFL), which has now operated continuously for twenty years, is not only a constant and visible reminder of NATO’s resolve, but also provides NATO commanders with an immediate reaction force to deploy as and when required.  Five countries (Canada, Germany, Holland, United States and UK) provide a full time input to this Squadron, and they are occasionally supplemented by Belgian, Portuguese and Norwegian elements.  Until recently, the Danes also provided a part time contribution.  In 1987 this Squadron spent 214 days at sea which compares well with the average of 108 days that individual ships spend at sea on national operations.

The Standing Naval Force Channel (SNFC) is celebrating fifteen years of continuous activation, and enjoys a full time contribution of MCM forces from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium and occasional participation from Germany, Denmark and Norway.  The visibility of this force of small ships has been greatly increased by recent events in the Gulf.


During periods of tension, NATO must not only demonstrate its resolve, but also its ability to either escalate or deter as it chooses.  To do so there are a number of established contingency Operations Plans (Oplans), which only require DPC approval for activation.  Initially NATO would respond to an increase in tension by establishing greater presence and surveillance; subsequently, if the initial response failed to reduce tension, Oplans would be introduced to counter Warsaw Pact operations, including the deployment of Standing Naval Force Atlantic.  If this failed to stabilise the situation, then more robust Oplans may be initiated.  Maritime operations are, by their nature, flexible, and can be tailored to the demands of any situation.

Maritime Operations

NATO has developed a formal Concept of Maritime Operations, covering the whole NATO region to counter a variety of threats.  There are five maritime campaigns which support this concept of operations – the Norwegian Sea, the Atlantic Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCS), the Shallow Seas, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Mediterranean Lifelines.  I have already mentioned the vital importance of the Atlantic SLOCs and would now like to touch on the other two campaigns which directly affect me as the Commander-in-Chief Channel and as the Commander-in-Chief Eastern Atlantic. 

Firstly, the Norwegian Sea campaign is an essential element of NATO’s strategy of forward defence and is, in itself, part of the distant protection of the reinforcement and re-supply routes across the Atlantic.  It is in the far north that we must bottle up the Soviets in their bastions, using geography to our maximum advantage.  The inter-relation between the Norwegian Sea campaign, the Northern Flank and the Central Region is well known.  General Lawson recently stated “the battles for the Norwegian Sea are inter-dependent, and the loss of one would crucially affect the outcome of the other.  Success or failure in Norway and the Norwegian Sea could well determine the battle for the Atlantic, and subsequently have a major effect on the defence of Central Europe”.  It is clear that the success of the Norwegian Sea campaign is heavily dependent upon the early and timely arrival of the Strike Fleet, who must quickly assert sea control, and can greatly influence the conditions for war fighting on land, sea and in the air.

In the Shallow Seas campaign the threat is primarily two-fold; the Soviets could deploy either their diesel powered submarines, or they could choose to use some of their formidable mine stocks to restrict our operations in the area.  Our ability to conduct operations, especially MCM and ASW, in the Shallow Seas will greatly affect our ability to get reinforcements safely into receiving ports.

If we are successful in these two campaigns, then the gains for NATO are considerable; firstly, we could hold the Northern Flank; secondly, we would reduce the pressure on reinforcement and re-supply shipping; thirdly, we would case the way for our Channel/ North Sea operations; and fourthly we would guard the Northern flank of the Central Front.

How does all this affect my two NATO commands?  In the Eastern Atlantic the Norwegian Sea campaign will put the Soviet Navy on the defensive.  Striking Fleet operations in this area will involve 3 or 4 United States carrier battle groups with up to 360 aircraft; its logistical support will come through the United Kingdom.  Additionally, the Striking Fleet’s ASW protection is provided by the non United States nations, and some SSN support is drawn from the UK; its non-organic MPA/AAW/ Air Defence will be based in the UK, Norway and Iceland.  As CINCEASTLANT, all these forces will fall under my command and I must co-ordinate their employment and support to ensure the Strike Fleet’s safe arrival and continuing operation.

Secondly, to operations in the Channel, the world’s busiest waterway and an absolutely crucial link between the United States, the Atlantic and mainland Europe.  I mentioned the massive scale of the trans-Atlantic reinforcement earlier and it will virtually all come to the UK or through the Channel or North Sea.  This reinforcement shipping will, however, only be about 15% of the total; the remaining 85% – economic shipping – will be important to the continuing survival of the NATO countries.  If all this shipping is to get through safely, we must clear and defend the routes and ports through which it passes.  Here I have a number of concerns; firstly, 800 merchant ships will be required for the reinforcement and re-supply, 400 of which should come from European countries.  At present not enough suitable ships are available.  Secondly, there are limited MCM assets available; in 1979 my predecessor was able to call on 112 MCMVs in the Channel Command – next year 1 can call on only 80.  Thirdly, escort numbers are declining yearly – in 1979 there were 27, by next year there will only be 17; they have a limited shallow water capability and will be supported by insufficient MPA and shore based helicopters.  Finally, NATO has a limited defensive mining capability, and within the Channel area we will be hard pressed to lay sufficient mines to protect our reinforcement routes.

The Future

Predicting the future can be a dangerous occupation.  Rather than making firm predictions, I will just examine one or two of the trends which are likely to affect NATO and its thinking in the years to come.  Most striking of late has been the relative thawing of East/West relations, best illustrated by the recent success in arms control.  This is, of course, welcome, but we must now address Warsaw Pact conventional and chemical weapon superiority. We must also accept that the INF Treaty and the proposed 50% cut in strategic nuclear weapons will have little direct effect on maritime operations, but we can soon expect the Soviets to press for such maritime cuts; we must be prepared for this challenge.

We must also be aware of Mr. Gorbachev’s – literally and metaphorically – disarming manner.  His Murmansk proposals in 1987 – an effective Nordic free zone, including restricted military activity at sea and no ballistic missile submarines in the Baltic – may sound generous, but in effect would only result in his cutting 6 elderly Golf class submarines (18 Missiles) – and the Kola would be apparently unaffected.  Despite its obvious public appeal, this is a very one sided Warsaw Pact offer, and NATO must develop a coherent response and educate its public.  The requirement for reinforcement will, I predict, be undiminished.  Indeed, replacing Cruise and Pershing with dual role aircraft is likely to increase the requirement.

Having looked at trends let me predict a few concerns. I see the present shortages of ships -both merchant, escorts and MCM – continuing, and,  perhaps more seriously, some countries abandoning their maritime capabilities altogether.  I see no ready cures, but perhaps we might encourage merchant ships to reflag back to NATO nations, and develop agreements to use neutral flagged ships in time of crisis.  We might also introduce procedures, which enable a tighter control on Warsaw Pact merchant shipping.  On any given day there are approximately 70 Warsaw Pact merchant ships in western ports, centrally controlled by Moscow and undoubtedly acting as intelligence collectors.  They could, in tension, be agents for sabotage, scuttling-or mining.

Those are concerns; but hope springs eternal.  There are signs that NATO countries will continue to make appropriate cost effective contributions.  Joint procurement is surely a thing of the future, together with an acceptance that existing force structures are not sacrosanct, and that specialisation by nations might be carefully explored.  But above all else, we must remember that our Alliance is, by nature, a defensive one, in which we must be not only careful to keep the front door shut – to keep the enemy out – but also to keep the back do-or open, to allow our friends to come in to help.”