25 OCTOBER 1975, Page 9

North Sea oil

Case for a blue-lamp navy

Donald Cameron Watt

The appointment of Prince Charles to the command in the North Sea next February of a Royal Navy minehunter — a vessel whose duties may well relate to the presence of Russian spy trawlers and to possible threats to North Sea oil rigs — has focused particular attention on the position of the Fleet hi the North Sea.

At the Offshore Europe Conference at Aberdeen in mid-September I read a paper on the security of the oil installations in the North Sea which attracted a great deal of publicity. In the course of the paper, commenting on the need to have special security forces earmarked for swift action in the event of any terrorist attack on these installations, I remarked that this need seemed to me to strengthen the already very strong case for the establishment of a seagoing police force, a maritime agency that would be separate from the Royal Navy Proper but possibly under Ministry of Defence control, a force analogous to the US Coastguards. Many of the reports chose to conflate the two concepts to produce a picture which drove both Navy and police spokesmen to bristle, seeing an attack on their existing competence where none was intended. The

Case for a maritime police force is strong enough to stand on its own feet without

rePonsibility for the defence of the installa

tions against terrorist attacks being made a red herring to confuse the issue.

This case rests on three propositions which the most ignorant of landlubbers, let alone their Lords of the Admiralty, should be able to recognise. The first is that, whether the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea results in agreement on the issue or not, the establishment of exclusive economic zones stretching 200 miles from the coastline of the Claiming nations or to the edge of the continental shelf will be generally accepted Within the next five to ten years at most. The Pressure on Britain to extend British jurisdiction over the seabed will be very strong. The second proposition is that these new areas will require policing. British practice is wedded firmly to civilian rather than military policing. The Navy and the RAF have as their first Charge the defence of Britain's maritime frontiers against action by hostile or potentially hostile states. The armed forces have always had a subsidiary role in support of the civilian Power when, but only when, such support is requested. This is secondary however to their Main mission. The third proposition is that the growth of use of the sea and the seabed circumambient to these islands is growing so rapidly and enormously that existing facilities are liable to become increasingly overtaxed unless some major development is undertaken to cope with them. Coping includes servicing the needs, and licensing and controlling the activities, of the users, and prevention of accidents and crimes against the users and the nation's interests.

At the moment the first are taken care of by the Hydrographic Service of the Royal Navy, the Marine Division of the Department of Trade, Lloyd's Register of Shipping and Trinity

House, together with the Commissioners for Northern and Irish lights. These, as it were, map the roads, provide road markings and traffic lights and so on. The second role, that of licensing, is carried out by the Post Office in relation to maritime radio communications, the Departments of Trade, Industry and Energy, the port authorities in relation to pilotage etc, the Merchant Navy Training Board and Lloyd's Register of Shipping again. The third is taken care of by the Royal Navy, the RAF , the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Coastguards or not at all.

To illustrate this last point one may cite the case of the Straits of Dover for which there is an Anglo-French Safety of Navigation group responsible for traffic regulation. The Straits of Dover are traversed by 350 ships a day and crossed by 200. In 1974, something like 11,500 ships broke the existing traffic regulation scheme. No powers exist to enforce these regulations against ships not flying British or French flags.

To give a second example. At present anyone can sail a boat or drive a seagoing motor boat without licence or test for either captain or crew. Coastguards reported a rise of 16.5 per cent in incidents or casualties as over 1973, 6,760 rescues and 268 lives lost in 1974 as against 5,060 and 237 in the preceding year. It cannot be many years before the rescue facilities break down and commercial traffic will be severely interfered with if no system of licensing, training and testing etc analogous to the licensing of drivers and certificates of roadworthiness of vehicles is introudced.

The scale of the new problems created by the growth in the existing uses of the sea is hardly appreciated by the layman. Recent television programmes have called attention to the growth in numbers of the VLCC, very large ships of 100,000 tons or over, mainly but not exclusively oil tankers. In 1974, there were twenty over 300,000 tons in size, and a further 149 were under construction. Of ships over 125,000 tons there w,!re 568 in existence and 583 on order. The present slump in world trade has no doubt reduced these figures. But such reduction is only temporary. Bulk cargo ships and container ships are also increasing in size and number. As the central and northern waters of the North Sea fill with the concrete archipelago of oil production platforms, etc, the need for continuous and accurate surveying and for traffic control becomes greater.

Everyone in the business shares a common nightmare, a runaway VLCC laden with oil on a collision course with an oil production platform. Projected contingency plans include the destruction of the runaway by aerial bombardment. Traffic control, however, requires traffic police capable and empowered to arrest offenders. But oil is not the only dangerous cargo. Noxious chemicals and liquefied gas both carry additional hazards and are both carried in bulk at sea. And these VLCCs draw enormous depths of water and even with much more accurate surveying of the waters around Britain than exists at present can be endangered by abnormal changes in the levels caused by freak weather conditions. Tide measuring gauges and a warning organisation have to be added to hydrographical survey work on a scale the Hydrographic Service of the Royal Navy is at the moment unable to supply.

No one wishes to denigrate the remarkable services provided in the past and at present by the various authorities both governmental and private. Under the leadership of the Marine Division of the Department of Trade, they have been gathered into a web of committees which ensures close co-operation between bodies most of whose members have first-hand experience of the problems with which they have to cope. No doubt, given the money, the provision of services side can be taken care of; though the generation of the necessary research and the provision of new facilities is problematic, to put it mildly, given the existing division of responsibilities.

But the problem of policing, controlling traffic, preventing accidents, restraining crime cannot really be taken care of with the existing organisations, the handful of fishery protection vessels, the two present and five projected craft of the oil rig patrol, the Department of Trade's Miranda and its single fisheries support vessel, and the light coastal craft of the Coastguard service. Policing an EEZ extending to the edge of the continental shelf even with the aid of the RAF's coastal command is quite beyond their capacity.

At present Britain's police forces are regionally divided. They accept responsibility for ordinary crime committed on ships or structures at sea if the point of origin or service falls in their area. The Chief Constable of the Grampian area based on Aberdeen, a man of remarkable drive, youthful appearance and energy, covers virtually all the major oil rigs and platforms since all are at present serviced out of Aberdeen. His officers may be expected to operate off the Shetlands, a distance as far from Aberdeen as Cork. But they cannot monitor nor intervene against crimes of pollution, the dumping of oil sludge, illegal dredging, breach of traffic regulations etc. For this a seagoing police will be needed.

Such a police would need at first to liaise so closely with the long distance reconnaissance aircraft of the RAF and with the seagoing patrol forces of the Royal Navy that it would have to come for training and possibly for manning at first to the Admiralty and the Ministry of Defence. As a police force it would normally come ultimately under the oversight of the Home Office. But from every other point of view, including the national rather than regional organisation and the present responsibility of the Marine Division of the Department of Trade, its most logical place is under the Marine Division. Its right hand will tie with the Ministry of Defence, its left with the Department of Trade.

This is possibly the last moment at which any proposal involving new government expenditure can expect discussion on its merits. There is no way, however, in which the developments which will make such a force essential can be avoided. Improvisation has gone about as far as it can. What is needed now is the initial preparation, the essential ground work, the studies of feasibility etc so that when the real need for growth develops in three, four or five years' time, the seed has already been planted. Other states are taking the necessary preliminary steps now. Will no one in this present government take time off from internecine feuds and the _protection of new areas of state ownership to consider the needs of Britain at sea?