After a long absence, royal yachts have an opportunity for a comeback, bolstering defenses against “Grey Zone” aggression at sea. With the death of Prince Philip, the British public are urging the U.K. Parliament to memorialize the maritime-minded Royal Consort with a new floating diplomatic platform, reports Forbes.
The HYM Britannia
It is a worthy idea. As the oceans become more complex and contested, a high-profile, media-oriented national “yacht” can do a lot to advance Western interests and encourage rules-based order throughout the global maritime.
For the United Kingdom, the timing is perfect. Both Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth loved “their” royal yacht, HMY Britannia (pictured above), and, before short-sighted government cost-cutters wrote off the Britannia in 1997, the royal couple used the ship to advance British diplomatic and economic interests worldwide.
Often dismissed as merely a glamorous floating playground for the royal family, HMY Britannia was an understated national asset. The ship traveled from the Antarctic to the Polar Circle and everywhere in between, showing the flag and supporting 968 state visits. A frequent stop for dignitaries, the yacht advanced diplomatic priorities throughout the Commonwealth.
It was also an economic engine for the United Kingdom. Between 1991 and 1995, the British government estimated that trade missions on the Britannia boosted government coffers by an estimated 3 billion pounds. The ship was even rumored to be a floating refuge in the event of a nuclear war. But for all the good it offered, the royal yacht fell victim to the contraction of both the British Empire and the monarchy itself. By the late 1990s, made politically untenable during the breakup of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, the vessel was retired to serve as one of Scotland’s most popular tourist attractions.
Times have changed. With a more stable monarchy, a modern “royal” yacht, dedicated to advancing the diverse and global interests of the United Kingdom, is an appropriate platform to confront an increasingly complex maritime. It is a type of platform the United States, with its long history of supporting presidential yachts, may find useful to emulate.
Too easily dismissed as irrelevant luxuries, high-profile diplomatic vessels may well be missing pieces in the West’s wider effort to maintain rules-based order at sea. This may come as a surprise, but, after operating for a generation without “presidential” or “royal” yachts, diplomatic tastemakers in both London and Washington have forgotten the utility of these unique national assets. In fact, few outside of Russia understand the value glamorous, high-profile vessels can offer a state. Few may even be analyzing the issue; as Russia’s “Flamboyant Fleet” of oligarch-owned, quasi-governmental mega-yachts earn admiring headlines and advance Russian interests in almost every port they visit, the U.S. and Britain have refused to even consider a similar high-profile floating diplomatic-oriented platform.
For Russia, employing high-profile yachts for state business came easily. With a history of fielding royal yachts, the Soviet Union recalled their early efforts at floating diplomacy while envying the West’s glamorous diplomatic showpieces. After the Cold War, oligarchs quickly realized that luxurious, high-profile vessels were a ticket to legitimacy, offering an unparalleled mix of prestige, security and societal access. And today, as Russian government-associated oligarchs race to deploy an ever-more luxurious mega-yacht fleet, few can overlook the opportunities these free-wheeling unofficial embassies offer Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Certainly, high-profile yachts are expensive, but they can, in certain circumstances, do more for national interests than a carrier battle group. A dashing state yacht, in itself, offers a far more flexible and positive presence, attracting more public attention and wider and richer engagement opportunities with civilian maritime stakeholders. Unlike carrier battle groups, high-profile diplomatic craft are an ideal point of access to the waterfront communities and maritime economic players the West must engage to slow the erosion of order on the global maritime.
If unofficial “grey zone” warfare and public perception is the future of global maritime competition, then high-profile “diplomatic service” vessels are part of the solution, encouraging close interagency collaboration in what should be an “all-of-government” fight.
The years before World War I was a golden age for royal yacht “diplomacy.” An important mode of diplomatic transport, virtually every monarchy had a boat, and they were used for all sorts of diplomatic purposes. For example, in the late 1800s, Britain built the Victoria and Albert to, in part, signal the maritime nation’s continued maritime interest and eclipse emergent rivals in Europe. At the same time, Germany used its royal yacht, the Hohenzollern II, to open the strategically critical Kiel Canal, and the boat made headlines throughout the U.S. when it pulled into New York for a visit in 1902.
After World War II, the geopolitical utility of public service craft declined. Diplomacy sped up, and aviation became the primary means of transport for world leaders.
Politics also took a toll. Publicly perceived as image-boosting recreational assets, presidential and royal yachts were useful political targets. In the U.S., presidents loved to hate the presidential yacht, decrying their expense one day while using them the next.
In both countries, national yachts became associated with negative events and activities. By the time President Jimmy Carter dismissed presidential yachts as “unjustified and unnecessary,” the presidential yacht was little more than a floating refuge on the polluted Potomac River, known for hiding President Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal. Before British Prime Minister John Major cut the HMY Britannia, it was a dowdy marker of irrevocable British decline and unhappy memories. In 1997, the ship’s final task was to return Chis Patten, the last English Governor of Hong Kong, after handing the city over to the Chinese government.
As America and Britain edged out of the yachting business, presidential and royal yachts elsewhere had became little more than flamboyant party barges. In the Middle East, royal families—along with a few dictators—sought renown by building ever-larger and more luxurious superyachts.
But, after the Cold War, Russia changed things. For Russia, luxury yachts became a symbolic investment for a new generation, showing a “new” Russia to well-heeled investors and other key stakeholders. Just as sanctioned mega-yacht aficionados Arkady Rotenberg, Oleg Deripaska, Suleiman Kerimov, Andrei Skoch, Viktor Vekselberg and several other Russian oligarchs are considered de-facto representatives of the Russian government, their mega-yachts have gradually become unofficial standard-bearers for the Russian state. Today, they serve as free-wheeling embassies and intelligence-gathering platforms, arriving in interesting places with undersea surveillance capabilities, anti-missile defenses, sensors and other worrying “security” features.
The behemoths of the Russian-owned mega-yacht fleet are the “royal yachts” of our time, advancing Russian interests anywhere from the “Near Abroad” to St. Barts or even the Arctic Circle. It’s time the United States and the U.K. followed suit.
How To Use Modern Presidential Yachts
In today’s grey-zone conflicts, a well-connected presidential or royal yacht carries enormous symbolic power. Imagine the global outrage if Chinese military craft confronted the next royal yacht during an innocent passage through the South China sea. Consider how Prince Harry, if recalled to royal service and dispatched into the Pacific, might focus sustained global attention on China’s behavior. Other publicity-hungry “minor” royals might be sent into uncomfortable situations, earning their headlines by transiting the Taiwan Strait or highlighting Chinese encroachment throughout the Pacific and Antarctic—all while British diplomats engage relevant stakeholders along the way. These activities offer an ideal—and far lower cost—backstop to the occasional dispatch of the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier battlegroup to the region.
For the United States, employment of a presidential yacht may be more constrained, but a “presidential” yacht, moving throughout the Pacific, carrying diplomats, attaches, business leaders and media from one port to the next, offers clear advantages—particularly to those stakeholders who may not be able to easily engage through existing military or law enforcement channels.
The world has changed since royal and presidential yachts were uncontested masters of the Victorian-era maritime party circuit, but their original geopolitical purpose remains the same. They are useful national assets. For over a hundred years, high-profile “public service” craft have been tools for economic development, political messaging and other diplomatic activities in the Grey Zone. After an absence of more than two decades, it is time for both the United States and the U.K. to bring a glamorous yacht or two into national service and send them out into the contested oceans.
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