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One US Navy captain shows how our armed services could fix their recruiting problems

A US Navy F/A-18 Hornet launches for operations against the Houthis from US carrier Dwight D Eisenhower in the Red Sea. The ship's captain, 'Chowdah' Hill, is prominent on X / Twitter
A US Navy F/A-18 Hornet launches for operations against the Houthis from US carrier Dwight D Eisenhower in the Red Sea. The ship's captain, 'Chowdah' Hill, is prominent on X / Twitter - Zachary Elmore/AFP

This year, the US carrier Dwight D Eisenhower (‘Ike’), on station in the Red Sea, has posted on X – formerly known as Twitter – almost every other day. Despite being in the thick of the action, her sizeable public affairs team has carefully curated relatable and even amusing content, alongside information from the US Navy and US Central Command (Centcom).

In the same timeframe, HMS Lancaster, our Type 23 frigate in the area and HMS Diamond of drone-destroying fame, have posted but a handful of tweets including the dry matter of Grant Shapps’ recent visit.

Meanwhile, US Ships Carney, Mason, Gravely, Thomas Hudner, Laboon et al, the Arleigh Burke class destroyers that have been in and out of theatre and responsible for 75 drone and missile intercepts between them, have not one account to their name.

In a networked world where fighting methodologies, communications circuits and recognised pictures are shared and homogenised between allies in an instant, there is seemingly little consensus on how to fight within the information battlespace.

Offering an alternative standpoint, Captain ‘Chowdah’ Hill – Ike’s captain – has, brilliantly, posted 63 times this year. He posts a mix of formal, informal and personal engagement messages. He is clearly a larger-than-life personality, proud of his ship’s company who in turn respect and follow him. This has been confirmed to me in private by family members of the ship’s company on Twitter. In terms of wider engagement, it’s a bullseye.

Twitter is just one channel, and this is only a snapshot, but it does reflect the US habit of being more forward-leaning with their engagement. Post 7 October we knew what the USS Ford and USS Eisenhower carrier strike groups were doing in minute detail. Every movement was telegraphed; the messaging was clear and consistent – we’re on our way and we have the confidence to tell you (and our adversaries) all about it.

Contrast that with the communications surrounding the deployment of the Royal Navy to the Eastern Med.

The Littoral Response Group, consisting of Royal Fleet Auxiliary Lyme Bay (last Tweet Oct ’23) and RFA Argus (likewise), have been on location since the start of this latest action. Throughout their time there’s been one announcement on possible humanitarian tasking in Gaza and that has been it. And now it looks like Argus may be returning home without apparently having done anything in the area they were deploying to.

The information flow has been non-existent; this will not be due to reluctance from their team onboard.

Without putting too fine a point on it, the RFA has a serious visibility problem: it is not maintaining a viable level of recruiting. The Royal Marines have an even worse problem, not only recruiting but the possible disappearance of the navy assault ships they need to carry out many of their missions. RFAs Lyme Bay and Argus, and their embarked force of Marines, should have been using every opportunity to communicate the value of their work direct from a live theatre.

Similarly, HMS Duncan seamlessly transitioned from her role as a NATO Command ship, joined the USS Ford task group and then came home after a long deployment. This was a great example of the inherent flexibility of maritime power; sailing for one task group command in a semi-benign environment then changing midway to escort duties for a US strike group inside a missile envelope. And despite this, almost nothing appeared on official channels. Diamond being sent through Suez was spoken of – good news – but since then, she has been almost silent, despite having been in the biggest naval battle in living memory and being in possession of some of the most recruitment-ready content produced by the Royal Navy in a long, long time.

Let me appease the operational security (Opsec) crowd right away, as they are probably grinding their teeth right now. Producing timely and engaging content without breaching Opsec is easy to do, we have the knowledge to do it and personnel who are expert at it. It requires a good understanding of what is already in the public domain, which is generally enormously more than the ‘loose lips sink ships’ brigade realise.

The days of moving around for months on end without anyone knowing where you are have gone (with the possible exception of submarines, but even they find themselves increasingly tracked). And besides, most of the time you want people to know where you are – for all the talk of their warfighting capabilities, naval units spend the vast majority of their time deterring and engaging, not fighting. Of course, you don’t want to give away time-sensitive detail. Even when Centcom and USS Ford were blasting out her every move, nothing was sufficiently detailed that it could be used for targeting.

US submarine Florida inbound via the Suez Canal to the trouble zone with her cargo of Tomahawk missiles and Navy SEAL frogman-commandos. Sometimes even subs get spotted
US submarine Florida inbound via the Suez Canal to the trouble zone with her cargo of Tomahawk missiles and Navy SEAL frogman-commandos. Sometimes even subs get spotted - MCS 1st Class Jonathan Word/US Navy

Opsec is vital and the nature of your content must not breach it. But Opsec should never be used as an excuse to not engage with the very people in whose name the engagement is taking place, and whose taxes pay for the whole thing.

There is however, in my view, an even more pressing imperative.

Whilst this might seem inconceivable to the engaged reader, understanding of why we need a navy and armed forces in general is at an all-time low.

We need more people to know what our navy is doing (or that it exists at all) and why it is doing it because we, the voting public, remain the best vehicle to influence the decision-makers who in turn determine its budget.

That this budget is not sufficient and hasn’t been for decades is not news, but the only way this downward trend will ever be meaningfully reversed is to make defence voteworthy. This is a tough ask and historically only happens in extremis, but it should nonetheless be considered a primary duty. A multi-channel approach that exploits all content in a timely fashion, and not just when it aligns with the ministry’s planning grid, is part of this.

And it’s not just the RFA: the Royal Navy can’t get enough people to join up. This is a global issue but if it’s not resolved it threatens the entire enterprise of defence. Reaching potential recruits shouldn’t just be by occasional documentaries and shiny recruiting videos, it should be an ongoing, year-round and wholly-coordinated effort across all relevant channels.

Tom Cruise as Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell, US Navy. The USN can't wait for the next Topgun movie to engage with the public
Tom Cruise as Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell, US Navy. The USN can't wait for the next Topgun movie to engage with the public - Paramount Pictures

Captain Hill posted a nine second video of a jet doing a flyby that was seen by a quarter of a million people, some of whom will now be reaching out to their local careers office. It is of course engagement not overall numbers that matter, but he generates a ton of both, for almost zero effort. He also disproves the idea that COs are too busy. He may have a team, but then so do we. And besides, there is no such thing as too busy, just priorities. A well-trained CO could produce five tweets in the time it takes to reply to a single nugatory email from one’s boss.

There’s a reason UK defence and the Royal Navy don’t do this very well and it has little to do with culture, opsec or workload. It’s more basic than that – fear. Fear that you will say or do something wrong, that will embarrass you, your ship, your command, the Ministry or worst of all, the Minister. Fear that the higher headquarters knows something you don’t (a line they use often) and that you must not do anything to interfere with that. Fear that there is a series of carefully balanced discussions going on which your ‘clumsy’ tweet might upset. And then the worst fear of all, that your peers might think less of you for being showy, a crime from which there is no recovery.

We’ll not be seeing a Chowdah Hill equivalent in the Royal Navy anytime soon – it’s just not the done thing here. To be fair, judging by the silent captains of US destroyers in the area, Hill may be unsual in the USN also. He may indeed be benefiting from the help of a team: Britain’s aircraft carriers, if not their captains, are quite chatty on Twitter.

Regardless of the details, we the public have to rely on official tweets and turgid content which have to pass through a tortuous system of approvals that can take days to approve one message by which time, guess what, the moment has passed. HMS Diamond needs approval from teams in Bahrain then the Joint HQ in Northwood then the MoD to send a message. It only takes one of them to say ‘no’ and that’s that. The captain has more freedom to fire missiles and launch helicopters than he does to tweet.

This lack of agility is also part of the reason sailors are increasingly taking matters into their own hands, leaking pictures and things that genuinely aren’t helpful. The collision between two minehunters this weekend is a good example where a statement was posted on Twitter, then deleted, then reposted (probably as different agencies got involved) and at the end of it, the opportunity to assuage the appetite for information was missed.

There are only three ways a collision of this sort can happen, two of which exonerate the ship’s leadership. Say that, be honest and bold, then let the investigation run its course, then close it off.

The public values honesty and straightforward explanations. I guarantee the senior officer who made the initial statement wanted to say more, but was prevented from doing so.

Some senior officers who get the need to engage but can’t abide the delays adopt the ‘proceed until apprehended’ mentality. I know this because for a brief moment in time, I was the officer in the Ministry of Defence who was dispatched to do the apprehending.

“Admiral, can you take that tweet down, it’s annoyed Minister X for [insert nebulous reason]”. I’d inevitably get pushback but then they’d comply because they knew which office I was calling from. Most people just don’t think it’s worth the risk in the first place.

The lack of confidence resulting from this fear leads to dozens of outstanding opportunities to engage with excellent content going begging across our armed forces every day.

Communications and information are contested spaces and the old school ‘actions speak louder than words’ doesn’t cut it anymore. Actions very often don’t speak louder than video, that’s for sure. I’m not suggesting we go ‘weapons free’ and allow everyone to post all the time – the IDF are providing hideous examples just now of what happens if it goes too far.

But defence needs more money, the Royal Navy needs more people and it needs them to stay the course. Twitter is just one channel but the reluctance to use it in a timely and informative manner, whether promoting or rebutting, is indicative of a wider lack of confidence across all channels caused by over-centralisation, coupled with ‘the fear’. Communication is something all our forces should seek to improve.

UK defence needs to engage more, take more risk and be more transparent. Nelson got it, messaging and writing to people all the time. Nowadays he would be all over social media, ignoring disparaging looks from Collingwood and turning a blind eye to junior officers who called on behalf of the Minister suggesting he ‘calm down’.


Tom Sharpe commanded four different warships at sea before becoming the Royal Navy’s top public relations officer. Nowadays he works in strategic communications at Special Project Partners

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