Depressing developments out of Britain (new motto: “Good, not Great”), where David Cameron has announced the extent of massive budget cuts. They’re not only targeted at the much-reviled ‘quangos’ and other sundry domestic spending, but significantly cut down on the size of the Royal Navy.
And I do mean significant. HMS Ark Royal is to be scrapped immediately, and while the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers will still be built, one will be commissioned pre-mothballed, while neither will be fully operational until 2036 (a rather expensive “jobs program“). One of the two helicopter carriers will be decommissioned. A total of 5,000 personnel cut. And the surface fleet reduced to 19 ships. As many have pointed out, that’s smaller than the task force sent to retake the Falkland Islands.
Obviously, this represents a real threat to British power projection capabilities. But it’s worth asking to what extent they’re still needed. The Guardian, true to form, heralds the cuts as rendering Britain incapable of launching “military operations like Iraq.” Which may be well and good; after all, today’s generals prepare to fight yesterday’s wars, and hopefully there won’t be any more Iraqs or Afghanistans in the near future.
All the same, is this a force capable of defending Britain? Again, the question is what Britain needs defending from. It can’t be the French, with whom the Royal Navy has entered into a sort of timeshare arrangement for the use of aircraft carriers (though hopefully their deployments go better than that of Charles de Gaulle). If anything is to be secure for Britain, though, it must be the sealanes. Britain is an island, and as Patrick Porter reminds us, “for heavy importing island states like Britain, strategy puts food on the table.”
The thing to grasp is that this is not Year Zero for the UK military, it’s worse than that. It’s more like Year -5 or -10 because that’s what it’s going to take to move all the accumulated bad decisions, and even worse non-decisions, through the system. It will be years before we get to zero and can start to work on building the armed forces we want and need.
Practical considerations aside – and they’re hugely important to consider – it’s almost akin to the death of the battleship, that great “monarch of the sea.” Once the British cuts are complete, the United States will be the only navy in the world operating more than one carrier. Last time the U.S. had to bail out her Anglophone cousin, the Royal Navy had been placed in a similar situation.
By 1939, Britain could not afford the navy that was necessary to ensure security across the globe. While the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty appeared to favor the United States and the United Kingdom, the scattered nature of the British Empire left it without overwhelming strength in any given theater, despite the superiority in absolute tonnage. In the early days of World War II – at least to protect Far East territories and India – the Royal Navy had to rely on the strength of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the South African coastal forces, and the British-controlled Royal Indian Navy.
We all know what happened next: Singapore and Malaya fell, the Japanese preponderance of carrier-based aviation left the entire Eastern Fleet sorely outgunned, and at the Battle of the Java Sea, the entire Allied fleet was wiped out in the largest naval battle since Jutland in 1916. Britain was stretched too thinly.
Obviously, the empire is no more and concerns closer to home are keeping the Ministry of Defence busy, but even so – there is a floor to the minimum amount of required naval force, even for a tiny island like Great Britain. With these cuts, I fear that the UK may have just crashed through it.