December 8, 2007

December 8, 2007 | Commentary on Europe

The Decline of the Royal Navy: Admiral Nelson Must be Turning in His Grave

A recently leaked British government study provides a shocking glimpse into the decline of the Royal Navy once the most feared fighting force on the face of the earth. From the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 to the Falklands War in 1982, the Royal Navy has been an imposing force on the world stage. Today it stands as a shadow of its former self.

The November 1 report titled "Royal Navy Utility Today Compared with 20 Years Ago", authored by Rear-Admiral Alan Massey, is a damning indictment of the state of the British navy, after a decade of under funding. The document, described in detail by the London Daily Telegraph, reveals that the British fleet has been reduced in size from 136 ships in 1987 to just 75 today. The number of destroyers and frigates in service has fallen from 54 to 25, and submarines from 38 to just 13. The total number of Navy personnel has been reduced by nearly 30,000, from 65,500 to 38,800. The report concludes that with an "under-resourced" fleet comprised of "operationally defective ships", "the Royal Navy would be challenged to mount a medium-scale operation in accordance with current policy against a technologically capable adversary."

The report's findings echo comments made last year by Admiral Sir Alan West, the recently-retired First Sea Lord, who accused the government of turning the Armed Forces into "a tin pot gendarmerie". They also give added weight to remarks made last month in the House of Lords by Admiral Lord Boyce, former Chief of the Defence Staff, who warned that defence cuts were endangering the lives of British military personnel.

The ravaging of the Royal Navy mirrors the depletion of Britain's Army, which is facing a manpower shortage of 4,500 soldiers, the equivalence of a whole brigade. According to a report in the London Sunday Times over 1,300 officers have left the army in the past 6 months, a staggering figure, "amid anger about government cost-cutting and equipment shortages." The British Army has lost 5,790 officers since the Iraq War, with just 4,500 new officers taking their place. There is currently a shortage of 200 majors, a highly unusual state of affairs. With over 12,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan and in southern Iraq, as well as significant commitments in Africa and Europe, Britain has become seriously overstretched.

There can be no doubt that ten years of Labour Party rule has dramatically undermined Britain's long-term fighting capability. The UK now spends just 2.2 percent of its GDP on defense, the lowest level since the 1930s, and less than competitors such as France. As Chancellor of the Exchequer under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown was a ruthless opponent of increased defense spending, and now as Prime Minister he shows no sign of loosening the purse strings. The Treasury is currently considering plans to cut as much as 15 billion pounds ($30 billion) from the UK defence budget in the next 10 years. As UK Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox has wryly noted, "Labour has done what none of this countries' enemies have been able to do: bring the Navy to its knees."

The decline of the British Navy and Army should be an issue of huge concern on both sides of the Atlantic. The Anglo-American alliance is the engine of the war against Islamic terrorism, and the battle against rogue regimes. It is the anchor of the NATO alliance, and the fulcrum of the transatlantic partnership. It should be an issue of huge concern in Washington that America's closest ally might not be capable of fighting alongside it ten years from now. Indeed, Britain may not even be able to defend itself adequately within a generation, if she continues to cut her defense expenditure.

A weaker Britain ultimately means a more vulnerable America, and the decline of British war fighting capability is bad news for Washington. It would be a tragedy if the Special Relationship were to be weakened and ultimately eroded by the short-sightedness of political mandarins in London, more concerned about funding for the welfare state than the security of the free world. Pressure for increased defense expenditure by London and other NATO members should be a top foreign policy priority for the United States.

At a time of great uncertainty internationally, from the continuing Iranian nuclear threat to the resurgence of nationalism in Russia, this is no time for Great Britain to be reducing its ability to project military power worldwide. The West needs a British nation that possesses the willpower and capability to wield force across the globe in the defense of freedom as it has done for centuries. A great warrior nation such as Britain, with a proud history of defending Western civilization, cannot be reduced to a larger version of Belgium or Sweden, outclassed by the likes of China and Russia.

The British government must be willing to invest at a minimum 3 percent of British GDP on defense, and ideally 4 percent, to ensure that Britain's military commitments can be sustained, from the Middle East to the North West Frontier, to West Africa. Without such a commitment, the UK can only expect to decline as a global power, wield less influence diplomatically, and face an increasingly dangerous world from a position of weakness. It is a future that Lord Nelson would never have accepted, and nor should the British people today.

Nile Gardiner is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

About the Author

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D. Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in Human Events