Earlier this month, on the day of the coronation, the world saw Britain’s armed forces at their best – dressed up to the nines, marching in close formation behind the monarch’s golden carriage. They made an uplifting sight, especially at the end when they raised their headgear in unison on the lawns of Buckingham Palace to give their commander-in-chief three cheers.
I confess, it brought a tear to my eyes.
But that was the fairy tale. The reality is that the UK’s military might has diminished, is diminishing and, in global terms, will shortly be the least it has been since the time of the first Elizabeth. The government tries to keep the myth of relevance alive by talking big and projecting itself into the heart of every international crisis. But it’s all talk; the gunboats aren’t there anymore. We talk of a defence alliance with Japan and of our key role in the AUKUS deal with the US and Australia. On the ground (and at sea and in the air), we are out of breath, running hard to stand still.
At this week’s London Defence Conference, Rishi Sunak put on a brave face when questioned about Britain’s ability to play its part in building a safer world. Speaking in the wake of the G7 summit in Japan to Reaction’s own Iain Martin, he said that the UK was “leading the conversation” on global security, providing the intellectual heft that underpinned the West’s efforts to defend Ukraine against Russia and contain Chinese expansionism in the Pacific.
The Prime Minister spoke well, not only at the LDC, but in Hiroshima. Having a grown-up in charge in Downing Street makes a welcome change. It is also true that Britain led the way in persuading the West to go all-out in backing Ukraine. Sunak wasn’t wrong about that. But the painful truth is that beyond the war of words, we are in no position to lead from the front in a major conflict. It is just as well that we don’t have to go into Ukraine. We don’t have the troops, the tanks, the ships, the aircraft or the reserves. We are about as ready for a major conflict as we were in 1914 and 1939, or indeed the Falklands War, which we only won by the skin of our teeth.
Now it could be that the decision has been taken at the highest level to pivot from soldiers, sailors and pilots to the development of space-age technology, reducing the numbers of men and women in uniform to little more than might be required to launch a rescue mission or, if the Russians come, to fight them on the beaches. But if it is forward-looking for us to shrink our conventional forces, why are America, Russia and China, as well as our European allies, doing precisely the opposite?
There are states and provinces in China and India that are bigger than Britain in both area and population, and the same is true when it comes to economic growth. There is no shame in the former, and the latter is not a given, simply a trend. And, in fairness, we are the only European country to have regularly hit the Nato requirement of 2 per cent of GDP on defence spending. But while our partners, led by Germany, have all announced impressive increases in spending, Britain has hardly budged. Poland is catching up rapidly and aims to pass us militarily, as well as in terms of wealth per capita, sometime in the next ten years.
The end of empire was inevitable. A grand opera, based on the stripping of other nation’s assets, it left a very different legacy to the one imagined by the Victorians. But then, seventy years on, just as we had more or less adjusted to our new status as a European power within the EU, we made the decision to draw back from our next-door neighbours, beside whom we have lived for millennia, and to turn instead to the nations of the Pacific, ten thousand miles away, for our salvation.
Why did we do that? Was it simply a post-imperial reflex? Do we really see Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines as part of our backyard, but not in Italy, Austria or Spain? It is all a nonsense. And it is misplaced pride that is responsible.
Out of sheer vanity, Britain still chooses to see itself punching above its weight. But if we are so clever with our fists, how come Australia and Canada are building more warships than the UK? Why is Poland on course to become the dominant military power in Europe, with a thousand-plus tanks on order against Britain’s projected total of 148? Could the UK take on the United Arab Emirates, never mind Iran or Russia, if it came to a fight? True we have no need to do so (a bit of a clincher, really), but the fact is that on our own we are all busbies and no rocket launchers. Those who tell you otherwise are dreamers.
In pure military terms, we have been scraping the barrel for years. Our two carriers (ordered by Tony Blair!) are steam-driven, largely without aircraft and highly vulnerable to attack. One, the Prince of Wales, has been undergoing major repairs for the best part of a year after failing to make it out of Southampton Water on its way to America. The other, the Queen Elizabeth, is almost literally an empty vessel. We have only six destroyers, against the twelve that were promised, and due to engine defects these have spent most of their lives to date confined to their home port. Just 13 new frigates are on order, five of which are little more than coastal patrol vessels. Of our two remaining assault ships, only one is in active service, while our submarine-based nuclear deterrent, though ruinously expensive, serves no useful purpose this side of Armageddon.
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The British Army that once garrisoned a quarter of the world, is today tiny and ill-equipped. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace recently confirmed that the complement of full-time soldiers will fall to just 72,000, plus reserves, the smallest number for more than 200 years. There will be more Britons at Wembley Stadium for the Cup Final than could be mustered to secure the nation from an overnight attack or to defend its interests abroad. The French Army has a full-time strength of 120,000, backed, if required, by the 102,000-strong Gendarmerie Nationale. The US Marine Corps, with 182,000 full-timers, is substantially more lethal, while America’s Regular Army, numbering half a million, supported by 550,000 fully-trained reservists, leaves us looking like the Ruritanian Palace Guard.
The RAF has some fine aircraft, but fewer with each passing year. We have cut back again and again on our order for US-made F35 attack jets. In March, it was revealed that the total number, to be shared with the Navy, will not exceed 73 – just half what was originally envisaged. Talk about The Few! Norway and Australia, with a combined population less than one third that of the UK, have each ordered 52 F35s. Poland has put in an initial order for 32 but is expected to add as many again in the coming years. The talk now is that Britain will work with Italy and Japan to develop its own next-generation fighter, to be known as the Tempest, but this has yet to be confirmed and it would be at least 15 years before it entered service. In the meantime, the Hawk trainers flown by the Red Arrows display team are older than their pilots.
If some future government were to take the decision to tone down the global rhetoric while honing our armed forces into a lean, mean fighting machine, NATO, I submit, would actually benefit. We could then do what we do best. The alternative is that we put our money where our mouth is and bankrupt ourselves building a military equipped to fly the flag across the world’s oceans, showing up at the inflection point of every international crisis.
But why would we do that? What is our special wisdom and who, other than the Brass, would be impressed? Not China, that’s for sure, and not the US, which in recent years has openly questioned our readiness and capacity to fight a serious war. What, in any case, gives the United Kingdom the right to be at the heart of decision-making in an Asian and Pacific-centred world in which the population will soon reach nine billion? In the nineteenth century, we were the world’s foremost military power, with an economy to match. In the twenty-first, we are struggling to keep up.
The lesson, surely, is that we must learn to cut our suit according to our cloth, and to that end what we need is better cloth, so that, with the economy thriving, we can become, militarily, Savile Row, not TJ Maxx. All else is delusion.
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