They say war is too important to be left to the generals. But that is only true until the fighting starts.
The Tories have already cut the British Army to 82,000 full-time personnel. The plan now is to further reduce that number to around 65,000. As experts have warned over and over again, the shortage of soldiers and equipment has reached the stage where large-scale deployments have become practically impossible. In 1990, Britain sent 45,000 troops to Iraq. That would be inconceivable today. The Russians say they could wipe out any ground forces we put up against them in less than a day; the Americans have given up pleading with their so-called closest ally to do something, and now plan operations on a purely unilateral basis.
The RAF is also feeling the pinch. When the Government finally decided to engage in air-strikes in Syria, it turned out we had only eight suitably-deployed aircraft – Tornadoes, dating from the 1980s – plus a dozen or so drones, known as Reapers, that in fact did most of the work. Compared with the effort put in variously by the U.S. and Russia, Britain’s contribution barely registered.
In theory, a hundred or so F35 strike aircraft, made by Lockheed-Martin, are due to be delivered to the RAF over the next ten years. In practice, with the price per unit approaching $100m, the number will almost certainly be reduced. Ironically, the reason the F35 was preferred to further development of the acclaimed Eurofighter, known as the Typhoon, was economy of scale. Overseas sales of the European aircraft have proved disappointing, whereas the USAF on its own has ordered 1,763 F35s. But the price tag of the American product just keeps on growing. No wonder most RAF purchases these days come in batches of nine or ten, with squadrons sometimes comprising as little as four aircraft.
But it is the Royal Navy that is in the most pitiable condition. True, it has one large aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, almost ready to come on stream, and another, the Prince of Wales, due to enter service in 2023. But neither of these ships would have been commissioned by the present or previous government, and to pay for them we are reportedly setting up an auction of our other capital ships.
Though each of the carriers was built to house as many as 70 aircrafts, the presumption, at least in the short-term, is that only a handful of the marine version of the F35 will be on board, plus as few as five Merlin anti-submarine helicopters. So let’s hope war doesn’t break out until we’ve got our act together. And all that assumes that the Prince of Wales is not in fact sold off to a foreign power.
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As it is, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, the navy’s two amphibious warfare ships, look set to be sold to Brazil or Chile – though not, it would seem, to Argentina. The MOD denies this; the scale of budgetary restraint suggests otherwise. Rightly, our Royal Marines still have a reputation for being world class, but if the MoD goes ahead with these sales, and cuts 10,000 personnel (as it is threatening to do), we would throw that reputation down the drain too. The American high command, which seems to understand this better than our own government, has explicitly warned that these cuts would drastically change the relationship between the US Marine Corps and our Royal Marines.
The same tendency is hitting every class of surface ship. A decade ago, the plan was that the navy would be provided with 12 revolutionary type 45 destroyers. The 12 became eight, and then six. All six turned out to be unsuitable for use in tropical waters and are scheduled to have new engines fitted, at enormous cost, before they can be fully deployed. In the meantime, they spend most of their time in port. Russia scoffed that they could hear a type 45 coming from 100 miles away, sounding to them like a box full of spanners.
Frigates were the next to feel the weight of cuts. A total of 18 type 26 frigates, known as global combat ships, was originally planned. By the time successive axes fell, the number had dropped to eight, with five not yet ordered. To plug the rather obvious gap between eight and eighteen, it was then announced that six cut-price, bog-standard type 31e frigates would be ordered – down from 13 previously “scoped”.
Which leaves only security, intelligence, and submarines. At the moment, there is no doubt that the UK is the leading European power when it comes to security and intelligence, but the risk is that we could end up with a sophisticated understanding of the nature of global threat without the capacity – beyond special forces – to confront, or deter, those responsible.
Corbyn-willing, our four ageing Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines are to be replaced by four Dreadnought boats, each coming it at around 17,000 tonnes. There will, in addition, be six, maybe seven Astute-class nuclear hunter-killers, plus a scattering of conventionally-powered coastal patrol boats. But too much depends on these.
The fact that the navy, without its nuclear arm, is a mere shadow of what it was even at the time of the Falklands war seems, to the Government, an irrelevance. Either that or minsters have totally lost the ability to see what is in front of them. Real wars require real ships (and real soldiers and real aircrafts), and the truth is, we have effectively abandoned the field. We could have a splendid navy, as well as a bigger army and a better-equipped air force, if the ballistic missile submarines were axed. But no. That would be out of the question. Britain’s prestige in the world apparently demands that we should have the capacity to initiate Armageddon.
The precipitous decline in our conventional military strength wouldn’t matter much, of course, if Britain were to declare itself a medium-sized European power, with enough strike capability to play its part, along with France, Germany and the rest, right down to Luxembourg, in the event that Russia or China decided to invade. This is what the EU is aiming for, with or without the UK. There is, after all, no obvious reason why in the twenty-first century we should have to pretend it is still 1900 and Britain is the world’s policeman. But the Tories won’t accept that times have changed. They cut and cut, but even as they do so they continue to insist that Britain is not only Europe’s foremost independent military power, but America’s closest ally, ready to stand by its side when duty calls.
It is time reality caught up with the rhetoric, or else that the rhetoric was scaled down to the actual size of our present-day military capability. We can’t have it both ways. We just look silly.