Jubilees show UK's declining ability to protect itself

HMS Illustrious

The latest round of defence cuts involves 3,800 redundancies, and it is clear from the Ministry of Defence's figures that just under one third of those going have been given no choice in the matter.

The department stressed on Tuesday that these figures are part of previously announced plans to reduce the armed forces by 17,000, but it is worth looking at the decline in the UK armed forces over the longer term.

Since we are fresh from the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and the Thames River pageant it is worth reminding ourselves of what has been lost since the 1977 Silver Jubilee.

As a young man, I bought myself a ticket on the Isle of Wight ferry, and sailed through the lines of warships at anchor in the Solent - there were lines of Leander class frigates, 'O' class diesel submarines, and minesweepers.

When it came to foreign representation, a couple of countries sent aircraft carriers and others a destroyer. Back in 1977 New Zealand sent a frigate - this time a Maori canoe to paddle up the Thames; the UK is not on its own in this.

Feeling the pain

At the Silver Jubilee, the Royal Navy had 69 destroyers and frigates, now it has 19. There were 76,200 serving in the Senior Service whereas today it is 34,000. Of course the RAF has been hit hard too, with a force of combat aircraft about one quarter of the size that it was back in 1977, and the Army has lost two thirds of its tanks.

In this latest round of cuts, the Army has received most attention, because its strength is now falling from around 100,000 a few years ago to 82,000 in the near future. There is plenty of pain involved in this, of course, for people who thought they had a career in the forces but are now being asked to leave, air bases closed, or famous regiments disbanded.

While many professional soldiers feel that an Army with the five brigades, the force established under the Coalition government's Strategic Defence and Security Review (the SDSR), has sunk below a critical level, I would argue that they have probably got off the lightest of the three services.

As we shift from Jubilee to Olympic mode, the fragility of the UK's home defences is striking:

The UK has no defence against missile attack (unlike Japan, several Gulf states and Israel); no long range anti-aircraft missiles (they went 30 years ago); no diesel submarines able to protect the home islands (these were scrapped in the 1990s); only enough minesweepers to keep one of its major ports open; no long range maritime patrol aircraft (binned in the SDSR); there is frequently no frigate or destroyer available for home defence; and the number of RAF interceptors that are fully operational is barely adequate.

Niche skills

Of course the UK can still rain nuclear destruction with Trident missiles, sustain a deployment of several thousand troops overseas or one of two dozen or so combat aircraft. Its capabilities in this last respect have eroded even since last year's Libyan operation.

The MoD can still offer certain niche capabilities that foreign allies - principally the US - still value, but these can be counted on the fingers of one hand, including special forces, precision bombing, and minesweepers.

But oddly, the UK has retained some capability to "project power" in far corners of the world at the precise moment that the political will to do so has collapsed, because of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At this time, in this summer in which Britain itself is the focus of a major "Op Olympic" effort, the really striking thing is how diminished the capability to protect the country itself is.

Changing threats

Now of course it can be argued that Britain is not directly threatened by any of its neighbours and that defence is a hugely expensive thing to maintain in times of austerity.

Equally though it should be apparent that the world is less stable than it was, say at the time of that 1977 fleet review, and that the ability of the UK or the Western family of nations more widely, to shape world events is sharply diminished.

These days it is China that is stepping up defence spending, and the United Arab Emirates is set to field more advanced combat aircraft than the RAF.

While many have pointed to the political consequences of the global recession, for example in feeding nationalism or extremism, and some have drawn parallels with the 1930s, nobody is yet advocating that there be rearmament.

Indeed, in asking Tornado crews to bomb Libya while the force of these aircraft was being cut, or soldiers to patrol in Helmand when their regiments may be shrinking, the tension between austerity and trying to retain some kind of military role in an unstable world could hardly be starker.

Mark Urban Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    The problem is not that we're spending too little (we still have the 3rd largest military budget in the world) the problem is that we don't get enough for it. Inefficient spending is the real culprit here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    The 21st century will involve huge amounts of change. It will also be very dangerous. I'd be much happier if we had the Armed Forces to protect the country and the seas surrounding us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    The defence budget would go much further if it were not administered by pig-headed, nasty, corrupt, morons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    No mention here of the vastly declined and vital Merchant marine and the reserve it indeed holds or held. What remains of the British merchant fleet is also full of cheap foreign nationals able to be there through a weak clause in the race relations act.
    The British flag on the high seas is certainly becoming rare!

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    i understand the need to cut spending but i personally think getting rid of our harriers was a step to far - every modern fleet needs air cover - just look at what happened to HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales when they were sent against japan in 1941. if the government put a limit on the amount each plane/ship/tank/gun cost to buy it might keep cost down a bit?

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    This country disgusts me more and more with each day I live in it.

    We would rather employ some film director by the name of Danny Boyle to waste 27+ million on a closing ceremony for the Olympics than continue to invest in our armed forces properly so IF we are ever in need of them they are there.

    About time the UK got it's priorities right.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    I like the fact that our 6 billion dollar warships don't have any anti-ship missiles !

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    The defence of the realm is the first duty of government

    It is a duty that successive governments have failed in.
    Britain is militarily weak with no naval air assets, an insufficient navy and an army that has been strategically defeated in every task it has undertaken since 1982.
    The industry required to make effective weapons has long withered away.
    I fear for the security of our country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Considering that the UK, the USA and Israel are the main terrorists of the world, we don't really need any more big armies or weapons ... remember these 3 countries and you now have a clue to who is the organizational terrorists of "al-Qaeda" .

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Spending the cash on actual defence is needed,not setting the world to rights in Iraq,Afghanistan,Lebanon-Syria next?The UK isnt the worlds moral policeman anymore-this obsession with human rights libertarian crusading-we cant afford it.If the Arabs want to spring,let them do it with their own two feet,and if its about oil-say so,dont wrap it up in promoting democracy flannel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    The days of Empire have got nothing to do with it and many wars britain was in were not to do with Empire anyway (the Empire use is a red herrring), our global influence is not gone and should be enhanced. We may find in the future many things do concern us, especially if we are weaker. If a C'wealth country face aggression, do you think we would not be involved. There's 50 odds chances we would.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    I'm not sure if Mark got the Memo, but the Cold war is over. There is little to no chance of a Russian invasion, so a cold war era fighting force (ala 1977) is clearly not in the national interest.

    If and when big scary superpower looms, then by all means, increase the military, but at the moment given the risk factors abroad, I think even with the cuts we're about right.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    The biggest problem is the MOD. Bloated, incompetent, overstaffed and totally unfit for purpose! These armchair warriors have cost a fortune to the taxpayer with their errors and mismanagement and need to be dismantled and replaced with a competent department that could provide for the defence of the realm. Our military capability has been eroded to the state of a third world country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    I *strongly* recommend reading "War and Antiwar" by the Tofflers.

    The days of 2nd-wave warfare are passing and we should (and, indeed, are) move to smarter, higher-tech and lower-scale warfare and defence.

    The weapons of mass distraction these days are better exemplified by stuxnet than Trident.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    If we have to make anyone redundant, it should be the civil servants in the MoD who outnumber the few servicemen they are supposed to support.

    Having a well-run and well-funded "Buy British" defence procurement policy would go a long way to maintaining the UK manufacturing and export sector and the jobs that go with it. It would have been a better way to spend the billions we gave the banks !

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    My only hope is that Dear old Winston C's word do not come back to haunt us, 'Never will (have) so many owed so much to su few'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Today the USAF equivalent of the reserves have more fast jets on active service than the RAF has aircraft (including transport and trainers), and more bases in the middle east than we have bases IN TOTAL

    ... and we're a world power? Yeh, right!

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Yet more preparation for "world government"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Who cares, as long as the life-long spongers get their dole and housing benefit - Yes I am being ironic!

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    SHAME on successive governments for grinding our armed services into the ground.
    In the same period we have dramatically increased the hand outs to anyone including terrorists who want to live in the UK and not work. It is a disgrace.


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