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
    +1

    Comment number 105.

    The Royal Navy will increase by up to 10 extra ships in the future the current type 23 frigates are due to be replaced with between 16 and 22 as opposed to the 13 now, However I to am worried. RAF & Navy are future. Sadly not many wars will be with soldiers in future, it'll be about bombing the enemy before that happens. Cold war has declined navy since '77 but it needs to increase.

  • rate this
    -19

    Comment number 104.

    Get rid of the NHS and then all the UK problems would be solved. Thats tens of billions in savings which could be used for everything including defense, research, new school ect ect. Get rid of the NHS and use the Swiss style health insurance, the rich pay the poor get state support. Sorted.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 103.

    Warfare is not about numbers of tanks or troops anymore. It's about technology. So comparing figures from 35 years ago to now is completely bogus.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 102.

    In fact the parallel could be drawn with the run up to WWI, with Britain spending huge amounts building battleships which turned out to be little to no use in a land war in Europe. The threats today are being tackled by reconnaissance and mounted infantry patrols supported by artillery and air support. Scrap nuclear missiles and the subs which carry them and buy UAVs and helicopters.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 101.

    If the public wishes to see how our money has been wasted checkout the military surplus market.

    e.g. 3 Year Old Springer ATV's with 100KM's on the clock reputed to cost £93K each being sold off at £12K plus VAT. Loads of other examples and an MOD out of control wasting taxpayers (Our) money

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 100.

    The MOD has been allowed to turn into one of the most wasteful parts of the UK. We have about 40 ships/subs - but pay for over 40 admirals, not to mention higher ranks than that.

    We agree a tender for a military item then end up paying 3 or 4 times the cost for an item that doesnt do what we needed it to do, thats if it is ever delivered in the first place. We should buy off the shelf.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 99.

    Wow, ChadH lemme guess, you believe that servicemen and women spring fully trained and equipped out of the ground whenever some dunce of a politician sprinkles dragons teeth on the ground.Amazingly enough back in the 70's and 80's our armed forces were equipped with kit designed in the 50's, and some of that kit entered service in dthe late 70's.it took not years but decades to get into service.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 98.

    it reminds of the phrase "going to hell in a hand cart" . something of a shame because at least before it was a rolls royce but had long since been downgraded to a nissan micra and it seems now the hand cart is all that is left .....

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 97.

    Defence is hamstrung several ways.If we hadnt copped-out buying US systems (Trident,Harpoon) we wouldnt be at their beck/call politically,in ludicrous Mid-East guerrilla warfare;also,making war 'human rights' friendly has removed other strings from the defence bow (mines,certain bombs);and having a water-tight immigration system to exclude terrorism,but again,compromise for UN/EU human rights.

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 96.

    Like i have said before and will repeat again: If Argentina reverted to military dictatorship, the Falklanders will be defenseless and Argentina will retake the Island within a week or less

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 95.

    Yes - it does show decline, but not inevitable decline,rather imposed decline.
    The money exists but it is being used to bribe internal and external irritants.
    At home there is the interstellar welfare budget and abroad the naked payment of Dane geld.
    Devolution carried out as policy in all things will only lead to complete destruction.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 94.

    Military strength is used for more than just fighting other countries. Who gets called to help after a natural disaster? Who protects our national interests around the globe? If the capability is lost, it takes a lot longer to rebuild it when it's needed. Think of the military as insurance for the nation; you don't need it most of the time, but when it goes wrong, you're damn glad to have it!

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 93.

    It's an interesting article on the week that finally saw the demise of Vicars and our last capability to acually produce weapons. The reduction in our capability to defend ourselves is shameful. We are entering a very dangerous period in Europe and we should be bulking up our defenses not shutting them down.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 92.

    This is a disgracefully biased article. It certainly takes for granted that we should be continuing to flex our muscles as we have been.. When arguably (and particularly when considering what other sectors have been subject to cuts, such as the NHS) we should be stepping back and accepting we're not what we were, and perhaps rightly so.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 91.

    Finally the Tories/Lib dems have reduced us to a home defence force without any capability of protecting our home land, i was in the forces for 24 years and find the attitude to our forces deplorable. The sooner the coalition get voted out the better, hopefully before they destroy this great country of ours ( not just theirs as they seem to think )

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 90.

    Non of this was an issue before the banks (along with asset bubble and overpriced houses) ruined everything then were bailed out, especially the asset stripping rbs and hbos mob. There are no parrallels with the 1930s, we were the worlds biggest spender for defence, and the only power (number 1) that mattered in the world, with huge industry. No one thought WW2 would come so soon.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 89.

    No anti aircraft and anti ballistic missiles? The aster 30 missiles which are deployed on our type 45 destroyers are capable of both roles. Talking about type 45's and lack of surface ships, I'd have thought that a defence correspondent would know that one of them is as effective as five of the type 42's they've replaced. So many points I could counter, so little space to do it...

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 88.

    Military Industrial Complex. Fabricate Threats to ensure continued massive Offence Spending. Eisenhower warned of this and the USA isn't the only one with a large MIC. Couple that with using our military to commit violence in other countries on behalf of Globalist Elite investors then it's clear that it's nothing to do with 'defence' any more. Spend tax money on positive things not killing people

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 87.

    We should recognise that the world wars of the future will not need nuclear missiles. They are chewing up a large part of military expenditure which could be better spent on troops on the ground, which Afghanistan has proven to still be needed. We can't afford to sustain a weapon we will never use. Our troops will still go overseas, they will just be worked harder and more poorly-equipped.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 86.

    Let me tell you something important, all warfare is mostly psychological. A soldier may where a helmet but if he is hit in the head with a 50 calibre round he will be dead just like the soldier who has no helmet. A bullet proof vest makes a soldier feel safer not necessarily safer than someone who does not have one. Having an army may make us feel safer but no army can stop a nuke.

 

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