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 325.

  • rate this

    Comment number 324.

    If we cannot defend ourselves adequately we have to trust in others - Russia or China not to attack or intimidate; the US or Europe to work with us. I am not anti-Europeans but they are not prepared to commit resources or not dependable on military issues. So we should keep Trident and have adequate forces - drones and attack helicopters rather than tanks should be the real debate..

  • rate this

    Comment number 323.

    @316. Comicbookguy:
    Having both lived in and travelled around continental Europe I can immediately tell which country I'm in: Britain has a clear, distinct identity - just one you don't like. And if you think Germany 'controls Europe' then you clearly have no idea how the EU functions. You seem to hate the idea of foreign people living in the UK; why is that, beyond mere xenophobia and racism?

  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    No point defending ourselves. The enemy is within.

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    @20"late 1930s,with the UK falling over itself to disarm and reduce spending"
    Umm the UK decided to rearm in 1934 and began in 1935 - over four years before WWII started. Hitler KNEW he would fight, controlled when and formed strategy on quick Blitzkrieg conquests. The UK re-armed on the basis of a long war, preserving economic strength (stamina)

    Analogies should be used with care (and books)

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    316. Comicbookguy
    Walk down most city centre roads n you don't even know what country your in. Germany already controls Europe; a country cannot do what it wants without running it by them first
    Easily disproved by looking at which 2 EU nations opposed invading Iraq.

    Before bashing foreigners too much you might want to check out the names of the majority of VC winners. Start with the Ghurkas

  • rate this

    Comment number 319.

    What the Falklands proved just 4 years after 1977 is a lot of the equipment we proudly displayed didn't work very well. We had lots of it and it was junk. Ships made of a flammable metal (aluminium), minimal firefighting gear and uniforms made of polyester to save money was a disaster. At least the equipment we have now mostly works as it should.

  • rate this

    Comment number 318.

    'I have no sympathy for people being made redundant by this government if they voted Conservative at the last election'

    Bit harsh......Labour had run their course, it was time for a change same as it was in 97, - we just haven't got the changes this time most were hoping for !

    Not sure what will happen in 2015 - trade in one lot of egocentrical buffoons for another again ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    It's sort of nice, sort of hopeful that UK has reduced its defensive position. Whatever message it appears the UK is sending, it says to me that you cannot fight without the weapons you do not have. No matter what the future brings, being less powerful will make Britain less likely to be attacked. Even if there occurs a terrorist attack, mega-weapons will not defend the UK. Intelligence will.

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    Walk down most city centre roads n you don't even know what country your in. Germany already controls Europe; a country cannot do what it wants without running it by them first. What's the point in having an army when:
    1) we are already invaded with more foreigners and unknown tax dodgers than anyone can imagine
    2)we fight for provocation to justify playing god against Islam; an unwinnable war

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    Rearmament is necessary: the Eurozone will collapse and tensions will rise. We need a large airforce to defend the skies, with aircraft that operate both on land and at sea from our carriers. The Army might be fighting insurgents in Afghanistan at the moment, but it won't be able to use lightfoot tactics in an open contest against a similarily ranked power. Cut our defences at your peril.

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    If I had made, or even been only implicated in the process of reducing our Island nation to be dependent on Foreign powers for defence, I would be classed as a Traitor.
    Certain "Spies" did far far less to this country and were deemed so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    Briton falls, our economy fails, government debt could/would be deleted, the EU fails and the worlds economy fails (again). Do you think that will ever be allowed to happen? We are no longer solely responsible for the defence of our nation. We must, and do reply on others about us. Also, what threat are we running from? Who is it that is coming to get us?

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    An Island nation with a neutered Navy.
    A country with a savaged Air Force.
    An Army running on its knees.
    A people governed by self -serving numpties who do not learn frae history.
    Well this is the 21st century???
    Serve your county, risk you life and get the sack - nice!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    Better cancel Trident and expensive slow Aircraft carriers than cut force numbers.

    The UK military industrial machine employs so many in useless jobs Government cannot just turn it off payments.

    I hope government at some time will stand up to the waste in MoD and say enough - there is no money left - as you wasted it on the last lot of military "white elephants".

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    milatary spending is like an insurance after they event you ether got it or you have not. time to build new weapons that are at the top end, mean the war would be ended before you get them in most cases.

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    government is always trying to plan for last war not the one we will see in future. the next threat is never what you think.
    instead of the USSR it was Argentina. Syria not Iran. Iraq not Iran. the next threat is never what think it will be. 911 not Serbia.
    a centralized force like Iraq or or decentralized for like AL-Qaeda.
    Given current world you hit usually before you realize your at war.

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    I have to ask a few questions. What would I, personally, consider the greatest use from tax revenue? What would I rather - bombers or pothole free roads? Submarines or decent schools? 50 destroyers or a world class NHS?

    If we decide to sustain armed forces we should do it properly. If we decide not to, we should stop wasting money on a half-way-house and bin the lot.

    Bin them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    Three thousand years of history show us "if you want peace prepare for war" (Vegetius). The UK is totally and utterly dependent on trade by sea yet the Royal Navy is so overstreched, under-manned and equipped with too few primarily elderly ships that it cannot protect the sea ways. Potential enemies are building up their navies now.The Royal Navy needs expansion not destruction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 306.

    Yeah! Vote labor or lib dem! Cuz they know exactly how to spend borrowed money..... Non profit jobs are the way forward! Let's pay people to sit around doing nothing like human resources, community support officers, the dole bashers/druggie chav council flat scumbags cuz we have a never ending supply of money! And also heroin thanks to the efforts in afghanistan =) our work ther is done hence cuts


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