I wrote recently on the Blair government’s mocking and degrading the institutions of British Knighthoods, honors, and ceremonies. It is also, it seems, degrading another part of British national identity that is considerably more substantial — the Royal Navy.
Plans have been revealed to “mothball,” as a prelude to probable scrapping or sale, a total of almost half the Navy’s 44 remaining major warships. Indeed this has already happened with 13, including one of the three small aircraft-carriers. Senior officers have said that these latest cuts will reduce the Royal Navy to nothing more than a coast-guard.
The 13 warships now in reduced readiness would take 18 months to make ready for active service. Another six destroyers and frigates and at least two other ships appear to be about to join them.
The names these latest destroyers and frigates to be reduced — Cumberland, Chatham, Cornwall, Campbeltown, Southampton and Exeter — are eloquent of the navy’s already withered state. In World War II four of these names were carried by major cruisers. One of the new names, Chatham, has not been a ship’s name previously because it was the name of a famous base and dockyard closed in 1984.
With continuing cuts, the Royal Navy recently became smaller than the French navy for the first time in centuries, though France, not being an island, actually has much less need for a navy.
WHEN THE BLAIR LABOUR GOVERNMENT came to power in 1997, the Royal Navy had 23 frigates. It now has 17. It then had 12 destroyers, and now has eight. It had the three Invincible-class aircraft-carriers and now has two — the name-ship HMS Invincible is one of those ships that has been reduced and may never go to sea again — and it had 12 hunter-killer submarines and now has 10. Mine counter-measures vessels and auxiliary fleet oil tankers may also go.
These reductions are setting aside the ballistic-missile submarines, which have a highly specialized and separate role, quite distinct from most duties of a post-Cold War navy. However the ballistic-missile submarine base in Scotland may also be under threat if the Scottish National Assembly, created by the Blair government, returns a Scottish Nationalist majority at its elections later this year.
Things get worse for the Royal Navy on closer inspection: it now has no Harrier fighter aircraft to fly off the remaining carriers. Of its three remaining major bases, one may be closed shortly. It has been suggested that the most likely target for closure is Portsmouth, the most historic of Britain’s Naval ports, where Nelson’s Victory is preserved. There are apparently plans afoot to turn Portsmouth base and dockyards into a theme park. Probably worst of all, according to the Daily Telegraph a leaked document suggests there be no naval officer promotions for five years. Apart from towing the remaining ships and crews out to sea and sinking them, it is impossible to imagine a policy more damaging to the Navy in the long-term. What able and ambitious officer would remain in such an organization?
It is also possible that the few orders for new ships will be cut, including two big aircraft-carriers which have been under discussion since 1997 (I wrote at that time that the Navy was referring to them as HMS Nebulous and HMS Unlikely.)
Even if these two carriers do eventuate, it is hard to see how they could operate with so few escorts, and how the highly trained and skilled personnel necessary to operate them and their air-groups will be found when the Navy has ceased to offer attractive career-paths for able people.
Things are looking grim for the other services too, though the problems of the Army and Royal Air Force need articles of their own. It can hardly be said that this is happening in a peaceful world environment where armed forces are not needed: more British forces are deployed overseas than at any time in the last 50 years, and there are many complaints that they are over-stretched, badly equipped, and badly paid and housed.
The professional head of the Navy, Sir Jonathan Band, said recently that more ships were needed because of threats of piracy and terrorism. One senior serving officer was quoted as saying of the latest proposed reductions: “What this means is that we are now no better than a coastal defense force….The Dutch now have a better Navy than Britain.”
It has been forecast that commitments to anti-drugs patrols and hurricane relief support in the Caribbean will have to be dropped. It was also recently said that the Navy had become too small and weak to join in any proposed sanctions against North Korea.
Steve Bush, editor of the magazine Warship World, was reported as saying: “After ten years of Labour government, the Royal Navy is on its knees. Without immediate and proper funding, I cannot see how it can recover.”
With the few remaining units of the fleet stretched around the world from the Gulf to the Caribbean, and with treaty obligations as far away as Malaysia and Singapore, Britain is reported to have just two frigates, HM Ships Monmouth and Montrose, available for duty in home waters, with the Carrier Ark Royal due to re-enter service after a refit.
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