A Further Perspective

Scrapping the Hero of Benghazi

Britain's defense goes from bad to unbelievable.

By 3.1.11

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There is generally a certain satisfaction in being able to say, "I told you so!" On January 18 and February 23 I published articles on the ruin of Britain's defense capabilities, just as the Arab turmoil demonstrated once again that the world appears to be moving into a new phase of dangerous instability.

A few days ago a British frigate, HMS Cumberland, put into Benghazi to evacuate several hundred British, American, and other civilians threatened by the fighting there. One American interviewed expressed his relief at seeing the White Ensign flying.

Cumberland, a powerful, modern and relatively new ship, happened to be in the area because it was on its way back to Britain to be scrapped, part of the present government's mad scheme to reduce the Navy to just 12 frigates and 12 destroyers, along with comparable cuts to the Army and the Royal Air Force.

Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, has been swanning around Cairo, and achieving no one knows exactly what, though certainly he now has plenty of surplus weaponry to offer whoever takes power there.

Now comes the truly incredible part: while on his jaunt, Cameron left the running of the country -- during a serious international crisis -- to deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who actually (I kid you not!) forgot he was meant to be in charge of Britain and departed on a skiing holiday in Switzerland. When reminded of the fact, he pointed out that he was able to keep in touch with London by Blackberry should he be required.

All this hammers home the point I have recently been trying to make: Britain is being run by incompetents who do not even pretend to take the first responsibility of any government -- the Defense of the Realm -- seriously. The U.S. has its problems but I have little doubt that in the U.S. such behavior would lead to immediate impeachment proceedings. And this abdication of national self-respect has taken place under a coalition government with a Conservative majority. The Daily Mail is admittedly a right-wing paper with a strong line in indignant stories about what's-Britain-coming-to, but even it doesn't use the work "treachery" lightly.

HMS Cumberland is already for two reasons an image of the sad decline of the Royal Navy and of Britain's defense forces in general. The previous ship to bear the name was a heavy cruiser, and before that it was borne over the centuries by several capital ships. Britain today does not have a single cruiser of any description and its last serving capital ship, HMS Ark Royal, is also due for disposal (The last capital ship in commission is Nelson's Victory, which if things keep going as they are, may be required to put to sea again. Fortunately several of its sails as well as its cannons have been preserved along with the hull.)

The present Cumberland also made the headlines when, in obedience to the diktats of political correctness, a Satanist chapel was installed to accommodate the proclivities of a Satanist crewmember. No, I am not making this up -- it is not exactly a cheerful thought that in the new, non-discriminatory Royal Navy a Satanist might get his finger on a certain red button. (By way of contrast, I toured one of the last British cruisers, HMS Tiger, some years ago. The sentence in polished brass letters on the ceremonial rum-cask: FEAR GOD; HONOUR THE QUEEN, stuck in my mind.) The phrase "What would Nelson have said?" has been used in so many headlines to stories about Naval cuts and other scandals that it has become a cliché, but in this particular case it seems a reasonable question.

Senior officers have said British forces would struggle to mount even a small-scale military intervention as the cupboard for resources is bare.

They have also warned that there is little chance of even being able to mount rescue operations similar to that which Cumberland undertook in the future. Service chiefs have also warned the Prime Minister that destroying the Harrier jet force and scrapping Ark Royal would put personnel at considerable risk. The Army has just one battalion on standby for emergency operations and this is said to lack the correct equipment for training.

As well as other losses the Navy's amphibious landing force will be cut in half by the mothballing of the landing ship Bulwark and other craft.

One senior officer was quoted as saying: "We certainly could not do an operation like Sierra Leone again because we have no fast jets. Even to achieve and sustain a foothold ashore would be difficult." Another senior Navy officer said, "The locker is not just empty it's completely threadbare."

H. G. Wells suggested for his epitaph: "I told you so, you bloody fools!"

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.