At Large

Britain’s Defense Collapse Continues

David Cameron will soon be traveling without a military escort.

By 2.23.11

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In an article published here on January 18, I mentioned the woeful state of Britain's armed forces, referring then to the gutting of the Royal Navy in particular.

Since then, of course, the Arab world has gone up in flames and while it is impossible to know what will happen, prolonged and serious violence seems certain.

Also, since I last wrote on the subject, further changes in British defense policy have been announced. Reading them moves anyone who cares for Britain and its proud history -- or for the stability and security of the Western world -- from cold shock to a kind of disgusted disbelief.

A quarter of the Royal Air Force's trainee pilots are to be sacked, some on the verge of completing their courses, while the new Nimrod long-range anti-submarine, patrol and transport aircraft, reputedly the most advanced of their kind in the world, are being cut up for scrap. (It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which such aircraft are going to be needed to evacuate British civilians from some of the Arab countries.)

The new Typhoon fighters, the mainstay of the fighter force, are being cannibalized for spare parts. Matthew Sinclair, director of the Taxpayer's Alliance, is reported as saying: "It is incredible that planes costing tens of millions of pounds are being broken down for parts while still new." Tory Member of Parliament and former Army officer Patrick Mercer has said: "The idea of introducing an expensive aircraft like this into service and then immediately using it as some sort of avionics Exchange and Mart is preposterous." It is further reported that the Royal Air force is to be reduced to a total of six squadrons of fast jets -- three of fighters and three of bombers. Even Belgium has five squadrons. Civilian security firms are being contracted for anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean (it was one of the Royal Navy's proudest claims that it had swept the seas clean of pirates nearly 200 years ago). Don't forget that this is happening at a time when the U.S. is making big defense cuts as well.

And now the latest news: according to the quasi-conservative Daily Telegraph, the Army is to lose a further 20,000 men, shrinking it to 80,000, the smallest it has been since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. To add insult to injury, some service personnel, who have devoted their whole lives to their services, with all the danger and hardship that this carries with it, are being notified of their redundancy via e-mails. The Telegraph claims the Treasury wanted the cuts to be twice this size.

One defense source is quoted as saying: "We will be moving into an era of sharing capabilities with our European allies. The days of being able to do everything are long gone."

What this amounts to is an abrogation of national sovereignty, to say nothing of national security and self-respect. Is Britain going to rely on its "European allies" if, for example, it has to defend the Falkland Islands again? What will be the effect on Britain's place in the world if a third-rate military power like Argentina kicks it out, the "European allies" refuse to commit troops and treasure on Britain's behalf (as with their extremely half-hearted commitment to Afghanistan) and it is simply unable to do anything about it?

Another senior officer said that the cuts would be hugely damaging, and that: "Effect on morale? In my judgment it is enormous. If you survive an operational tour you will possibly lose your job post 2015, or your chances of promotion will be reduced in a smaller Army."

It is as if the weird Conservative-Liberal-Democrat coalition of Cameron and Clegg is simply unable to take sovereignty or national security seriously or to realize the obvious fact that the world may be moving into a new phase of dangerous instability.

It is true that much of the fault lies with the previous Labour Governments. A decade of the socialism of Blair and Brown has left the British economy a shambles. Yet even this doesn't wash as an excuse when one considers the stunning fact that Britain, allegedly too poor to defend itself, has actually increased its Foreign Aid budget, with the equivalent of about $1.6 billion going to India alone -- enough to pay for a large part of the Indian space program, or perhaps its aircraft carrier or nuclear submarine program -- the Indian Navy has 56,000 personnel compared to a projected 30,000 for the Royal Navy, as well as about twice the number of ships.

Among innumerable other examples of horrendous waste are the London Olympics and the six-figure pay packets of not only senior national civil servants but also of local government functionaries whose responsibilities revolve round such weighty matters as garbage collection.

Defense has, throughout history, been the first (some would say almost the only) justification of government. The history of the early Middle Ages shows peasants putting up with all manner of tyrannical lords, tax-collectors and robber barons, so long as they kept their part of the bargain and supplied defense and protection. The peasants revolted when their overlords lost the will or ability to defend them. Perhaps Cameron should read some of the accounts of knights in full armor being roasted on spits by the common folk they had failed to defend.

Cameron may have it brought home to him that there is more to leading Britain than membership of the Bullingdon drinking club, a cheesy smile, pretty wife, and cunning in party management.

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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.