A century ago, when it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire, it was the policy of London politicians that their country’s navy was at least as large as the next two biggest naval powers combined. Those days are long gone. Even during the Cold War, the Royal Navy was in perpetual decline. Whenever a financial crisis arose in Britain, it was the fleet that took the most savage cuts. Now, amid a catastrophic fiscal crisis, the Conservative UK prime minister, David Cameron, has announced an 8 percent cut in defense spending over the next four years. As with previous defense cuts, it is the Royal Navy that stands to be the biggest loser. This time, though, the cuts may actually destroy what is left of the UK’s naval power, leaving in its wake a small coastal protection and fisheries enforcement flotilla, more akin to a glorified Coast Guard.
The key element in the defense cuts is the scrapping of the flagship of the Royal Navy, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. This will leave only one carrier in Britain’s fleet. However, that carrier will be almost useless, as another key component of the defense cuts is the elimination of all combat jets currently serving in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm
David Cameron and his minions boast that this is only a temporary suspension in naval capability, as two new aircraft carriers are already under construction. However, under current plans, when these multi-billion dollar carriers are completed, they will become glorified helicopter carriers, as no new naval jets will be available until 2019.
In the last run of naval cuts under the previous Labour government, the Royal Navy lost about half of its destroyers and frigates, and several submarines. There was a grand bargain, however; the money saved from scrapping the escort vessels and submarines would be used to buy the new aircraft carriers and a complement of naval fighter-bombers. However, with no jets available to the Royal Navy until 2019 ( and that commitment is a tenuous one) it would not surprise anyone if the UK government ended up scrapping or selling at least one of the new aircraft carriers, and perhaps mothballing the remaining one indefinitely.
The ruling coalition government claims that even with the defense cuts, the UK will remain one of the most potent military powers in NATO. However, with so much waste at the Ministry of Defense in London remaining, it appears that the bulk of the cuts are directed at real defensive capability.
Ever since the defeat of the of the Spanish Armada in 1588 by Francis Drake, it has been the Royal Navy that has been the most reliable deterrent to aggression in the defense of Britain. It was the fleet that kept Napoleon at bay, and stood between Adolf Hitler and the conquest of the British Isles. Once the totality of Cameron’s naval cuts take effect, however, there will be little left of the Royal Navy save a glorious history.