*Editor's note: This article is the first in a two-part series. Part I will focus on the impact of budget cuts on the British navy. Part II will focus on the implications for U.S. national security policy.
Source: David Axe - WPR World Politics Review
(NSI News Source Info) KOTTAKKAL, Kerala, India - October 28, 2010:
|On June 3 at Portsmouth Naval Base, hundreds of dignitaries and citizens gathered to celebrate the commissioning of HMS Dauntless, the second of six high-tech Type 45 destroyers now entering service. A band played, the crew marched in parade and the ship's captain, Richard Powell, read the traditional "commissioning warrant." There was even cake.|
But the cheery event belied a looming storm for a naval service that once dominated the world's oceans. On Oct. 19, the U.K. Ministry of Defense announced its long-awaited -- and, for military professionals, long-dreaded -- Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) (.pdf). The end result of the SDSR process is a much smaller fleet and a net reduction in the U.K.'s ability, in the medium term, to influence world events. The implications are enormous for Great Britain and the world.
For months, the new Conservative government had warned of deep cutbacks in the Defense Ministry's roughly $63 billion annual budget, part of the government's aggressive plan to rein in decades of deficit spending. "Without healthy finances we can create neither the public services nor the national security we desire," Defense Secretary Liam Fox said in August.
Royal Navy observers expected the so-called senior service to lose ships. But few expected cuts as deep as those announced in October. While the six Type 45s would remain, many of the navy's most capable existing warships would go, as would one of two planned aircraft carriers. In a moment, the navy lost two of its three current small aircraft carriers, one of four amphibious landing ships, one-quarter of its frigates and destroyers plus several support vessels. For the ministry, these and other reductions would mean an 8 percent savings in annual defense spending.
But the savings translate to a serious reduction in military capability. The Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary support service will now number probably fewer than 100 vessels, down from around 110. This approximately 10 percent cut in ship numbers is deceptively small, for the eliminated vessels are predominantly large ones representing a disproportionate concentration of weaponry and capability. In terms of tonnage, a rough proxy for combat capability, the reduction is closer to one-quarter.
"This is a real punch in the gut for the Royal Navy and it has a significant impact on the ability of the United Kingdom to project power and maintain presence abroad," Eric Wertheim, an independent U.S. naval analyst, told World Politics Review.
The October cuts will see Britain abandoning at least one previously sacrosanct long-term mission. Since the end of the Cold War, the navy has settled into a deployment pattern reflecting a wide range of security commitments -- and cut ship numbers to the bare minimum needed to fulfill those commitments.
In the mid-1980s, the navy had more than 170 ships, including three small aircraft carriers, scores of destroyers and frigates and more than 20 submarines. The fleet was necessarily "deep," with extensive reserves, as it was tailored for waging war alongside NATO against the numerically superior Soviet navy, and anticipated high losses. It was from these reserves that the Royal Navy assembled the 33 warships, plus additional support vessels, that led the successful assault to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982.
Post-Cold War planning reduced the reserve force to nearly zero and kept all available warships on patrol on no fewer than nine "standing deployments" -- that is, missions requiring the constant attention of at least one warship, and sometimes several.
The standing deployments include North Atlantic fisheries protection and a Caribbean counternarcotics patrol, but arguably the two most important are the South Atlantic patrol off the Falklands and the nuclear-deterrence patrol involving at least one ballistic-missile submarine lurking somewhere beneath the Atlantic at all times. In addition to the standing deployments, for several years the Royal Navy has also contributed to two U.S.-led international flotillas: one targeting weapons smugglers in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, another aimed at intercepting Somali pirates.
As a rule of thumb, a navy can deploy only one-third of its ships at any one time, as the other two-thirds are in maintenance or transiting between patrol zones. Thus the current 11 missions easily occupy the entire fleet. In 2008, London decided on short notice to send an additional frigate to the Somali coast. That meant pulling a warship from the Falklands patrol and replacing it with an unarmed support vessel.
With fewer large ships capable of long-range deployments, the navy must drop missions. It's not yet clear which will go, though the Defense Ministry offered some hints in the official fact sheet attached to the security review. "By 2020, the Royal Navy will be structured to provide: maritime defense of the U.K. and our overseas territories, including the South Atlantic; nuclear continuous at-sea deterrence; and a credible and capable presence within priority regions of the world that contributes to conventional deterrence, coercion and containment."
In other words, the missile-sub and Falklands patrols will remain. But "credible and capable presence" and "priority regions" are sufficiently vague to place at risk any of the remaining nine deployments. Britain might abandon its previously leading role combating Somali pirates and terrorist weapons smugglers. Or it might end its involvement in counternarcotics patrols.
It might even cease all three. In any case, there will be few if any reserve vessels from which to form a task force for large-scale operations. "The role of a Navy is often described as winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas," Wertheim commented. "These cuts will have a negative impact on each of these areas."
What's more, the British reductions could leave a security vacuum that the U.S. would feel obligated to fill. That "potentially raises operational requirements for a U.S. Navy already stretched thin," according to Bernard Cole, a professor at the U.S. National War College.
David Axe is an independent correspondent, a World Politics Review contributing editor, and the author of "War Bots" as well as the recently released graphic novel, "War is Boring." He blogs at War is Boring.
Photo: HMS Dauntless, Type 45 anti-aircraft destroyer of the British Royal Navy (Photo by Wikimedia user Brian Burnell, licensed under the Creative Commons ShareAlike Attribution 3.0).