“The want of money puts…the navy out of order”.
Samuel Pepys, Surveyor-General to the Navy Board, 1666
Alphen, Netherlands. 19 September. It was a broadside. In an interview in the The Sunday Times, Admiral (Ret.d) Sir George Zambellas, who until April 2016 was First Sea Lord or Head of Britain’s Royal Navy, warned that Britain would have the military capacity of a “Third World nation”, if ministers do not invest more in the Britain’s armed forces. After years of defence cuts the Royal Navy he commanded was “hollowed out”, and that it had reached the “…bottom of the efficiency barrel”. He also said that “someone has to speak out” about the “capability gaps” in Britain’s defences. Regular readers will know that I have long been ‘speaking out’ for years about this problem. Indeed, in 2015 I even wrote a book about it – Little Britain, which is brilliant and (still) very reasonably-priced. The difference is that Sir George really is ‘someone’. He is also someone that I have the honour to call ‘friend’. How has the Royal Navy come to this sorry point?
Strategy-defying politics (of course) is a major cause of the Navy’s malaise. Someone from ‘the ministry’, grandly entitled Mr or Ms “Senior MoD Source”, parried Sir George’s criticisms in The Sunday Times by suggesting that, “…many of the challenges the navy faces today can be traced back to the decisions of the first sea lord. His criticisms come from someone who lives in a glasshouse”. Nice try, old trick. In fact it is a ‘Mr’, and ‘he’ does not get off that lightly. You see, like many ministries of defence in many European countries, the primary mission of the Ministry of Defence in London is not the sound, strategic defence of the United Kingdom, but rather the political defence of the Government, or more specifically, the minister, Michael Fallon.
However, the real problem is both structural and strategic. London is trying, and failing, to circle a threat-strategy-capability-money square. To be fair, at least London is still (sort of) trying to circle that square (and not the other way around). Most of Britain’s European allies have simply stopped trying to square defence circles, by simply scrapping the square.
In 2015 the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) laid out the threats, risks, and challenges Britain faces. The Government then decided how much money it could devote to meeting said threats, risks, and challenges. London then divided said money into which bits would go to which bits of its broad security and defence policy, an eclectic mix of ‘instruments’ ranging from diplomacy, intelligence, aid and development, to (finally) defence.
Unfortunately, NSS 2015 and SDSR 2015 took place against the backdrop of a government forced to divert huge amounts of public money to prevent the banks from collapsing in 2009. Indeed, criminal bankers (very few of whom have actually paid for their alacrity) did more damage to Britain’s defences than any recent enemy. However, the problem was further compounded by a government committed to relatively low levels of taxation at a time of enforced high spending. In other words, the search for sound money came at the expense of sound defence.
So, how is it that Mr Senior MoD Source can blame Sir George for a mess that has been years in the making, and the roots of which go back through years of successive governments only recognising as much strategic threat as they believed they could politically (and domestically) afford? Here one comes to the clever politics/dumb strategy bit. The Service Chiefs, of which until recently Sir George was one, are responsible for the individual service budgets of the Navy, Army, and Air Force respectively. This makes said Service Chiefs convenient political scapegoats for the ambition/threat/spending/capability disconnect that is of the Government’s own making. In other words, it is a system primarily designed to protect Minister Fallon from political criticism. It is also a system that ‘gets away with it’ only so long as there is no major crisis. Come a major crisis, as looks increasingly likely, and Britain’s leaders and it defences would soon be found wanting.
The Sunday Times made a brief comparison between the Royal Navy of 1982 and that of today. In 1982, the Navy had 80,000 personnel, in 2017 29,500. Yes, the Royal Navy will soon have two very large aircraft carriers, far bigger than the two (soon to be three) it had in 1982. However, the ‘RN’ will only have 6 destroyers to protect the carriers, compared with 17 in 1982, 13 frigates compared with 38, and 10 nuclear-powered attack submarines (if that!) compared with 26. In other words, and given that only a part of the Navy can be used at any one time, due to maintenance, refits et al, a deployed British maritime-amphibious force, organised around one of the two ‘command’ carriers, would pretty much swallow up the entire available Royal Navy! Not only that, even the ships so tasked would lack vital systems, defences, sensors, missiles, and critical enabling support.
The hard reality to which Sir George alludes is that the Royal Navy of today is simply too small for the roles and missions which the Government requires it it to perform. This is to exert some reasonable degree of sea control and sea presence, both as part of a credible deterrence and defence policy, as well as providing proof positive of Britain’s continuing power and influence on the world stage.
The Government is at least aware of this problem and has come up with a new wheeze, what Zambellas calls, “Fallon’s Frigates”. The Type 31e (I think the ‘e’ stands for ‘economy-class’) frigate, the construction of which Minister Fallon announced amidst some fanfare, will be small, cheap, throw-away, one-hit, all operations short-of-war ships that would not last very long in a real shooting war. A shooting war which Prime Minister May recently admitted is now possible.
“You [London] have a choice now”, he said. “You either put more money in, or you stop doing serious things”. The Government’s response? “Our budget is growing and, for the first time since the Second World War, so is our Royal Navy”. First, the British defence budget is NOT growing in real terms, given the pace of defence cost inflation. Second, whilst there might be a marginal planned increase in the number of ‘hulls’ available to the Royal Navy it is ‘planned’ over an absurdly long-time – i.e. over a budget cycle, not a strategic cycle. Third, unless real-time investment takes place in the fighting power of those ‘hulls’ the Royal Navy will continue to be as weak in relative terms to other powers (the real strategic equation) as at any time since Pepys.
The easy answer is to simply pin the blame for all of the above on years of savage defence cuts. However, there is another profound cause that goes to the very heart of the question that dogs Britain today; does Britain any longer wish to be considered a serious power, let alone a world power?