Britain’s shrunken Navy can neither defend our shores nor project our power abroad. If the Falklands were invaded again, we could not defend them, writes PROFESSOR SAUL DAVID
Just imagine: two lines of warships, seven miles long, anchored between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight…the greatest display of sea power the world has ever seen.
At the naval review staged at Spithead on the Solent for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Royal Navy mustered 170 ships, including 21 battleships and 56 cruisers. But the Queen was Victoria, not Elizabeth, and the year was 1897.
In the Victorian era, Britain insisted on a ‘dual power’ standard which meant that her navy was larger than that of the next two strongest powers combined. In fact, the number of ships on display that day – almost all less than ten years old – was greater than the total naval strength of all the world’s other leading navies.
The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales, pictured, is taking the place of HMS Queen Elizabeth on a NATO exercise after the latter ran aground in harbor with a rusted propeller shaft
How the mighty fell. This week we learned that our £3.5 billion aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth II can no longer lead the biggest NATO exercise since the Cold War because she is confined to port with a rusted propeller shaft. She will be replaced by her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales, which suffered a similar malfunction 18 months ago while sailing for maneuvers off North America.
If this is any indication of the state of our fleet, we should be really worried. But another embarrassment, bordering on the farcical, was highlighted this week.
Four P2000 ‘plastic patrol vessels’ will also participate in Exercise Steadfast Defender. These usually sail along our coast, have a crew of five and are only 20 meters long, with a bridge open to the elements. Yes, they are armed, with highly trained crews, but they look more like private pleasure craft than destroyers or frigates.
Commander Richard Skelton, the Coast Guard squadron’s commander, described it as ‘no mean feat’ to take these small ships to Norway and ‘1,500 miles north into the Arctic Circle and not only survive there, but operate ‘.
While the boats have names to stir the blood – HMS Exploit, Trumpeter, Blazer and Biter – it is impossible to look at them without thinking of Dunkirk, and the courage of fishermen and amateur sailors who took their small craft across the Channel took to the British army during the darkest hour of the Second World War.
But Dunkirk was a disaster that was narrowly averted. To think that boats like this are representing the Royal Navy in a major exercise, while its flagship aircraft carrier is out of commission, is a shocking blow to national pride.
Throughout its history, the Royal Navy has served two major purposes: to defend our coasts and to project our power abroad. It doesn’t seem to be able to do any of those things anymore.
If Britain were to face the unthinkable – a co-ordinated, large-scale attack from the sea by an armed enemy – it is unlikely that we would be able to repel it. We simply do not have enough seaworthy ships and patrol boats, nor the necessary air force.
We can be thankful that we haven’t faced the prospect of continental invasion for the past 80 years. But, as Defense Secretary Grant Shapps has direly warned, we are no longer living in a post-war world, but a pre-war one.
And that means defense must be a renewed priority. At the end of the Cold War, Britain spent more than 4 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP) on the military. Now it is 2 percent – the absolute minimum allowed under the rules of our NATO membership. The government has proposed raising it to 2.5 percent, but even that will be far from enough.
We are also facing a manpower crisis. In 2010, Britain had 192,000 servicemen and women. Today the number is less than 140,000.
Despite the threats we face from Russian aggression, Chinese expansionism, Middle Eastern conflict and international terrorism, there is still a widespread assumption that, even if we fail to adequately prepare to protect our interests, the Americans will help us.
HMS Antelope is bombed by Argentine forces in San Carlos Bay in 1982 during the Falklands War
Given that former President Donald Trump has said that – if re-elected – he might be inclined to take the US out of NATO, this is a dangerously complacent attitude. It would surely be just as dangerous to assume that our European allies would risk everything to save us.
The alternative is a kind of faint optimism that, in the event of war, Britain would cope as we did the last time we had to fend off an invasion – not in 1940, but in 1982, when Argentina annexed the Falkland Islands.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s response to that unexpected act of aggression was to assemble a British task force that eventually comprised 127 ships, including two aircraft carriers and 41 other warships. They were sent to reclaim overseas territory in a mission that one historian described as “a military impossibility.”
Two vessels, the destroyer HMS Sheffield and the Merchant Navy ship Atlantic Conveyor, were lost to French-made Exocet missiles. Another five were sunk by bombs, and many were badly damaged. Yet the islands were recovered in a risky amphibious operation that lasted only ten weeks.
An illustration depicting the British Navy’s ships during the Fleet Review at Spithead in 1897
The Falklands problem has never gone away. Argentina’s new far-right president, Javier Milei (nicknamed ‘the madman’), insists his country’s claim to the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, or Malvinas, is ‘non-negotiable’ and that the UK must hand over the same way that it returned Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997.
But if Argentina were to invade, we couldn’t send any sort of viable task force today. On its website, the Royal Navy insists that its fleet of more than 70 ships, ‘from formidable aircraft carriers and destroyers, to minesweepers and patrol vessels’, gives it ‘the ability to respond quickly to any event by sea, ocean or river’ .
This is simply not the case, as the mechanical problems with the two aircraft carriers make clear.
Despite its great claims, the Royal Navy currently has only 31 warships of any significance: two aircraft carriers, six Type 45 guided missile destroyers, 11 Type 23 frigates and ten nuclear-powered submarines, four of which are capable of carrying the Trident nuclear deterrent. .
Little information is released about the operation of our nuclear submarines, but there are doubts about their reliability. In fact, there have even been suggestions that the extent of their mechanical problems is such that it is a struggle to keep even one of them at sea.
The HMS Ark Royal in 1914. The Navy in 1914 was an undisputed global naval superpower
The other vessels are minesweepers, auxiliaries and coastal and offshore patrol boats of the type sent on the NATO exercise. Eight new Type 26 anti-submarine frigates are on order, but will not enter service until 2028 (after a 30-year gestation period).
New Type 83 destroyers will not be delivered until the late 2030s. Meanwhile, the Type 45 destroyers have been plagued by engine problems, and recent reports suggest that two frigates – HMS Argyll and Westminster – will be scrapped early because there are not enough sailors to man them.
Our air defences, the Parliamentary Defense Committee warned last September, ‘fail to achieve the mass required to survive the exhaustion of an all-out war with a peer adversary’.
Britain is surrounded, as never before in most people’s lifetimes, by enemies. We can only pray that our leaders come to their senses about the imminent threats to our interests worldwide and the important role that the Royal Navy continues to play in protecting these shores.
Professor Saul David of the University of Buckingham is a best-selling military historian