Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Can Britain afford a world power navy?

In the eyes of Britain's top military brass the legacy of imperial greatness still seems to colour their judgement about the need to maintain a first division world power punch, despite one Ministry of Defence (MOD) remark that Britain was punching above its weight. The fact is that Britain is no longer economically great, in the sense that it can put forth a 1914-style Grand Fleet to keep the world's sea lanes open and play the world's policeman. Two world wars have seen to that.

This crucial issue, affordability, seems to have been deliberately ignored by Britain's First Sea Lord, Sir George Zambellos, in his opening salvo to argue the case for more funds at the 2015 Defence Review, following the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review which froze for at last a decade the navy's ability to operate aircraft carriers armed with fighter jets.

It is not, however, just about affordability. It also brings into question whether costly, vulnerable aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered and armed submarines are still essential in an age when the changing nature of naval warfare and geo-politics suggests they are not.

The nuclear-armed nations, including China, now realise that trade is the handmaiden of prosperity and that prosperity is the surest guarantor of peace. The likelihood, therefore, of going to nuclear war is much less and the arms race has been a salutary lesson of how its burdensome cost can change the coarse of economic and political history -- an example, perhaps, of the law of unintended consequences. When America proposed its 'Star Wars' defence shield Russian realized it could not afford the huge expense of keeping up and so was ushered in detente, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Comecon countries. Russia had ignored the first law of marketing -- give the people what the people want, not what you think is best for them. The people wanted butter, the Russian government gave them guns. China is now in that situation. The Chinese Government knows it has nothing to fear abroad, militarily speaking, but very much to fear at home from Nature's fury and popular unrest within from ethnic revolts and protests against corruption and environmental disasters, a scenario that helped bring down many a Chinese dynasty in the past.

What this says, therefore, for Britain's nuclear-armed Trident replacement plans is that such a costly programme running into £80-100 billion over its 40-year life span, is overkill, cost-wise, and that much cheaper alternatives are still enough to deter potential aggressors.

The First Sea Lord said the Royal Navy needed a "sensible and credible level of scale" but what is sensible and credible, and perhaps more importantly what is affordable? "Make the Royal Navy 'un-credible' and we cease to be a first division player," he said. His mindset, however, seems to be stuck in imperial times, when the British Empire had many colonies to defend and therefore a more plausible case for maintaining a Grand Fleet. While it is still essential to provide adequately a navy to help keep the sea lanes open, by far the most crucial role it has today, the changing nature of the socio-economic environment no longer warrants aircraft carriers, which are state-on-state warships.

Here is what some of Britain's defence chiefs said back in 2010. The then outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, argued that pressing ahead with two carriers would skew Britain's defences because of the huge expense, which over 10 years, with running costs and aircraft, would reach about £35 billion, about the size of the black hole already in the incompetent MOD's budget, whose ideas on inventory control were clearly not its forte. Sir Jock added that "the carrier programme is worrying most of all because of its impact on the rest of the Royal Navy, which could see the number of surface ships fall. Another MOD official opined: "Almost everybody in the navy sees the calamity of this, except the people in the top half of the service." Another senior military figure added: "We should never have bought them in the first place. We've got better ways of spreading our money. We could have bought more frigates, more money for cyber, more special forces. It's £5 billion of lost opportunities."

To the point that aircraft carriers look set to follow the battleship into oblivion owing to the changing nature of naval warfare must be added the high risk/high cost ratio of carriers. These capital ships are significantly vulnerable to just a single, long-range missile from China, for example. Just as at the battle of Midway in 1942, which took only 12 bombs to sink four front line carriers, a battle that changed the course of the war in the Pacific, so today it would take only one missile to sink a £3 billion carrier, all its 'planes and the loss of over 1,000 sailors.

Britain can still be a credible nation with a credible navy but it does not have to be, and should not be, at an incredible cost. Just as naval developments change the navy's raison d'etre so, too, do economic developments impact the service and it is the latter that must be given greater heed. Britain's economic condition, while apparently improving, is still weak and its people's simmering discontent is rising. Millions of hard-working people have seen their savings and pensions enfeebled by casino-style economics fuelled by rapacious, irresponsible banks, whom Thomas Jefferson presciently described as "more dangerous than standing armies." Charity run food banks are sprouting up nationwide as social security cutbacks begin to bite. Government under-investment at home is being exposed by the recent flooding, which some sources estimate will cost over £1 billion, while it has been suggested that the Environment Agency is short of £0.5 billion a year to do essential flood defence work. The National Health Service, that most prized asset in a civilized society, is in danger of financial collapse.

These and many other pressing social issues show the great care needed to balance the Government's call on its public purse to deliver best value for money. The armed forces cannot reasonably plead for special case ring-fencing. Even less can it convince the people to buy sustainable navy notions based on outdated ideas that hark back to imperial times.

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