Opinion: Defense cuts force Britain to punch at a lower weight

LONDON – A warship bearing the name Ark Royal has sailed with the Royal Navy since the beginning. It’s a two-mast galleon that served as the flagship of the English fleet, defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588 (with some help from a hurricane). A later edition of the Ark Royal was the first aircraft carrier built from scratch, in 1911, and another “Mighty Ark” as it became known, was sunk by a German U-boat in 1941.

This week, though, the last of the line — for now at least — completed her final voyage, denuded of armaments, and tied up earlier this week in the river Tyne. The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal is destined for the auction block or possibly the scrap yard because of the draconian cuts affecting Britain’s military and virtually every other facet of Her Majesty’s government.

The cuts in Prime Minister David Cameron’s budget rank as historic — the largest since the Cold War ended. Around Britain the cuts ignited a debate over whether the country is squandering what’s left of its global clout — a legacy of the days when its navy ruled the waves and its leaders played a pivotal role in world affairs.

Of course, it has been decades since Britain had real sway. Except for its veto at the U.N. Security Council (a vestigial limb that former colonial power France also wields), Britain for all intents and purposes lost its global mojo when the Eisenhower administration forced Britain, France and Israel to withdraw from their attempt to seize the Suez Canal in 1956.

Nonetheless, British leaders — usually cleaving close to the coattails of the American hegemony — fondly promised to “punch above our weight,” and mostly they have done so, fielding a small but still highly professional and capable range of armed forces.

Throughout the Cold War, through the first Gulf War and into Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain clearly represented the “best of the rest” when it came to western military forces, and their armed services took great pains to remain “inter-operable” with American units, too (if only to minimize the too frequent instances of “friendly fire” deaths. Hanging around the American military is very dangerous for your health: more British troops were killed by Americans in the first Gulf War than by Iraqis).

Ever since announcing the new budget cuts, the British government has taken great pains to insist — both to its domestic critics and to its worried allies in Washington — that it will remain a potent middleweight puncher.

But critics see something more like a flyweight wearing trunks two sizes too large. Earlier this month, a group of former senior officers, including former commanders of the Royal Navy and Air Force, called the cuts a danger to Britain’s national security and a confirmation to Washington that the “special relationship” had run its course.

The officers argue that the decision to take Ark Royal out of service so quickly is foolish given newly discovered oil and gas reserves around the Falkland Islands, the South Atlantic territory Britain fought a war with Argentina over in 1982. Britain, in effect, is once again without the ability to provide air support to its troops at such distances.

“Argentina is practically invited” to retake the islands, the officers protested, threatening “a blow … from which British prestige … might never recover.”

Other critics of the cuts agree the downsizing threatens not only the ability to provide air support for British forces in some future peacekeeping or defensive mission, but the capability of Britain to mount “expeditionary” missions at all — the modern litmus test of a middleweight military power.

As Con Coughlin, foreign editor of The Telegraph of London, put it Tuesday: “If we can bail out Ireland, we can afford to keep Ark Royal.”

The average Briton might be excused for shrugging it off. The Cameron government’s budget ax, aimed at taming a runaway national debt problem, is falling practically everywhere. One in 12 U.K. government employees will lose their jobs over the next year. Social welfare benefits, education, transportation and cultural spending, too, will face huge decreases.

Given this, many feel it’s fair the military take its share of the pain: Among its specific cuts:

• Eliminate the Ark Royal and four escort warships.
• Ground the “Harrier” jump jet, flown from the Ark Royal’s decks, along with Britain’s fleet of Nimrod long-range anti-submarine aircraft.
• Furlough 5,000 sailors, 7,000 Army troops and 5,000 air force personnel;
• Cut 40 percent of the British Army’s Challenger II tanks and 35 percent of its artillery tubes.

While some see the cuts as draconian and unwise, another school of thought believes Cameron failed to seize the moment and end the delusional notion that the United Kingdom is anything other than a mid-sized power set to be surpassed by one Asian tiger after another in the coming decades.

While the Ark Royal was retired early, for instance, her sister ship, the 22,000 ton HMS Illustrious – now undergoing a refit in drydock – is likely to remain available for at least the next few years. Recent British-French talks have produced an agreement to share carrier assets, with either nation’s carriers equipped to handle British, French or even American warplanes.

More importantly to both critics and those who think the cuts went too far, construction will continue on two much larger, 65,000-ton Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, the first of which will enter service in 2019. And Britain’s expensive fleet of nuclear missile-carrying submarines remains untouched.

“In other words, the past will go on shaping the future,” writes defense analyst Gerard DeGroot from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “Britain will not adjust to the fact that she is a small country of limited means. Uncomfortable with mediocrity, she will, at great cost, maintain an illusion of greatness.”

All of this is quite a comedown for a military that only recently channeled the spirit of Churchill and Montgomery as it plunged with America into the misconceived Iraq War. Cocky at first that they knew how to handle insurgencies better than the Americans, British forces soon retreated to bases when they realized their tactics had failed.

“You don’t hear a lot of that kind of talk anymore,” said Nick Childs, BBC defense correspondent. “These days, professional British soldiers lament their inability to adapt to new realities the way the Americans managed in Iraq. There is a real sense of comeuppance.”

Yet the travails of Britain’s military hasn’t thrilled Washington either. American policymakers long ago grew fed up with bearing a disproportionate share of NATO’s defense spending (the United States spends nearly 5 percent of GDP on defense, compared with just over 2 percent for Britain and a mere 1 percent for Germany).

Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted that a less capable British military means “more people will look to the United States” to supply the logistical support and combat muscle in the world’s trouble spots.

And if, however unlikely, some future Argentine government decides again to invade the Falklands? British strategists suggest that, in line with the new Anglo-French defense deal, the French might lend their carrier to the cause.

The French, of course, might have something to say about that. And Lord Trafalgar, of course, would be rolling in his grave.

Michael Moran, foreign affairs columnist for GlobalPost, is executive editor and senior geostrategy analyst at Roubini Global Economics in New York.