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

British Navy scuppers Ark Royal as UK must accept it is middleweight military power.

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.