That Every Man (and Woman) Minister Will do Their Duty, so...


(Sadly we know the answer now, but as Trafalgar Day 2010 approached there was still some measure of hope the UK government would not live up to sea blind expectations)

by Francis Beaufort
WARSHIPS IFR Political Correspondent

Imagine if on October 20, 1805, the day before the Battle of Trafalgar, news hit Nelson’s fleet that HMS Victory was to be got rid off as part of the latest defence cuts? So, there we’d be on the morning of October 21, and instead of 27 glorious ships of the line coasting under sail towards the Anglo-French Combined Fleet, there would be hardly anything left afloat, Britain suffering a dreadful defeat that plunged the nation into obscurity, irrelevance and economic ruin. The message from London would be that the Navy must be scrapped as the Army was bogged down in Italy and needed all the cash left. The coffers of the Treasury would have rapidly emptied though, as British global trade collapsed, the revenue generating sugar plantations in the Caribbean seized by powerful Franco-Spanish naval forces, Napoleon’s warships cutting Britain off from the Baltic, the Mediterranean and dominating the Atlantic.
Illustration: A sardonic cartoon by WARSHIPS IFR’s resident cartoonist, Galf. www.abandos.com

Who of us with any knowledge of Britain’s epic arc of glorious naval history, could have suppressed a bitter smile on hearing that the confirmation of the worst defeat ever inflicted on the Royal Navy’s order of battle - indeed upon the nation’s prospects for future security - was possibly to be confirmed this October, close to Trafalgar Day? Indeed, originally it was all to be revealed on October 21 itself, but no doubt somebody told the Prime Minister it might be better to give details on Royal Navy cuts a couple of days earlier to avoid the unwelcome comparison in the headlines. Following months of fierce infighting within the Ministry of Defence and across government, it appeared that the British Army had managed to pull off a so-called ‘victory’. It looked to have preserved itself at the expense of the other two services, ensuring it has the funds to maintain more than 100,000 troops, especially its sacred infantry regiments, until at least the conclusion of Afghan operations around 2015. There were mutterings about the Army having deployed a special ‘black ops’ team of propagandis

ts to push its cause and anonymous naval sources glowered that the khaki boys would never be forgiven for deploying such dirty tricks to kill off the Navy’s fleet. Post-2015, the battle will be on for the Army to justify its bloated size, but with the ruthlessly partisan General David Richards as Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) it can be guaranteed good prospects for pulling that trick out of the bag and avoiding later cuts, too. General Dannatt, former boss of the Army, can also be guaranteed (today and tomorrow) to purvey himself as the wise sage of defence, recommending non-Army cutbacks in that urbane, and oh so charming, fashion that is like arsenic to admirals and air marshals. Oh, what a one he is, with his silken tongue!? The RAF, meanwhile, started to throw its toys out of its pram big time when it realised the RN might get two new carriers, or indeed just one. Some sources suggested that in an act of pure childish malice, it would volunteer to axe the supremely useful Harrier GR9 (savings estimated to total £1 billion) and keep the useless Cold War relic Tornado (potential savings £7.5 billion). This would be a fine piece of suicidal judgement from a service whose aircraft have failed to shoot down a single enemy fighter since WW2 (that honour goes to the Navy, much to the irritation of the RAF).

While a neat piece of revenge, any move to scrap the Harriers would deprive Britain of a carrier capable jet.

On top of the likely RAF decision to also offer up the Nimrod MRA4 Maritime Patrol Aircraft, again to safeguard the glamorous [yet not entirely relevant] Typhoon air-superiority fighter (not carrier capable) would surely only strengthen the hand of those who feel the RAF should not be allowed to reach its 100th birthday?

At the end of the day nobody can argue that it was the Army that possessed the strongest hand in all the high stakes poker of who-gives-up-what that has been the UK’s train wreck defence review. Had it been a strategic rather than a cost-driven review then that would not have been the case as clearly the verdict of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) which opted for a maritime-led defence for the UK is more relevant today than ever. That wasn’t what the cost-cutting new Coalition government wanted to hear, though, was it? The Tory Party is also packed with former Army officers in senior government positions, at least one of whom has openly recommended scrapping the carriers, and with two defence ministers former Guards officers, what chance did the Navy stand? Prime Minister David Cameron also picked General Richards to be the new Chief of the Defence Staff while also committing Britain to stay the course in the dubious Afghan campaign.

George Osborne showed signs of regarding the RN as a wasteful drain on taxpayers money, determined to make the MoD, rather than central government funds, pay for the Trident replacement programme, while also expecting the MoD to fund the Afghan misadventure.

To his credit, Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox, a former civilian army medical officer, did warn David Cameron of the serious consequences of cutting the Navy, suggesting a wholesale retreat from vital commitments around the world would follow any further reduction in the Fleet. In a letter to the PM leaked to the press a few weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Defence warned: ‘Frankly this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR and more like a “super Comprehensive Spending Review”.’

He added: ‘The potential for the scale of the changes to seriously damage morale across the Armed Forces should not be underestimated.’

Meanwhile, an unnamed naval officer serving in a front line warship warned in a despairing letter to The Daily Telegraph newspaper: ‘We will be the ones who might die because of hasty decisions…We worry for the future, because the threats simply won’t go away.’

In the 1920s and 1930s, the last time Britain faced similar economic crises and rising threats across the globe (yet unwisely failed to invest in its navy) thousands of men and boys were killed in outmoded warships during WW2 and also sacrificed due to the lack of enough modern fighting vessels. The decisions that wasted all those young lives were taken in London during preceding decades. The naval commanders on the spot, their sailors and marines, paid the ultimate price while most of the politicians got to enjoy a pleasant old age in the afterglow of a victory the Navy’s blood was shed to achieve. Just as it should never forget those who died, or those who will one day die, the British nation should never forgive politicians who make such blunders. People will ask: ‘Why did Cameron’s coalition destroy the Royal Navy?’ The answer: ‘Due to sea blind stupidity.’

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