23 October 2016
After the HMS Illustrious was decommissioned in 2014, Britain has become the only major naval power in the world that doesn't have an aircraft carrier. Photo: Internet
After the HMS Illustrious was decommissioned in 2014, Britain has become the only major naval power in the world that doesn't have an aircraft carrier. Photo: Internet

The sun is setting on the Royal Navy

Britain has witnessed drastic cuts in its defense budget over the past five years due to pressures brought about by the European debt crisis and massive military spending in Afghanistan.

Ever since the Tory government under Prime Minister David Cameron took office in 2010, defense spending cuts have remained high on the agenda.

Military budget has fallen to 31.7 billion pounds during 2014-15 from 34.4 billion pounds in 2012-13. After Cameron won a second term in office in May this year, he pledged to commit his administration to further cuts over the next five years in order to alleviate the country’s huge deficit.

As a result of the budget cuts, the size of the British armed forces has continued to shrink since 2011. While the army has cut an entire armored brigade, the Ministry of Defense, much to the Royal Air Force’s dismay, ordered the early retirement of all 72 “Harrier” GR.9 vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) jet fighters in December 2010, and axed two squadrons of Tornado GR.MK1 strike aircraft afterwards, which seriously undermined the air-to-land strike capabilities of the RAF.

However, as compared to the RAF and the army, the Royal Navy (RN) could be the hardest hit amid wave after wave of cutbacks. It is indeed not an overstatement to say that the current budget for the RN has already been stripped to the bone. After Cameron first assumed office in 2010, he immediately ordered the removal of 5000 men and women from active service with the RN.

To make matters worse, he also ordered the early retirement of the HMS Ark Royal, one of the three “Invincible” class light aircraft carriers which proved instrumental in Britain’s victory over Argentina during the Falklands War, along with the 16 Sea Harriers V/STOL fighters serving on board.

That meant the RN would no longer have any fix-winged carrier-capable aircraft left in service until the F-35B Lightening II enters service in 2018. Meanwhile, there is also some uncertainty as to whether the new aircraft can be delivered on time by Lockheed Martin.

With the HMS Illustrious, the last remaining “Invincible” class carrier in service, decommissioned in 2014, the HMS Ocean, an amphibious assault ship and helicopter carrier, has become the only existing vessel with a through deck left in service with the RN.

Britain is now the only country among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (others being the US, Russia, China and France) that doesn’t have any operational aircraft carrier. It will remain so until the new “Queen Elizabeth” class aircraft carrier is scheduled to enter service in 2020.

The Royal Navy, which bestrode the high seas like the Colossus for over 300 years and once the pride of the British Empire, was still considered one of the most formidable naval forces on earth before the outbreak of the Falklands War in 1982.

At that time, the fleet comprised 2 aircraft carriers, a total of 50 destroyers, cruisers and frigates, plus 26 attack submarines, both conventional and nuclear, besides four nuclear ballistic missiles submarines at its disposal.

However, 33 years have passed, and the heyday of the RN is long gone. Today its size has been reduced by almost 60 percent, with only 19 combat vessels and 7 nuclear attack subs, plus 4 already obsolete “Vanguard” class nuclear ballistic missiles subs still in service.

In terms of the number and tonnage of ships and submarines in active service, Britain has fallen behind the US, Russia, Japan, France, Italy, and even China. No wonder some British media have made snide comments that the once invincible Royal Navy has been reduced to its smallest size since the reign of Henry VIII.

Without any aircraft carrier, the British military can now only rely on a squadron of Typhoon fighter jets stationed at the airfield of Port Stanley to defend the Falkland Islands. Many doubt whether Britain can still withstand another Argentinian attack or blockade in the future with that tiny force.

The lack of funding also means that the RN had to reluctantly cut back on the number of the state-of-the-art Type 45 “Daring” class guided missile destroyers it had ordered.

The British equivalent of the Arleigh Burke class destroyer of the US, the Type 45 features a cutting-edge computerized air defense system that is considered comparable or even superior to the famous Aegis combat system employed by the US navy, and is described by some naval observers as probably the most advanced and powerful warship ever to come into service with the RN since the end of World War II.

The RN certainly has high hopes for the Type 45, which it believes will put Britain back in the lead in the global naval race.

Unfortunately, due to serious delays and cost overruns, the Cameron administration decided in 2010 that it would order just 6 instead of the initial 12 Type 45 destroyers. The last of those, the HMS Duncan, entered service in 2013.

As compared to the 80-strong destroyer fleet of the US Navy armed with the Aegis system, it is hard to imagine that just half a dozen Type 45s could give the RN any substantial advantage over its potential enemies. Even Japan has almost twice the number of guided missile destroyers than Britain.

Meanwhile, the new-generation, 65000-ton Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier — touted as the crown jewel of the RN in the 21st century — is plagued by an astounding surge in cost, as it jumped from 1.8 billion pounds per ship in 2008 to a whopping 3.1 billion in 2013.

While the first one, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, is already under construction and is due to enter service in 2020, the fate of the second ship, the HMS Prince of Wales, still hangs in the balance.

According to a report in The Telegraph, British naval chiefs have recently offered further cuts in fleet size in order to save the two new aircraft carriers. As the newspaper put it, Royal Navy admirals have “mortgaged everything” to persuade ministers not to abandon the program.

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