Royal Navy ‘Woefully Low’ on Warships: a testament to Britain’s General Decline?

In 1495, the world’s first dry dock was built in Portsmouth during the reign of Henry VII, the first monarch of the House of Tudor. Two years later the warship Sweepstake was completed, setting in motion Portsmouth’s place at the forefront of British naval history, which it is yet to relinquish.

Today, major dredging works are underway in preparation for the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of two new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy. With the exception of the occasional unexploded bomb find, these works are progressing smoothly in anticipation of the docking of the £6bn craft next year.

HMNB Portsmouth
HMNB Portsmouth

Yet despite such a seemingly positive addition to Britain’s naval pedigree, a new report authored by the Defence Select Committee has slammed the ‘woefully low’ number of warships currently in operation for the Royal Navy, whilst raising serious questions about the government’s ability to adequately replace older vessels.

Is this naval deterioration testament to the general decline of Britain’s global power status?

It was during the Tudor era that wide-reaching reforms were enacted to create Britain’s first modern navy. In addition to Portsmouth, naval dockyards were established at Chatham, Deptford, Plymouth and Woolwich, with warships designed to specification and designs standardised.

Deptford Dockyard by John Cleveley (1757); established as a royal naval dockyard by Henry VIII
Deptford Dockyard by John Cleveley (1757); established as a royal naval dockyard by Henry VIII

Over the succeeding centuries, Britain became synonymous with naval power, which served a wide array of purposes. Perhaps its most important function was to defend the English Channel. From repulsing the Spanish Armada in 1588, to defying French imperial ambitions in the 18th and 19th centuries, countering the U-Boat threat during the First World War, and rendering the Nazis’ ‘Operation Sea Lion’ nothing more than a pipe dream, the Royal Navy has served as an integral, unbreachable barrier between Britain and the European continent.

Only when the government has lost the support of its naval forces, such as during the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, has an invasion from mainland Europe succeeded, and hardly a bloody one at that.

Historically Britain not only needed to defend its homeland, of course, but also its empire which itself could not have been won without the might of the Royal Navy. Initially aimed at ravaging the overseas possessions of European rivals, state-of-the-art warships underpinned almost every one of Britain’s colonial endeavours, from the Far East, to India, to Africa and the Caribbean.

The British Fleet closes in on Spanish Havana during the Seven Years' War (1762)
The British Fleet closes in on Spanish Havana during the Seven Years’ War (1762)

As with their Iberian predecessors, British conquerors were reliant on overwhelming naval force to project power thousands of miles from home, at a time when communication between subject and crown invariably took many months.

Once a colonial empire had been established it needed defending and here again the Royal Navy was integral in thwarting the machinations of rival European states as their great power struggles spilled into the New World.

It could also be argued that Britain’s traditional mercantilist bent, when coupled with its naval capacity, helped facilitate worldwide trade and technological dispersion, setting the course for globalisation.

Additionally, naval patrols helped disrupt and finally end the Atlantic and Arab slave trades in the 19th century.

The first global military and economic power left few countries untouched in pursuit of an empire where the sun never set, a world created in its own image.

The real and symbolic power of the Royal Navy could be felt as recently as 1982, when a naval task force was mobilised to put the Argentinian invaders to flight during the Falklands War. The exploits of the British naval force – aided by the RAF – so far from home captured the public imagination and gave a much-needed injection of popularity to the embattled administration of Margaret Thatcher.

Flagship HMS Hermes makes a triumphant return to Portsmouth in July 1982 after deployment in the Falklands
Flagship HMS Hermes makes a triumphant return to Portsmouth in July 1982 after deployment in the Falklands

However, the end of the Cold War precipitated a marked contraction in defence spending for most European states and Britain was no exception. With the rationale to retain such a mighty operational fleet in an era of post-colonial peace diminished, money could be set aside for pressing domestic matters.

British defence spending as a % of GDP 1988-2015. Source: World Bank
British defence spending as a % of GDP 1988-2015. Source: World Bank

As a result, Trident has barged to the forefront of British defence policy in recent years. The permanent presence at sea of one of four nuclear-armed submarines is arguably all that keeps Britain at the top table for debating global security matters. It is a sinister programme, decidely unglamorous when compared to the romanticised past of the invincible Royal Navy and its formidable, sumptuous warships. Yet it is a necessary and justified expense, one which has resulted in the sacrifice of a more visible British naval presence around the world.

One must accept that the days of Britain’s naval predominance have long since disappeared. For too long Britain played a role in the securitisation of the world at odds with its small size. Scaling back is not a sign of decline or an admission of relegation to the second rung of global nations.

It is a pragmatic and measured approach, one in which strategic alliances, unconventional weapons platforms, elite special operations and intelligence capabilities, and diplomatic negotiation are equally if not more important than traditional power-projection methods.

Britain should be proud of its naval history for it has done a considerable amount to shape much of what is good about the modern world. Whilst efforts should be made to ensure that the Royal Navy is not reduced to a skeleton fleet, the doomsayers must remember Britain’s place in the 21st century, which is not one of a global superpower.

The Spanish Armada is set aflame
The Spanish Armada is set aflame

Harnessing an appreciation of the benefits of past naval prowess with a pragmatic, economical vision of future naval deployment will allow Britain to continue as a relevant player on all of our great oceans.

Heroic it may not be but valuable it will always remain.

Trump Ascent Raises Nuclear War Fears: yet a nuclear accident remains far more terrifying

The possibility of nuclear war is a persistent concern of the human race. It seems to be the only way in which we can destroy ourselves in one fell swoop. Perhaps Donald Trump’s ascent to the US presidency will exacerbate these fears; perhaps his isolationist tendencies will alleviate them. Either way, the fear of nuclear destruction remains a constant, even if such a likelihood is in reality remote.

Some fear that a Trump presidency will lead to nuclear proliferation and perhaps war

Whether it is rogue states possessing nuclear weapons (North Korea, Iran), deranged leaders with their fingers on the red button (Kim Jong-un, Trump?), the potential for swift nuclear proliferation (the Middle East, Asia-Pacific) or the acquisition of nuclear devices by terrorist organisations, the worst-case scenario of nuclear war never fails to unsettle world leaders.

In part it is a hangover from the Cold War when mutually assured nuclear destruction did at times seem imminent, no more so than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, as Dr Strangelove magnificently parodied, it would have taken major misunderstandings and maniacal decision-making for such an eventuality to have materialised.

A more plausible scenario for nuclear annihilation is an accident. We have seen in recent years the devastating radioactive fallout caused by the Chernobyl disaster – whose crumbling reactor is soon to be encased by a giant shield – and the Japanese tsunami of 2011 which caused major damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Disaster at Chernobyl, 1986
Disaster at Chernobyl, 1986

Such terrifying incidents have raised major questions over civilian nuclear power generation, not to mention further strengthening the case for nuclear non-proliferation.

Just as alarming as these unfortunate, if potentially avoidable, disasters are the ‘near-miss’ operational incidents involving nuclear weapons, most of which remain shrouded in secrecy.

The possible discovery by a diver last week of a missing Mark IV nuclear bomb off the coast of British Columbia brought such eventualities back into the spotlight. In 1950, a US Air Force B-36 aircraft began to experience engine trouble during a flight between Alaska and Texas. The device now thought to have been uncovered off the Canadian coast was jettisoned before the crew ejected, allowing the plane to continue on autopilot until it crashed into a mountain range. This was the first recorded loss of a nuclear weapon in history.

Although some aviation experts have dismissed the possibility of the device being the missing Mark IV, either way it is not nuclear-ready; i.e. it is has a lead, uranium and TNT filling but not the plutonium necessary for a nuclear detonation.

Other past operational incidents have further demonstrated the precariousness of ‘routine’ nuclear weapons deployment.

For instance, on the 27th July 1956 a B-47 bomber crashed into a storage igloo at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, within which three Mark VI nuclear bombs sat silently. As with the B-36 incident, the bombs did not contain any fissile material yet they had a considerable amount of high explosive content and a detonation could have proved catastrophic.

More controversially, on the 21st January 1968 a B-52 bomber crashed near Thule Air Base in Greenland with four hydrogen bombs on board during a ‘Chrome Dome’ alert mission at the height of the Cold War.

The nuclear payload of the four devices ruptured and dispersed across the sea ice as the conventional explosives in the aircraft detonated. More worryingly, despite an extensive clean-up operation by the American and Danish authorities, it has since been revealed that a secondary stage of one of the weapons was never accounted for. The Danes had kept the American nuclear presence on Greenlandic soil a secret from their own people, leading to a major political scandal almost three decades later.

Blackened ice at the Thule crash site
Blackened ice at the Thule crash site

There have been further military-related nuclear incidents, several associated with the meltdown of reactors in Soviet submarines. It is likely that others have yet to be disclosed and perhaps never will be without a whistleblower breaking the radio silence.

It seems that the apocalyptic consequences of a military-nuclear disaster resonate with us and our leaders in a more poignant way than ongoing crises such as climate change, rising sea levels and mass population displacement, all of which will ultimately have dire consequences if left unresolved.

Soviet submarine K219 sunk after a fire - possibly caused with a collision with a US sub - in a missile tube. It went down with 34 nuclear warheads which were not recovered
Soviet submarine K219 sunk after a fire – possibly caused with a collision with a US sub – in a missile tube. It went down with 34 nuclear warheads which were not recovered

Whilst efforts to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology at a state level remain critical, putting further safeguards in place to avert an accidental nuclear catastrophe are even more important, for such a scenario is considerably more likely than nuclear war.

As Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control has demonstrated, there is an ‘illusion of safety’ when it comes to nuclear weapons, regardless of the perceived responsibility of those powers controlling them.

In the absence of a nuclear-free world – now an unattainable goal – it is hoped that military leaders, and their counterparts in the civilian world, take note of the near misses of the past to try and securitise the future as best they can.