The Reckoning

Should Britannia Rue the Waves? 

carrier hull

Five 800 ton flight deck sections of the Queen Elizabeth II aircraft carrier pass The Liver building on the River Mersey in Birkenhead, England on their way to be assembled in Scotland.

Photograph by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

For any American who has followed the current debate over US defense cuts, the similar debate raging in the halls of the British government can provide some valuable context. 

Britain maintains arguably the most broadly capable military in the world outside the US itself (thought he French, with some reason, might take issue with that claim). Nonetheless, the UK military has experienced a rapid decline in the size and ambitions of its armed forces dating back to World War II.

While Britain ranks fourth overall in world military spending, according to the latest figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the $62 billion spent in 2011 pales behind spending by Russia ($71 billion), China ($143 billion) and the US ($711 billion).

With debt-to-GDP an even more serious problem in Britain than in the US, the country’s military budget appears likely to drop even more quickly than American spending, which is subject to the sequestered formula that aims to trim some $800 billion from the Pentagon’s plans in the next decade.

Put another way, then, the US is set to cut more from its budget over the next decade than Britain will spend.

The starkness of the debate here in London sets it apart. Unlike the US, in Britain the question is not how to balance the various capabilities and weapons systems available to the army, navy and air force, but rather, how many of those capabilities will be dropped completely.

The dilemmas and historical burdens weighing on British officials as they make these decisions come together poignantly in the Royal Navy’s effort to build a new class of aircraft carriers.

Construction of the first of the so-called Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, announced with great fanfare by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1998, has commenced. Yet the ships remain mired in controversy, dogged by cost overruns, politically motivated design changes, and existential questions about the wisdom of a declining European power operating such huge warships well into the 21st century.

Nick Childs, a BBC defense and security correspondent and an author on military affairs,  navigates these rocky shoals beautifully in his new book, Britain’s Future Navy, providing the background necessary for the outsider to grasp the strategic and political debates, but without falling back on generalizations. As in his first book, Age of the Invincible, which chronicled the development of the small British VSTOL carriers that preceded the Queen Elizabeth class, Childs leads readers on a cruise through the Admiralty, the Royal Navy’s headquarters, as well as the senior ranks of the army, air force, Royal Marines and British government as they grapple with the ever smaller pie available to feed Britain’s ever ambitious vision.

In many ways, the British have been forced to hold a debate the US Navy has refused to countenance. Many  strategists – and not just army and air force generals – see the continued construction of multi-billion dollar aircraft carriers like the USS Gerald R. Ford as foolish given their increasing vulnerability  to anti-ship missiles and the fact that smaller, drone-centric vessels could arguably perform the same tasks more cheaply (and without risking the lives of thousands of sailors). The US Naval Institute’s authoritative journal, Proceedings, made this argument last spring, and navy circles are still buzzing about it.

As Childs recounts, even within the Royal Navy some question the decision to devote nearly all the service’s future budget to these two behemoths, a decision that will necessarily force the retirement of many surface ships and systems, including a host of frigates, the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, and the last squadron of iconic Harrier jump jets. 

Inevitably, something had to give, and Britain’s admirals appear to have chosen to bear those cuts in exchange for the big carriers – the largest ships ever build for the Royal Navy. The true pain will be borne largely by the army, and here, the US and British debates are very similar. Both nations, it seems, have decided that their involvement in two large land wars in Asia caused spending decisions that have little value going forward. Small, light and deployable ground forces (i.e., Marines and special ops) are the flavor of the day. Force projection, sea-lane protection and rapid reaction - the strength of naval forces - are being prioritized. 

So Britain will have its carriers, but even this week, the coalition government is still changing the script. Reports say the Tory-LibDem government has agreed to go back to Labour’s original plan for the ships to fly the US-made F-35B short-takeoff “jump jets,” reversing a decision to put catapults on deck to enable the proven F-35Cs to operate more conventionally. That two year policy detour added years and billions to the construction program, frustrating opponents and supporters alike - and still Lockheed Martin is having trouble with the V/STOL version of its F-35.

In the end, the wisdom of building them at all has to be questioned given the deeper arguments about what Britain can really afford to spend on defense. As Childs points out, fiscal realities probably mean the Queen Elizabeths will remain as vulnerable throughout their lives to the whims of government accountants as to anything fired by an enemy in anger.