The Royal Navy’s most desperate battle

October 24, 2010

PARIS -- I grew up immersed in the glorious adventures of Britain’s Royal Navy. My heart and soul thrilled to the daring exploits of Sir Francis Drake, the renowned admirals Anson and Howe, and the great Sir Horatio Nelson whose name will live forever in glory.

What red-blooded boy would not have been stirred by Sir Richard Grenville on the “Revenge” in 1591 taking on the entire Spanish fleet of 53 galleons off Flores in the Azores? Lying dying on the deck, Grenville, in Lord Tennyson’s words, ordered his chief gunner, “sink me the ship, master gunner, sink’er, split her in twain. Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!” I still cannot recite these lines without a lump in my throat.
Britain’s mighty Royal Navy ruled the waves until World War II, the British Empire controlled 25% of the globe. There are few greater epochs in history than the stirring saga the Royal Navy and its crews with “hearts of oak.”
Who can forget the Royal Navy’s life-and-death hunt for the mighty German “Bismarck,” and loss of the famed battle cruiser “Hood,” or the heartbreaking sinking of “Repulse” and “Prince of Wales” off Singapore by Japanese bombers?
Britain had 900 warships in 1945. There was not an ocean, sea, estuary or navigable river that was immune to the Royal Navy’s power. Britain’s “Senior Service” was the ultimate strategic weapon of world domination. Britannia ruled the waves, and from there the world’s coasts and commerce.
Today, that weapon is the United States Air Force.
This week, the Royal Navy faces the most perilous engagement in its splendid history, and one from which it may not emerge victorious. What Spanish and French cannon balls, and German 15in shells failed to accomplish, the pens of London’s bean counters may achieve -- scuppering the Royal Navy and sending its finest vessels to the breaker’s yards.
The Navy’s budget is reportedly to be cut by at least 10%, perhaps far more. Britain’s new Conservative-Liberal-Dem coalition of David Cameron and Nick Clegg vow to slash the monstrous deficit it inherited from the former Blair-Brown Labour government that left Britain drowning in red ink.
Cameron has spoken of 20-25% cuts across the board. In spite of earlier denials, military spending will be a choice target. New aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines may be cancelled or sharply reduced.
Cameron’s full draconian budget out next week will be sure to produce howls of protests from Land’s End to John o’Groats.
Britain, whose debt-inflated economy may actually be smaller than Italy’s (because a third of Italy’s GDP is unreported), has a navy worthy of a world power, second only in strength and power projection capability to the United States Navy.
The Royal Navy deploys nuclear-powered submarines armed with U.S.-supplied Trident nuclear-tipped missiles, and has ordered two 65,000-ton aircraft carriers to carry the new, U.S. F-35 STOL vertical takeoff fighter. Add nuclear-powered attack subs, modern frigates, attack transports an extensive logistical support fleet and 7,500 crack Royal Marines.
Smashing! But what’s it all for? Britons face sharp cuts their health and welfare benefits. Imperial naval grandeur has become unaffordable.
Britain, like the rest of Europe, has no real external enemies, and certainly none that threaten it with nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, the Royal Navy’s primary mission was to plug the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, the only passage for the Soviet Red Banner Northern Fleet to break out into the North Atlantic and attack British-U.S. convoys. Today, that threat is gone.
Interestingly, this writer has been told by senior British military sources that their nuclear weapons cannot be fired without the U.S.-turned series of electronic locks. In other words, the UK sea-based nuclear arsenal is under ultimate U.S. control. Britain’s Trident nuclear subs may not be replaced in part or full when their service life ends in 2020.
The only real mission for today’s powerful Royal Navy is to support the U.S. Navy in its foreign offensive operations. Many Britons want no part of being foot soldiers to America’s nuclear knights, to quote the famous words of the late German defense minister Franz Josef Strauss.
Thanks to Tony Blair’s smarmy pandering to the Americans, a majority if Britons want no more of being “Washington’s poodle,” as Blair was derided. This feeling is common in the rest of NATO, which does not want to spend billions on military transports and long-range logistical forces to support America’s wars in the Muslim world or even against China.
PM Cameron has been battling over defense cuts with die-hard right-wingers in his cabinet. Defense Secretary Dr. Liam Fox, Britain’s leading neoconservative, has bitterly opposed Cameron’s defense cuts. The prime minister just humiliated Fox this week in a stinging public rebuke.
That other and bigger half of the famed U.S.-UK “Special Relationship,” the United States undiplomatically has just treated Briton like a misbehaving banana republic as State Secretary Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates openly rebuked and scolded London for its proposed defense cuts.
Two points to be made here: First, Britain’s spending cuts are not coming from “defense” -- since no one is threatening the British Isles. As the former head of MI5 Internal Security recently testified, the only threat to Britain was so-called terrorist attacks, entirely the result of its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The only nations building real blue-water navies these days are China and India.
So with no external threat, the only use for Britain’s fleet is offensively, as an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy. That’s why Clinton and Gates were so miffed. Britain’s fleet, RAF, and soldiers are the key component of America’s imperial forces in the Third World. Take away the tough Brits, and the U.S. is left with Italians, Estonians, Poles and some other armies. The U.S. Navy budget is bigger than France’s total military budget.
PM Cameron deserves high praise for admitting that Britain was a balloon of debt with pretensions way beyond its economic or military power. Britons need decent hospitals and un-crashing trains far more than jolly little wars in remote places.
Second, Cameron’s goring of Britain’s most sacred cow leaves Washington odd man out with a monstrously bloated imperial military establishment that this bankrupt nation can no longer afford. The Pentagon’s annual budget is nearly $1 trillion – half the world’s total military spending.
Worse, this trillion dollars is not raised by taxes, as it should be, but borrowed from China and Japan.
The world’s greatest naval power is also the world’s biggest debtor, floating on an ocean of debt.
(Source: ericmargolis.com)
Photo: The scene near the Isle of Skye in Scotland where Britain's newest nuclear-powered submarine Astute run aground on Oct. 22, 2010. (AP photo