For centuries, Britain has been one of the world’s pre-eminent military powers. A tiny island nation rode the riches of her merchants and the power of her Navy to the very top of global power and stayed there for 200 years. She fended off attempted invasions from much larger continental powers, founded new nations across the globe and had leading roles in both world wars and the Cold War.
Her leadership role in the Second World War is the stuff of legends, and rightly so: In most of the English-speaking world, the war meant sacrificing consumer goods and, for some, the lives of loved ones. For the British, it meant enduring Hitler’s onslaught and remaining unbowed and unbroken even as London and other historic cities were laid waste. To the modern mind, it seems almost unbelievable that they could have believed in their cause so much that they’d absorb that kind of damage without seeking peace. Even 70 years later, the words of Winston Churchill, calling upon his people to fight and stay true to the struggle, are perhaps the greatest ever spoken in our language. Tiny Britain stood proudly alongside mighty America and the massive Soviet Union, and paid the price in blood and treasure.
Tragically, today, the United Kingdom’s days as a global military power, and international leader, seem to be numbered. Crippled by the enormous deficits necessary to prop up its welfare state and a sluggish economy hobbled by the global financial crisis, Britain is embarking on a series of deep spending cuts in a determined effort to save the economy and financial credibility of their nation. The cuts are sweeping and widespread, and the British military has not been spared its turn at the chopping block.
The cuts are deep and will be spread across all the armed services. The Army is losing a sixth of its striking power, 40% of its tanks, a third of its artillery and 7,000 men. The Navy and Air Force will both lose 5,000 personnel. The Navy will immediately decommission one aircraft carrier and while it will still complete both of the new carriers it had begun to build, one will be immediately put in reserve. The Air Force will see some of its refueling and reconnaissance capability trimmed. The future participation of the RAF in the F-35 fighter program is in doubt; the Harrier jump-jets have already been yanked from service. The country’s nuclear stockpile will be slashed by 25%, to 120 deployed warheads. Further, a series of military bases face closure, and over 20,000 civilian bureaucrats employed by the military will be let go. Even military pensions are being eyed for potential savings.
The cuts are arguably necessary, and as said above, they are targeting the whole of the British state. Over $130-billion U.S. dollars (Roughly £81-billion) will be cut from the federal budget by 2015, and a whopping 500,000 civil service positions will be cut. There are no sacred cows in the eyes of Britain’s budget hawks, everything must be cut back if the state is to save itself from financial ruin.
Even so, it truly is a remarkable paring back of British military power. When the cuts are complete, Britain will still field a modern, large military force, particularly for its size, but it will have given up its ability to independently project power at long ranges. In future conflicts, the U.K. will be a particularly useful member of an alliance or ad hoc coalition, but never again the leader. It’s future will probably be something similar to that of Canada and the Australia — modern, well-equipped forces capable of waging war or peacekeeping, but only as a partner in a much larger force.
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