Britain's Sad Decline

A former military superpower drowns in the welfare state's red ink.

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.

To say that this is a negative development for Western security would be putting it mildly. The Free World is losing one of only two countries that had any real ability to generate effective combat power at long distances. As useful as a battle group from Canada or Australia might be, there are still things that only a true global military power can do, and while much smaller than the United States, Britain had that ability. It didn’t just join coalitions, it could lead them, as it did when it commanded coalition troops in the south of Iraq after the 2003 invasion. At the height of its commitment there, soon after the initial invasion, 46,000 British troops were fighting in Iraq, a truly enormous effort.

Going forward, Britain will only be able to be part of a team, whether under the flag of NATO, the European Union or United Nations. That will leave Britain’s remaining military capability at the mercy at the slow pace of international diplomacy. As has been shown repeatedly, by the time these organizations are ready to commit to a military operation, the crisis has either passed or been dealt with by a country capable of acting alone or with a few select partners… like Britain used to be. (A recent example would be the virtual flood of U.S. and Canadian soldiers that essentially took over Haiti after the devastating earthquake there last January.)

Or perhaps it will continue to fight, along with the other smaller English-speaking powers and motivated allies such as Poland and the Netherlands, under overall American command. Such is likely how Britain will fight future wars, while committing itself to collective European security through the EU and international humanitarian relief through the UN. That raises the question of how much additional burden the United States could possibly take on. Today, with enormous numbers of troops still in Iraq, a hot war in Afghanistan and tension in Korea, the U.S. military is stretched thin. This is a very difficult time for the United States to lose its most powerful ally.

But there are lessons here for Washington. The American economy is in no better shape than Britain’s, and a fiscal reckoning is in its future, as well. And yet America continues to rush towards a fiscal cliff at maximum speed. So while the loss of British military strength will hurt the United States in the short term, if Americans take the appropriate lessons from the fall of Britain from the top-tier of global powerhouses and begin to get their own financial house in order, future cuts that could gut America’s military might yet be avoided. If that’s the case, then the sad decline Britain, one of the greatest nations the world has ever known, will not be in vain. It would be instead a final sacrifice to help prop up the very Western world that Britain created.

Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.