Voters expect the benefits of a robust military they can’t be bothered to maintain

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Dealing with unruly locals by sending a gunboat seems very much out of fashion.  But if politicians and voters don’t want foreign tyrants to invade their neighbours, slaughter people, or mess with vital international trade, sometimes you have to do it.  At which point it’s kind of embarrassing to find you’re pretty much out of gunboats.

Like Britain.  Acting like a responsible global power they seized a tanker, Grace 1, thought to be smuggling Iranian oil to Syria via Gibraltar.  In response the Iranians seized a British tanker called the Stena Impero in the vital straits of Hormuz.  Which apparently nobody saw coming.  Then the British somehow dredged up two gunboats, one destroyer and one frigate.  But it was too little, and far too difficult.

In reporting the incident NBC buried the key detail.  Specifically, quoting an “assistant professor of maritime security at Coventry University” in its 16th paragraph: “The situation is extremely different from the ’80s for example when I think the Royal Navy had over 50 destroyers and frigates, and now it has under 20.”  And while this deployment of over 10% of its available forces can probably prevent other tankers being seized, for as long as it can be sustained, NBC also said while “experts suggest that British special forces are likely to be able to seize the Stena Impero, the oil tanker would be too slow to exit Iranian waters safely.”

That the navy can’t escort it out safely underlines that British security, like Canadian, is in terrible shape.  And that seems to have happened without anyone noticing or caring.  Voters and politicians expect the benefits of a robust military they can’t be bothered to maintain.

The Royal Air Force is smaller than since 1914, when pilots fired handguns at one another in canvas biplanes.  The army’s an overstretched mess.  And the Royal Navy is smaller than since Henry VIII, with fewer surface ships than the French for the first time since Louis XIV.  There are two big shiny new aircraft carriers, but alas no aircraft to carry.  I mean you can’t have everything, right.  You want a driveshaft and a propeller?

I’ve told more than once of then-PM David Cameron responding to the 2011 Libyan crisis by demanding to know where the nearest aircraft carrier was and weary admirals pointing to the drydock where himself had put it without apparently grasping that you can’t play Nelson without ships.  But what’s with all the admirals to point wearily?

As the Telegraph noted unhappily a decade ago, Britain had 41 (counting rear and vice) for just 40 fighting ships.  And if you’re thinking 41 captains would have been more like it, the Telegraph pointedly added, “Nearly all the ships and submarines are commanded by officers that are three ranks below that of rear-admiral.”  Most ships are commanded by “Commanders”, which makes linguistic sense.  But how does it make military sense to have countless higher-ranking captains and commodores reporting on nothing to dozens of admirals?

One excuse is that the admirals are managing the construction of new ships.  And Britain is getting some pretty impressive ones.  But not enough or not soon enough.  The Royal Navy now has about 75 commissioned ships including Nelson’s 18th-century Trafalgar flagship HMCS Victory.  Which I approve of keeping on the roster as a reminder of what the navy once was and should be.  But today that 75 includes two “amphibious transport docks”, 13 minesweepers, 4 survey ships and an “ice patrol ship”.  All of which are important auxiliary assets.  Even the “static ship” which turns out to be a building.  But where are the big scary main ships?

When the Telegraph went after the navy for being top-heavy and feeble a decade ago they got the usual officious bwa-bwa-bwa in response including “The Royal Navy is one of the world’s most powerful navies with a modern and capable warfare capability.”  Which might be true, given the inadequate defence budgets of most democracies and the lousy technology and discipline of most non-democratic armed forces.  But the relevant question is: Can it get the job done?  And the answer is no.

This navy is not a global force capable of sustaining losses and functioning.  Or even keeping Iran from bagging tankers in the strait of Hormuz, through which about a quarter of the world’s oil passes, and over a third of all seaborn oil.

There’s always Uncle Sam to run to when bullied.  The U.S. navy, although much diminished recently, can still deploy 288 ships (of nearly 500).  And its 3,700 working planes make it the 3rd largest air force in the world after… the U.S. air force and the U.S. Army air force.  (Canada has roughly 72 fighter planes, and the navy borrows them and helicopters from the Air Force; Britain’s Royal Navy now has 174 planes.)  But there’s something shabby and unsafe about picking a fight then telling your unruly cousin and the Iranians, “Hey, let’s you and him fight.”

Voters in democracies expect the lights to stay on and foreign tyrants to be kept at bay.  They find sending a gunboat distasteful… until a foreign crisis erupts.  And they think they pay taxes partly for a robust defence establishment.  But they don’t pay enough, or get enough.  As in many other areas of government, to be sure.  But national security comes first, because without it, nothing else matters.

Politicians don’t seem to know it.  They talk as though it was 1894 but arm as though it was 1937.  And voters let them, because in a democracy it’s all fun and games until somebody loses a tanker.

Photo Credit: The Daily Express

More from John Robson.    Follow John on Twitter at @thejohnrobson

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