At what point does decline become collapse? The British Royal Navy now has more admirals (33) than warships (29, namely 6 guided-missile destroyers, 13 frigates, and 10 submarines), resembling the top-heavy command structures of some third-world militaries. As of last year, there were 260 captains. “Stick close to your desk, and never go to sea,” Gilbert & Sullivan wrote, which might not be satirical career advice anymore, but rather strict necessity—unless you used them all to man two of the RN’s four Trafalgar-class submarines (complement: 130 personnel).
This data confirms the sarcastic prediction of the great curmudgeon, C. Northcote Parkinson. In Parkinson’s Law (“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”), he noted that during the 1920s, the Royal Navy’s Admiralty staff increased by 78%, while the number of seamen fell by about a third and the ships in the fleet fell by two thirds. Examining this trend over time, he sardonically remarked that, “the officials would have multiplied at the same rate had there been no actual seamen at all.”
The classic instance of Parkinson’s Law is that the number of administrators in the British Colonial Office rose significantly throughout the late 1940s and ‘50s—just before it was shut down for a lack of colonies to administrate. Now, no one is suggesting that the Royal Navy is about to fold. But it does seem like, slowly, quietly, even boringly, the United States’ greatest ally has reached an important tipping point. When the Royal Navy has 38 admirals for 29 warships, the problem is not the 38 admirals, unless you are a British taxpayer (God help you). The problem, for the rest of us, is that one of the West’s great fighting forces only has 29 warships.
The Brits have no aircraft carriers, no cruisers, and a flawed and failing force of destroyers and submarines. Defenders of military cuts argue that technology has advanced so far that ship or aircraft numbers cannot be compared from the past to the present. This is true to an extent: I would rather have one Daring-class destroyer, armed with Harpoon missiles and the Sea Viper air-defense system, than three Country-class destroyers with Exocets and Sea Slugs. But this holds only to an extent. No matter how good a Daring-class destroyer is, it cannot be in three places at once. Furthermore, as a recent Foreign Policy analysis details, many of the newer ships are not as good as promised—riddled with technological errors—while the older ones are often kept in port by mechanical problems.
This is not just a problem of too few ships for the heirs of Nelson. The British Army and RAF also faced cuts in personnel and capabilities following the 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review—and the security review of 2003, and that of 1998, and of 1990. As a result, the British Army is now about half the size of the U.S. Marine Corps. This trend has been going on across the board for a generation. That the Navy consists of discreet warships simply makes the decline easier to trace and visualize.
If it has, why grow concerned now? Two reasons. One is that, as Stalin supposedly said, quantity has a quality all of its own. And there has clearly been a qualitative decline in Britain’s standing in the world in the last decade, linked to the quantitative slide in its armed forces. It’s hard to pinpoint just when the downward slide in British military capacity became a wider problem for the country’s standing. But in 2003, during the invasion of Iraq and the larger War on Terror, the U.S. consulted the UK closely and was able to count on the Brits to act as an independent force. Now, as Con Coughlin, the Defense Editor of The Telegraph, recently noted, the British Army could only deploy one combat brigade. Consequently, the UK “will soon no longer be able to undertake a military operation on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan, even if we wanted to.” As a result, neither the U.S. nor the world writ large could, or would, take the UK as seriously again.
This is problematic from a larger perspective because, despite a thousand little quarrels, the Special Relationship remains America’s most potent foreign policy instrument. From the invasion of Normandy to the founding of NATO to the fall of the Berlin Wall, America and Great Britain have toiled together to build a liberal world order in our image. Not only is it effective, but it’s also based on a deep, shared understanding: we can say in “our” image because we are both rooted, historically and philosophically, in a shared understanding of how the world works. If the world sees that Britain is unwilling or less willing to defend this vision, the U.S. suffers – as do all our common allies.
The second reason this matters is because the “End of History” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union is clearly coming to an end—and it appears Britain, to say nothing of Europe writ large, intends to do nothing about it. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the implosion of the Middle East have exposed the myth that the only real danger to major European powers was George W. Bush’s drawing them into useless, unnecessary conflicts. Now, the Russians are pushing into truly Western territory—Swedish waters and NATO airspace. ISIS (which may have twice as many British muslims in its ranks as are in the British Army) sweeps over the Fertile Crescent, and the great game is afoot again in the Far East.
Meanwhile, Britain is intent on sliding beneath the NATO mandate on defense spending, 2% of GDP, even with a (relatively) resurgent economy. This will be deeply problematic for the embattled liberal world order. The rest of Europe is already below the target (excepting Greece and plucky Estonia), and is on defense matters frankly almost entirely hopeless. The resolve of many of the smaller nations is a joke. The Dutch Army is unionized. Meanwhile, for most of the post-War period, the two other contenders for Continental military leadership have been out of the game. Much like the dwarfs in the Chronicles of Narnia, the French are for the French, while for obvious historical reasons, Germany could not take on this role, despite its economic prowess. As the generations change, this looks like it might be starting to shift, but it will take some time.
Britain could not, until recently, be said like the Europeans to have abandoned its own defense, which after all is one of the main, and perhaps the first, responsibility of any mature state. Now it has.
This is not a matter of comparative size, much as we are told the BRICS will rule the future. Britain has not shrunk any, in population, wealth, or geography, since it conquered India; if size were dispositive making history, it surely would have been the other way around. It is not a matter of other budgeting priorities: contrary to popular stereotype, the U.S. spends more on public health (about $772 B Medicare, Medicaid, and related services each year) than the Brits do on the NHS, while still funding the Pentagon. Nor is it a matter of financial hardship. Britain’s GDP is 46% higher than it was in 1990, when it had a fleet of 85 warships (33 submarines, 3 aircraft carriers, 14 destroyers, and 35 frigates); its population has grown by about 6.5 million even as its military has shrunk. Decline is a choice.
This choice has had real results. Britain could no longer mount an Iraq campaign, nor a naval campaign similar to that which recaptured the Falklands. By the end of the brief bombing of Libya in 2011, RAF supplies of certain vital missiles were depleted to single digit figures. Having scrapped the Nimrod marine reconnaissance plane, the Scepter’d Isle is even blind in the waters around it. The specter of the fate of the Dutch, a once-great seafaring empire reduced to a few special forces units, that unionized army, and a memory, looms close.
The Special Relationship has, since its founding one hundred years ago, had its critics on both sides of the Atlantic. It has endured because of our shared worldview, but also because of shared experience. One of my grandfathers was a Roman Catholic born in Ireland who nevertheless declared until his dying day that, after World War II, Great Britain was the only other country he would ever fight and die for. A broken back due to a shipyard accident kept him out of that conflict, but my other grandfather, 1SG Frank Gallagher, fought alongside the Brits in the brutal jungle warfare of the China-Burma-India theater, and returned with similar feelings.
If one side of the relationship started to feel that the other has no skin in the game, or no ability to contribute, it would imperil the alliance. Those of us who think it should continue (and I, having lived in England for four years and counting Brits among my best friends, am certainly among them) must pray for a change in this longstanding trend.
There are some hopeful signs. The Royal Navy is expecting two aircraft carriers to come online in the next half-decade. Defense contractor delays will be inevitable, the fleet air arm will have to be rebuilt after a hiatus, and the planes aren’t all purchased yet—but this might be a start, if Britain were so minded, of a turn-around.
2014 marks the centenary of the Special Relationship’s emergence as a world-changing dynamic. During that period, both nations have experienced the temptations of isolationism, but ultimately turned back to support one another. This time, things look pretty grim. Let’s hope it doesn’t last—and those all those poor, needy admirals and captains get some more ships.