Yesterday British lawmakers approved Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plan to begin research and development on a new class of ballistic missile submarines — most likely a development of the new Astute attack sub — to replace the current Vanguard class of four boats, the Associated Press reports:
Overwhelming support from Conservatives assured approval of Blair’s plan Wednesday, with the motion passing by a vote of 409-161. His Labour Party has a majority of 67 seats in the House of Commons. Critics said the $40 billion program could harm efforts to stem the weapons ambitions of Iran and other countries. But before the vote, Blair told the House of Commons that the submarines — due to be phased out starting in 2022 — should be replaced to meet possible future threats from rogue regimes and state-sponsored terrorists. “I think it’s right we take the decision now to begin work on replacing the Trident submarines, I think it’s essential for security in an uncertain world,” Blair said. “Though it is impossible to predict the future, the one thing that is certain is the unpredictability of it.”
The decision comes at a time of relentless fiscal pressure on a shrinking British fleet. Once the world’s unrivaled naval force, the Royal Navy played second fiddle to the U.S. Navy in the wake of World War II but continued to “punch above its weight” by combining superior training with a flexible and capable frigate and destroyer force, some of the world’s best nuclear-powered submarines and a naval fighter, the Sea Harrier, with a top-notch radar. But in the past five years, budget cuts resulting from public disinterest in all things military have eroded the Royal Navy to its weakest position in centuries.
There are around 110 ships in the British sea services including 80 warships, compared to around 500 in all the U.S. services, around 280 of which are combatants. Since 2000, the Royal Navy has sliced its frigate and destroyer force from 33 to just 25, its attack submarines from 12 to 10, laid up one of its three carriers and completely retired the Sea Harrier without a replacement. “This government is absolutely hellbent on the destruction of the Royal Navy,” said Dr. Julian Lewis, the government’s opposition defense leader.
Blair has countered by saying that the government has launched the most expensive modernization in recent history, totalling $30 billion over 20 years. But even that investment buys fewer ships than needed to sustain the recently reduced force levels. The Navy is planning on just six new Type 45 destroyers to replace the current eight Type 42s and no more than seven Astutes to replace the 10 Trafalgars and Swiftsures. To be sure, the government continues to promise two large aircraft carriers plus F-35B Lightnings to replace the current two small carriers and the old ground-attack Harriers they carry. But after years of delay, there’s still no construction contract let on that plan … and no assurance that one ever will be.Said Lewis, “You can’t have a Navy without ships.” It’s sad that anyone in British government should have to point out something so patently obvious.
The Royal Navy is wasting away, despite daily proving its worth supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan while also patrolling the world’s oceans for smugglers and terrorists and providing deterence against rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. The plan to replace the Vanguard boomers represents a rare commitment to simply holding the line on current Royal Navy capabilities. This is the minimum that the world’s free people should expect of one of its historical protectors.
But most critics see the Vanguard replacement as a nuclear proliferation issue rather than as a matter of sustaining the navy. For decades there has been a strong contingent in Great Britain demanding unilateral nuclear disarmament. Letting the Vanguards rust away without replacement would effectively put paid to Britain’s modest nuclear capability, which now resides solely with around 200 Trident missiles aboard the boomers. But with Iran and North Korea pursuing nukes, is it wise to totally abandon deterence? It is if you’re one of the celebrity protestors attending Parliament’s Vanguard vote, according to the AP:
Protesters, including Bianca Jagger, singer Annie Lennox and designer Vivienne Westwood, gathered near the Houses of Parliament ahead of the debate, and hundreds of protesters were outside in Parliament Square as lawmakers voted … “They are just like little schoolboys that don’t think,” Westwood said. “If (only) Tony Blair had any idea of his children’s future — it’s so dangerous.”
God Bless Great Britain and its wise electorate.