As part of government-wide cuts meant to rein in decades of deficit spending, in October the U.K. Ministry of Defense announced an initial 8 percent reduction in its roughly $63 billion annual budget. The Royal Navy will suffer the deepest cuts, with around one-quarter of the fleet — as measured by tonnage — to be decommissioned and future purchases of ships and planes delayed and reduced.
As a result, the navy will be forced to give up some of its 11 current standing missions. The government has reiterated its commitment to an independent nuclear-deterrence patrol and to the defense of the Falklands Islands. With those missions “untouchable,” it’s likely that London will reduce its participation in multilateral naval missions such as the counterpiracy efforts being carried out by NATO, the E.U., and the U.S. Navy off the Somali coast, the U.S.-led Indian Ocean anti-smuggling task force, the coalition naval presence in the Persian Gulf and various humanitarian deployments such as that off of Haiti in early 2010.
That would represent a major reversal for a navy that has prided itself on its international leadership role. During a recent peak in late 2009, no fewer than four British warships were involved in the three multilateral counterpiracy missions. British officers held key positions in the planning staffs for all three missions, including command of the NATO flotilla.
Withdrawing from these kinds of multilateral missions will create a leadership vacuum that only one other country can realistically fill. “There is . . . likely to be a greater reliance on U.S. Navy assets around the world because there will be a great many missions that the Royal Navy will simply no longer be able to undertake,” Eric Wertheim, an independent U.S. naval analyst, told World Politics Review.