British Royal Navy Sidelined in Syria Due to Budget Cuts
The United Kingdom’s participation in the strike on Syrian chemical weapons facilities highlighted Britain’s determination to remain a major player on the world stage and protect British interests across the globe. However, years of austerity have taken their toll on the Royal Navy and its ability to meet the challenges of 21st-century warfare. Will the British government continue to manage the decline of the once great Senior Service or will it support the sailors charged with protecting the nation?
After almost a decade of military reductions, cost-cutting initiatives, and a general hollowing out of the armed forces, British power projection shortcomings became apparent last month during the American, French, and British strike on Syrian chemical weapon facilities.
Of the 105 missiles launched from numerous ships, bombers, and fighters, the UK played the role of a third tier participant behind the French, only providing four Royal Air Force Tornado and four Typhoon jets. Of the eight British aircraft, the four Tornados fired a total of eight Storm Shadow missiles at the Him Sinshar chemical weapons facility near Homs in western Syria.
However, the limited RAF role flashes warning signs for British military power since the Tornado is set to retire next year, further limiting UK ability to field cruise missiles during conflict. Additionally, the Typhoon jets used defending the Tornados will not be cruise missile capable until next year due to cuts in funding.
The Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigate (approximately £170 million each) was not used because it is unable to field cruise missiles. The new frigates set to replace the Type 23 are expected to be cruise missile capable (assuming cost-cutting reductions are not made) but are not due to be delivered until the mid-2020’s at the earliest.
The HMS Duncan, a £1 billion Type 45 destroyer, was in the Eastern Mediterranean but, in order to save money, had not been fitted with cruise missile capabilities. “It is pretty depressing” a military officer said.
According to news reports, the only Royal Navy asset in the area that could have participated in the Syrian strike was an Astute-class attack submarine. However, the £1.37 billion submarine, carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles, was unable to participate in the strikes as it was said to be locked in a “cat-and-mouse” pursuit by Russian submarines and warships.
Despite the cost of these assets, the Naval Service, comprising the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary, is already one of the most efficient in the world, costing approximately £250 million per year to operate the surface fleet. However, this astonishing value for money comes with a trade-off. The Royal Navy’s capabilities to protect British interests, and protect British sailors themselves, have atrophied considerably as the events in Syria make clear.
Defence of British interests worldwide and defence of trade require a capable Navy properly equipped to accomplish the task policymakers demand of them. Ships carry 90% of global trade; 95% by volume of UK trade and 75% by value is carried by sea. 47% of energy used in the UK is imported by sea; 700 ports in the UK support the internal coastal trade and merchant ships arrive in a UK port every four minutes of every day.
However, the Royal Navy is now less than half the size it was in ships and manpower than it was in the 1980s, yet the operational demands remain the same today. Indeed, it is the smallest of the services yet is arguably the busiest since it has a full peacetime role every day of the year in addition to its wartime role. The Royal Navy has been short of funds, ships, submarines, aircraft, and sailors for years despite the protestations and warnings from service members, parliamentarians, academics, and experts.
Instead of equipping sailors to protect them and help accomplish the dangerous missions demanded of them, however, policymakers mandated that the Royal Navy meet all of its diversity, health and safety, and gender targets. Although some might hope this alone will terrify an enemy into immediate surrender, this was not enough to deter the Syrian regime last week.
After the Spanish Armada was destroyed in 1588, the English proclaimed, “the frontiers of England are the coastlines of her enemies.” Over the proceeding four centuries she became the greatest naval power the world had ever seen, unrivaled until the mid-20th century. The events in Syria, however, show now that after years of managed decline, the UK’s frontiers are far from the shores of her enemies. Actions have consequences and the UK cannot expect to remain a global power by starving its forces of resources and penny pinching its way to security.
Matthew J.A. Shoemaker is an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He holds a BA in Political Science and International Affairs from George Washington University, an MA in Philosophy from Mount St. Mary’s University, and is completing his Ph.D. in War Studies from King’s College London.