This week for the first time in 357 years they are changing the guard at Buckingham Palace, not with Foot Guards wearing their signature red tunics, but with sailors, who have temporarily taken over the ceremonial role outside the royal residence to mark 2017 as the “Year of the Navy.”
Britain’s biggest ever warship, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, started its sea trials this year. The vessel is the first in a planned raft of new warships that are meant to mark an expansion of the navy and the return of Britain as a serious maritime force in keeping with its ambition to remain in the top tier of military powers.
But whether the plans will be met is now in doubt.
Sluggish economic growth, rising government debt and the feared impact of Britain’s exit from the European Union, known as Brexit, is forcing the ruling Conservatives to rethink what it can afford.
And the future on the cards is one of crippling budget-squeezing measures that will see a delay in the building of new frigates and tanks and the Royal Navy having to give up its two remaining amphibious assault ships capable of landing Royal Marines on foreign shores.
Far from expanding the Royal Navy, a looming round of biting spending cuts — the second in three years — would see the fleet contract. It would also see a delay in the purchase of American-made F-35 warplanes for use on Britain’s new expensive aircraft carrier.
Cuts now being debated within the government would also devastate Britain’s overall military capability, fear British defense officials.
Their counterparts in the United States have warned Britain’s much vaunted special relationship with America — that’s ultimately founded on military cooperation — could well be imperiled as a result, reducing Britain's global influence already threatened by Brexit.
British troops are currently deployed with U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and bolstering the defenses of eastern European countries in response to Russia’s more aggressive military posture.
Earlier in November, a senior U.S. general warned against deeper cuts to Britain's armed forces. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, said Britain's position as a key ally and leading NATO member would be at risk, if its armed forces shrank even more. The British Army has already been cut from 120,000 to 82,000 regular troops.
“It’s a leader in the [NATO] alliance and if it can’t sustain the level of commitments it’s fulfilling right now, then I think it risks going into a different sort of category,” he said in an interview with the BBC.
Some recently retired senior officers who have the freedom to speak out say Britain already has fallen into a sub-par category.
Last week, retired Gen. Richard Barrons warned a parliamentary defense committee that the country’s military is “no longer fit for purpose” and that the army is 20 years out of date and nearing breaking point. The navy is underfunded and the air force teetering on the edge because of decades of cuts, he warned.
“If you don’t put this money back in defense, you will be responsible for tipping the armed forces into institutional failure,” he told lawmakers. He pointed out that the defense review is coming at a time when Russia and China — as well as allies such as the United States and Germany — are growing their forces and modernizing them.
Popular Defense Minister Tobias Ellwood is an army veteran who was feted publicly for his first aid efforts to revive a policeman felled in a lone-wolf terror attack last March on the House of Commons. Ellwood is threatening to resign in protest at cuts that will likely shrink the British army’s full-time strength to just 70,000. It is rare for a British government minister to resign on a matter of principle. The last time a defense minister did so quit was in 1966.
Even without the cuts, Britain is already far behind in combat strength compared to nearby France, which has 110,000 regular service personnel. Britain can call upon 249 combat tanks, whereas France has 406. Likely cuts to the Royal Navy’s budget would see it for the first time in history operating a smaller fleet than the French.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, already buffeted and imperiled by divisions within the Conservative Party over Brexit, has been warned by Cabinet colleagues that she faces a “very substantial rebellion” in the House of Commons, if she fails to stop the cuts to the armed forces.
And on Sunday, Nicholas Soames, grandson of Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill, tweeted, “The Conservative parliamentary party has a duty now to unite against further defense cuts to capability.” Soames and 23 other Conservative lawmakers warned in a letter to May’s minority government that they are also “not prepared to see the degradation of this nation’s amphibious capabilities any further.”