PORTSMOUTH --- To understand how seafaring Britons, in romantic moments, see their island’s maritime story, it helps to join the tourists taking a cruise around the harbour that was once home to the world’s mightiest navy. In the same skyline, visitors are urged to admire the finest of the old and the shiniest of the new.
Gazes switch from the oaken planks of HMS Victory, from which Admiral Horatio Nelson smashed the French and Spanish but lost his own life in 1805, to HMS Queen Elizabeth, a new aircraft-carrier which is by far the biggest vessel ever built for the Royal Navy.
To judge by its stated intentions and the ships it means to buy, Britain is planning to celebrate Brexit by reasserting some of its ancient prowess as an ocean-going power. Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, announced on May 24th that a frigate would be kept permanently in Bahrain, as part of an “enduring presence” in the Gulf, and that three British ships would be deployed in the Asia-Pacific region.
This reflected a “vision of a Royal Navy always forward-deployed and truly global,” he said. As well as the Queen Elizabeth and another huge carrier, which will both be endowed with snazzy American fighter aircraft, the order book includes fresh generations of attack submarines and surface combatants, plus four subs armed with nuclear missiles.
All this has boosted the morale of a service which was hurt by the spending squeeze mandated in 2010 after the economic downturn. At that time, navy chiefs reluctantly accepted a reduction in surface combatant ships to a historic low of 19 (down from about 50 at the end of the cold war) as the price for saving the ambitious carrier plan.
A defence review in 2015, noting the dangerous state of the world, helped turn the tide. But hard questions still hang over a service now dwarfed by its closest friend (America’s navy has about 300 big ships) and challenged by China and Russia. (end of excerpt)
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