Britannia may no longer be sinking under the waves

Britannia may no longer be sinking under the waves
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The past four decades have not been kind to British defense spending in general, and to the Royal Navy in particular, especially when the Conservative Party has been in power. In 1981, in response to pressures to cut the defense budget, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asked her newly appointed defense minister, John Nott, to prepare a plan to cut back the defense budget. Nott responded by proposing a steep reduction in the Royal Navy’s surface forces, on the grounds that the Army and Air Force, which were directly committed to the defense of Western Europe, could not be cut. Nott also proposed closing the Chatham naval dockyard.

The proposed cuts alarmed U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and John Lehman, secretary of the Navy. In response to the British proposals, I was asked to lead a Department of Defense (DOD) team, consisting of naval officers and civilian analysts, whose purpose was to convince our British counterparts both to reduce the cuts and, in particular, to delay any plans to decommission some amphibious landing ships, as well as the aircraft carrier Invincible and possibly the carrier Hermes

As a result of ongoing DOD talks with the Ministry of Defense, the plan had not yet materialized when the Falklands War broke out. Neither carrier had been mothballed, and both played a major role in the British victory. Nevertheless, once the war ended with Britain’s victory, Mrs. Thatcher reiterated her determination to reduce the size of the Royal Navy. She promptly did so. The Chatham yard, which was established in the 16th century, closed in 1984. Two years later, the Hermes was sold to India (Invincible remained in the fleet).


The post-Falklands years marked the beginning of a long decline in the size of the Royal Navy, especially the surface fleet, which Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2010 defense review further accelerated. Indeed, a 2013 report argued that the Navy was too small and could not contribute on its own to the defense of Britain, should it be attacked.

In contrast to its stance five years earlier, the Cameron government’s 2015 defense review promised to reverse the Navy’s decline. It called for maintaining the Navy’s 19 surface ships and building a new class of frigates. Nevertheless, by 2019 the Navy had been reduced from over 130 ships to fewer than 80, and its order of battle still included only 19 surface ships.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s most recent defense review marks a significant inflection point in defense spending and the Navy’s fortunes, however. Building upon his previous commitment to add £2 billion to the defense budget, Johnson and the defense ministry announced a further increase of £22 billion, for a total of £24.1 billion through 2024. The increases put Britain’s defense spending well above 2 percent of its gross domestic product, and indeed render its budget once again the highest in NATO Europe.

The defense review emphasizes the exploitation and operational employment of leading-edge technology. It calls for the creation of a National Cyber Force, an Artificial Intelligence Agency and a Space Command. But the review also significantly reinvigorates the Navy’s surface fleet. To complement the introduction of two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, with their associated F-35 aircraft, as well as the strategic nuclear Dreadnought submarine program, the plan not only provides for the continued construction of eight Type 26 and five Type 31 frigates but also commits the government to acquire an as yet undetermined number of new Type 32 frigates

Britain’s defense increases come at a time when its economy has been hit hard by the COVID-19 virus, and its future economic prospects remain uncertain as a result of its unfinished exit from the European Union. As Johnson has put it, “I have taken this decision in the teeth of the pandemic because the defense of the realm must come first.”


With the likelihood that America’s defense budget, including its shipbuilding budget, will come under pressure in the incoming Biden administration — so that even a no-growth budget may be too much to expect — Britain’s defense revival, especially the re-emergence of the Royal Navy as a major partner to its American counterpart, is most welcome. 

Britannia may have ceased to rule the waves, but if Boris Johnson’s plan comes to fruition, its navy no longer will be sinking under them. 

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.