No illustration of Britain's defence cuts was so emotive as Ark Royal emerging from fog, homeward-bound to Portsmouth for its final decommissioning. Huge White Ensigns hung in the ship's hangar to greet the crowds, who had queued in long lines to bid farewell to the Royal Navy's flagship. But it was a sad day, for all that. The Navy had struggled to fight its corner in last year's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which led to some poor decisions being made, which may yet damage the national interest. Losing the fleet's flagship a few years early was just the most poignant emblem of decline.
That was in part caused by 'back-to-front' pressure on the SDSR from the Treasury to keep fiscal realities in mind, with the UK facing an unprecedented peacetime national debt. Rather than conduct a serious strategic review, beginning by underlining what was necessary to maintain the country's defence policy, posture and priorities, the review began by defining how much needed to be cleaved, before taking the scythe to the country's armed forces.
Of the three services, the Royal Navy failed most conspicuously to grasp the need for adroit marketing and lobbying within those political constraints. The Army could rely on the short-term rationale of Afghanistan to guarantee its place in the queue for scarce assets. It will undoubtedly shrink after 2015, but it can probably afford to do so, and part of this will come at the expense of 40% of the MBTs built to meet the Red Army across the North German Plain. It won't lose any of the capabilities it has got now.
Not so for the Navy and the RAF, left to fight for the scraps. The 2015 deadline for Afghan withdrawal, combined with Westminster's naive willingness to believe that the UK would not involve itself in an overseas intervention in the meantime, had a major consequence: a scramble for remaining funds between the senior service and its youngest sibling. The RAF probably won that marketing battle, headlined by the nonsensical decision to keep the Tornado (also designed for a Cold-War-gone-hot scenario), at the expense of the Harrier (a much more useful aircraft, able to deploy flexibly in any number of roles on land or sea).
Intervention through Nato's no-fly-zone in Libya, at sea and in the air, has made a mockery of the SDSR within a matter of months from its release: potentially “one of the fastest failures in modern British strategic history”, according to Paul Cornish, an international security lobbyist at think-tank Chatham House. Damage to the UK's national interest will yet depend on what happens in the world over the next decade. Libya could be just a warning shot against strategic stupidity.
Much was made of the early contribution of RAF aircraft; Tornadoes flew initially from the UK and were refuelled in the air to transport small payloads to Libya at disproportionate expense. France and Italy, despite their relative proximity to Libya, opted from the outset to use aircraft carriers to cut the distances involved by crossing the Mediterranean, getting the most value out of sea-launched air power, from the Charles de Gaulle and Guiseppi Garibaldi, respectively. The French and Italians seem to have better maintained Admiral Jacky Fisher's notion that: "Our frontiers are the coasts of the enemy and we ought to be there five minutes after war is declared."
Since moving to Italian bases, the still-small number of Britain's Eurofighter interceptors yet equipped for ground attack has also become apparent. Clearly little or no vestige remains of Colonel Gaddafi's air force, so there is precious little work for air superiority fighters to do except 'police' an empty no-fly-zone. Harriers would be useful: the Italians are using them on their own carrier.
The Navy's role in Libya began by firing submarine-launched missiles at ground targets ashore, quickly followed by diverting scarce ships from deployments elsewhere, first to evacuate UK nationals and then to blockade the coastline. Many of these SDSR-canned assets are living on borrowed time, including HMS Cumberland and RAF Nimrod R1 aircraft, both of which were deployed just months from the scrapyard.