Tuesday, October 10, 2017
I should have been thrilled by the maiden voyage of the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. I grew up among warships and naval bases and normally love such things. But I wasn’t. Partly it was the fact that, gigantic as she is, she has all the grace and style of a floating hypermarket, or a seaborne car park. When did we forget how to make ships look beautiful?
But much more important was the knowledge that this painfully expensive leviathan is worse than useless. We madly got rid of our Harriers, the only aircraft we had that could have flown from her decks.
An aircraft carrier which has no planes is a metaphor for uselessness, like a pub with no beer, or a car with no wheels. But that is not the most miserable thing about this event.
British Royal Navy aircfaft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth as she conducts vital system tests off the coast of Scotland
Even more important, it is almost a century since we were so unprepared, on land, at sea and in the air, for the unpredictable dangers we face. It has, by the way, been Tory governments, which preen themselves for their own supposed patriotism, who have reduced us to our present pitiful state. The Government knows it has done this.
Retired chiefs of all the Armed Services, speaking with immense knowledge and authority, have publicly warned about it in the House of Lords. Such men generally keep quiet. They must be genuinely distressed to have spoken out. What they say openly will be mild compared with the private views of current admirals, generals and air marshals.
So listen to Lord Craig of Radley, former Marshal of the RAF. Recalling how we were able to sustain severe losses in the Falklands and the first Gulf War because of carefully amassed reserves, he said: ‘Losses today, from a very much smaller order of battle than that of the Eighties, on a scale or rate such as those, would all too rapidly decimate our combat power, our resilience and our stamina.’
In other words, we simply do not now have enough kit to cope with a major war.
He added, tellingly, that it is not much use maintaining a nuclear deterrent unless we maintain our conventional strength as well.
HMS Queen Elizabeth as she conducts vital system tests off the coast of Scotland
Lord West of Spithead, a former First Sea Lord, had still worse news. He was even blunter: ‘The Navy has too few ships and men and is having to make incoherent cuts to keep within the budget.’ Important ships (including the former flagship HMS Ocean) were being paid off, and – astonishingly – we will not even have any surface-to-surface or air-to-surface missiles for the next few years. ‘This is not an abstract issue. For a number of years, we will have ships deployed around the globe that may suddenly come across an opponent because things have escalated, and they will have to fight. I have done this, as have many of us here. We will have ships sunk and people killed. I have been in that position. We are standing into danger.’
Lord West also rightly underlined the Navy’s severe manpower crisis. Years of cuts and skill shortages have made life almost intolerable for experienced men and women, seriously overworked, who have left the service and not been replaced. As for Britannia ruling the waves, forget it. Not long ago, the policy was that we should have roughly 50 major surface ships. Not now. Lord West revealed: ‘We have only 19 escorts. This is a national disgrace for our great maritime nation.’
Remember, these are not the words of some tub-thumper on a street corner, but of a senior naval officer of great knowledge and experience.
But I have not finished. Lord Dannatt, a former head of the Army, joined in the sad chorus. Warning that there were ‘just not enough’ serving soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, he was as plain as his brother officers, he said: ‘We have cut the size of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force too far.’
Pointing out that one day we would need an army in a hurry, he said: ‘I worry about the number of soldiers that we have – or, particularly, do not have. We are carrying too much risk. The last Government from 2010 and this present Government might get away with it, but the future will catch us out at some point and the verdict of history will be damning.’
These are words that it took some courage to say and are far more important than most of the minor squabbles now dominating much of our political life. We have been warned. Do we act, or do we pretend we have not heard? We will pay for this, or our children will. We are standing into danger.