Is This the End of the Royal Navy?

British Royal Navy HMS Cornwall frigate (F99), AP

Robert C. O'Brien served as a United States Representative to the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly. He is the Managing Partner of the Los Angeles office of Arent Fox LLP. His commentaries are available at www.robertcobrien.com.

It is hard to tell at this point the biggest winner from this week's decimation of the UK Ministry of Defense and slashing of the Royal Navy's budget. British Navy chiefs are confirming that after losing their only current carrier at the end of this year, HMS Ark Royal, the UK will not have a fully operational aircraft carrier until 2036. After the devastating cuts, the British Navy will be at its smallest size since the time of Henry VIII and will be roughly half the size of the current French Navy.

The Winners

The Russians could not be more pleased. For decades, British carriers of the Invincible class have been a sturdy cork keeping Russia's Northern Fleet bottled up in the Barents Sea.

Without the air power and ASW capabilities of its light carrier force, Britain's coast guard sized collection of frigates and destroyers will be little match for Russia's powerful surface ships and nuclear subs, which will now have open access to the North Atlantic.

Argentina and its Chavez-supporting first couple must also be thrilled that the Falklands, or should we now just start calling them Islas Malvinas, will no longer have the protection of a British fleet that could deploy airpower to the South Atlantic. That hearty band of British sheep farmers and, now, oil and gas prospectors, who have no interest in becoming Argentine citizens, must be very nervous. Perhaps Prime Minister Cameron might just consider negotiating the surrender of the islands now to avoid the embarrassment of being defeated by Argentine forces with a Venezuelan expeditionary unit in support. He might even get a small oil royalty payment
in return.

China always seems to be a winner these days and is again now. Instead of the US being able to rely on a robust British presence in the Atlantic that would have allowed it to shift more warships and carriers to the Pacific, the US must continue to split its dwindling Naval resources between the two oceans. China's announcement last week that it is launching 30 new patrol boats in the aftermath of the Senkaku Island incident with Japan makes the British cuts even harder for the West to bear.

Of course, the French, Spanish and Italian Navies will also be happy that their forces all will have more capacity and outnumber the vaunted Royal Navy. This may allow the EU to further integrate the UK into its super state as Britain will be forced to rely on other navies' carriers and amphibious ships to land Royal Marines on foreign shores or to rescue British citizens in crisis zones such as the UK has previously done -- on its own -- in places such as Lebanon and Sierra Leone.

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

While Britain turns inward and disarms, America and its remaining naval allies cannot afford to close their eyes on the increasingly dangerous world in which we live. In the coming years, China alone will launch four super carriers, two of them nuclear-powered. Russia is also using its mineral and oil wealth to reactivate its carrier program. Iran and other littoral states are deploying scores of small boats and, like the Chinese, are making extravagant claims regarding their territorial waters. The freedom of global navigation and the seas are at risk.

Last month, I predicted that the UK would try to sell one of its new carriers. That is apparently now the case. In an article for the Australian Conservative, I urged that Australia step forward to purchase the warship. The United States and Britain, for that matter, should do all that they can to assist Australia in reaching that conclusion. America needs an allied Navy that is both robust and that it can depend on in any crisis. Australia will have to take over that role from the Royal Navy, at least in the South Pacific.

India, which is being encircled by a network of Chinese built ports and, possible future naval bases, and is confronted by Islamic extremists operating from neighboring Pakistan, has a history of operating British-built light carriers. The current Flagship aircraft carrier of the Indian Navy, INS Viraat, is the former HMS Hermes, and has a compliment of Harrier jets. India has demonstrated a commitment to freedom of the seas and understands that it will have to confront Chinese domination of the Indian Ocean and continued terrorism in the region. The Indian Navy would be an excellent home for the newly de-commissioned, Ark Royal. There, the ship and its aircraft could be put to great use defending sea lanes and defeating terrorists.

The United States must understand that its traditional allies in Europe are not going to increase their contribution to global security, especially in guaranteeing the freedom of the seas.

Accordingly, it is time for the US to end the Obama Administration's de-commissioning spree with the US Navy. Last month, America announced that eight additional warships would be taken out of service. The Navy's shipbuilding budget is chronically underfunded. Both trends must be reversed now. America must recommit to its Navy.

The UK is facing the results of decades of welfare state overspending and its armed forces and global security are paying the price. It is not, however, too late for Prime Minister Cameron to change course and reverse the cuts to the Royal Navy. It would be incredibly sad to see that great institution, which has survived onslaughts by the Spanish Armada, the French Navy and the German High Seas Fleet, be done in by Tory accountants.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.






By Robert C. O'Brien:
Special to CBSNews.com
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