COMMENT – Defence cuts risk the UK’s global military position

15 March 2012 (Last Updated March 15th, 2012 18:30)

Details of the latest cuts are expected to be announced imminently, but do the numbers stack up? Pádraig Belton looks at the figures.

COMMENT – Defence cuts risk the UK’s global military position

Mr Cameron returns from Washington today, with polo shirts and ringing endorsements of the special relationship, as well as 'joint factsheets' on US-UK Defence Cooperation released by Downing Street.

On his return, his government is expected to announce details of the latest defence cuts. One week ago, the International Institute for Strategic Studies stated that Asian defence spending is poised to overtake that of Europe in 2012.

Uk defence budget 1990 against 2011

Ministers will likely repeat their claim that, in the wake of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, Britain continues to possess the fourth largest military budget in the world. Though this claim is correct, it masks the declining size of the UK's forces compared to foreign militaries.

The Royal Navy - no longer a naval superpower?

UK naval capacity decline

The Royal Navy's fleet numbers have declined dramatically since 1990


In terms of conventional, surface combatant vessels, the Royal Navy now possesses six destroyers and 13 frigates. By comparison, at the time of the first Gulf War, the Royal Navy maintained two carriers, seven amphibious ships, 13 destroyers and 35 frigates.

The British Navy is, in consequence, now numerically inferior to:

  • the US Navy (with 11 carriers, 59 destroyers, 30 frigates)
  • the Russian Navy (one carrier, 14 destroyers, five frigates)
  • the Chinese Navy (25 destroyers, 47 frigates)
  • the French Navy (one carrier, 23 frigates)
  • the Italian Navy (two carrier, four destroyers, 12 frigates)
  • the Indian Navy (one carrier, eight destroyers, 12 frigates)
  • the Japanese Navy (ten destroyers, 36 frigates)

The Royal Navy maintains rough parity with the navies of South Korea, Turkey and Pakistan, as well as the combined navies of the six Gulf Cooperation States. It is likely to be overtaken soon by the navy of Brazil. For the first time in its 600-year history, the Royal Navy sails a transport vessel, L14 HMS Albion, as its flag ship.

Royal Air Force capacity in decline

In terms of strike capability, the Royal Air Force possesses 70 Tornado GR-4s, one squadron of 40-year old fighter-bombers. From historical evidence, the true number of serviceable aircraft may be as small as one-third the declared inventory (operations over Libya disclosed the Typhoon incapable of launching weapons except under guidance from the Tornado GR-4, and the RAF possessed only eight pilots qualified in the fighter aircraft, three of them test pilots).

By comparison, at the first Gulf War, the RAF maintained 234 Tornado, 64 Harrier, 54 Phantom, 44 Jaguar and Buccaneer aircraft.

Though roughly level with the North Korean, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Canadian, Australian, Dutch, Belgian, Italian and Spanish Air Forces, as well as the combined forces of the six Gulf Cooperation States, this places the Royal Air Force numerically inferior to:

  • the United States Air Force,
  • the United States Navy
  • the United States Marine Corps
  • the United States National Guard
  • the French Air Force
  • the German Air Force
  • the Russian Air Force
  • the Chinese Air Force
  • the Taiwanese Air Force
  • the South Korean Air Force
  • the Japanese Air Force
  • the Turkish Air Force
  • the Israeli Air Force
  • the Egyptian Air Force
  • the Royal Saudi Air Force

Though numerical comparisons do not reveal the entire story of capability, neither does the size of the defence budget, which has not helped gain Britain the fourth largest armed forces in the world. Ministers ought not be permitted to make unchallenged the deceptive claim that it does.


Have your say

Are budget cuts killing the UK's strike capacity? Are new technologies capable of covering the drop in numbers? Where is the defence budget best spent? Tweet your thoughts to us @Army_Technology including hashtag #UKdefencebudget.