PARIS - Britain's mighty Royal Navy ruled the waves until World War II, fully 25% of the globe. There are few greater epochs in history than the stirring saga the Royal Navy, Britain's famed "wooden walls."
As a boy, I thrilled to the glorious adventures of Britain's sailors, such as Sir Francis Drake, the renowned admirals Anson and Howe, and the great Sir Horatio Nelson, whose name will live forever in naval glory.
What red-blooded boy would not have been stirred by Sir Richard Grenville on the "Revenge" in 1591 taking on the entire Spanish fleet of 53 galleons off Flores in the Azores. Lying dying on the deck, Grenville, in Lord Tennyson's words, ordered his chief gunner, "sink me the ship, master gunner, sink'er, split her in twain. Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain.!" I still cannot recite these lines without a lump in my throat.
Who can forget the Royal Navy's life-and-death hunt for the mighty German "Bismarck," and loss of the famed battlecruiser "Hood," or the sinking of "Repulse" and "Prince of Wales" off Singapore by Japanese bombers?
Britain had 900 warships in 1945. There was not an ocean, sea, estuary or navigable river that was immune to the Royal Navy's power. Britain's "Senior Service" was the ultimate strategic weapon of world domination. Brittania ruled the waves, and from there the world's coasts and commerce.
Today, that weapon of world domination is the United States Air Force.
This week, the Royal Navy faces the most perilous engagement in its splendid history, and one from which it may not emerge victorious. What Spanish and French cannon balls, and German 15in shells failed to accomplish, the pens of London's bean counters may achieve - scuppering the Royal Navy and sending its finest vessels to the breaker's yards. The age of romance is over.
The Royal Navy's budget is reportedly to be cut by at least 10%, perhaps far more. Britain's new Conservative-Liberal-Dem coalition of David Cameron and Nick Clegg vow to slash the monstrous deficit it inherited from the former Blair-Brown Labour government that left Britain drowning in red ink. For supposed socialists, Blair and Brown spent like drunken sailors on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and on trying to keep up militarily with the United States.
Cameron has spoken of 20-25% cuts in government across the board. In spite of earlier denials, military spending will be a choice target. New aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines may be cancelled, postponed, or sharply reduced in number.
Cameron's full draconian budget this week will be sure to produce howls of protests from Land's End to John o'Groats.
Britain, whose debt-inflated economy may actually be smaller than Italy's (because a third of Italy's GDP is unreported), has a navy worthy of a world power, second only in strength and power projection capability to the United States Navy.
The Royal Navy deploys nuclear-powered submarines armed with US-supplied Trident nuclear-tipped missiles, and has ordered two 65,000-ton aircraft carriers to carry the new, US F-35 STOL vertical takeoff fighter. Add nuclear-powered attack subs, modern frigates, attack transports an extensive logistical support fleet and 7,500 crack Royal Marines.
Smashing! But what's it all for? Britons face sharp cuts their health and welfare benefits. Imperial naval grandeur has become unaffordable.
Britain, like the rest of Europe, has no real external enemies, and certainly none that threaten it with nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, the Royal Navy's primary mission was to plug the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, the only passage for the Soviet Red Banner Northern Fleet to break out into the North Atlantic and attack British-US convoys. Today, that threat is gone.
Interestingly, this writer has been told by senior British military sources that their nuclear weapons cannot be fired without the US opening a series of electronic locks. In other words, the UK sea-based nuclear arsenal is under ultimate US control. Leftwing critics accused the government of having turned Britain into a US military protectorate.
Britain's Trident nuclear subs may not be replaced in part or full when their service life ends in 2020.
The only real mission for today's powerful Royal Navy is to support the US Navy in its foreign offensive operations. But many Britons - particularly after Iraq - want no part of being foot soldiers to America's nuclear knights, to paraphrase the words of the late German defense minister, Franz Josef Strauss.
A majority of Britons want no more of being "Washington's poodle," as Blair was derided. This feeling is common in the rest of NATO, which has no desire or money to spend billions on military transports and long-range logistical forces to support America's present or future wars in the Muslim world, or even against China.
Prime Minister Cameron has been battling over defense cuts with die-hard right-wingers in his cabinet. Defense Secretary Dr. Liam Fox, Britain's leading neoconservative, has bitterly opposed Cameron's defense cuts. The prime minister just humiliated Fox last week in a stinging public rebuke.
That other and bigger half of the famed US-UK "Special Relationship," the United States undiplomatically just treated Briton like a misbehaving banana republic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates openly rebuked and scolded London for its proposed defense cuts.
Two points to be made here. First, Britain's spending cuts are not coming from "defense" - since no one is threatening the British Isles. As the former head of MI5 Internal Security recently testified, the only threat to Britain comes from so-called terrorist attacks, which, she stated, are entirely the result of the Anglo-American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The only nations building real blue-water navies these days are China and India. But neither Hindustania nor Cathay are about to rule the waves - at least not anytime soon.
So with no external threat, the only use for Britain's fleet is offensively, as an auxiliary to the US Navy. That's why La Clinton and Gates were so miffed. Britain's fleet, RAF, and soldiers are the key component of America's imperial forces in the Third World.
In effect, Britain's small but crack forces have become the Gurkhas of America's expeditionary forces.
Take away the tough Brits, and the US is left with Italians, Estonians, Poles, Romanians, and other rent-an-armies. And the Brits are so much better at explaining what they are doing invading foreign countries and confecting colonial policy than Americans.
PM Cameron deserves high praise for admitting that Britain was a balloon of debt with pretensions way beyond its economic or military power. Britons need decent hospitals and un-crashing trains far more than jolly little wars in remote places.
Second, Cameron's goring of Britain's most sacred cow leaves Washington odd man out with a monstrously bloated imperial military establishment that this bankrupt nation can no longer afford. The Pentagon's annual budget is nearly $1 trillion - half the world's total military spending. Yet, there is no plan or will in Washington to cut military spending even when the deficit has gone to Warp 9.
Worse, this trillion dollar military budget is not raised by taxes, as it should be, but borrowed from China and Japan.
The world's greatest naval power is also the world's biggest debtor, floating on an ocean of debt.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2010