The United Kingdom has been the United States’ firmest and most capable ally for over a half century. As such many often think of the British Prime Minster as a sort of Washington Whisperer. The Brits, so the thinking goes, are a civilized people who can bring the oftentimes erratic Americans around to a saner course of action.
As one of the United Kingdom’s great statesmen, Winston Churchill, famously put it: “You can always count upon the Americans to do the right thing… after trying everything else.” The quote is as much an homage to the immense power of the United States, as it is to the trademark patience, dry humor and stiff upper lip of the English.
And so it is with no surprise that many world leaders have called upon British Prime Minister Theresa May to intervene on humanity’s account with U.S. President Donald Trump. But it is no surprise to me that she has done nothing of the sort. Nor will she. It is all wrapped up in why the United Kingdom is a major power in the first place.
The United Kingdom matters not simply because Great Britain is an island, or because the Kingdom has the naval power to defend its island, but because the Kingdom has sufficient naval strength to project power well beyond its island. That enables the Brits to pick the time and place of the conflicts they choose to engage in. Even if they choose poorly, they can always pack up, sail away and try again later. Clashes that leave most in ruin at most force an early election in the Kingdom.
There are only two things that could undo this strength. First, the United Kingdom’s flexible strength could be overwhelmed by a more powerful navy. Since the only Atlantic Ocean navy that is more powerful is the American Navy, this is a low risk. Second, the United Kingdom could for whatever reason find its navy degraded to the point that it can no longer project power. And that is precisely the challenge facing the United Kingdom today.
Ironically, painfully, the UK’s current naval weakness comes directly from an attempt to generate strength.
It is difficult for any student of global strategy who is not willingly blind to ignore the role played by the American supercarriers. The Nimitz class carriers are not simply the largest combatants ever floated, as a rule they pack at least seven times the combat capabilities of any rival naval vessel – including the largest carriers floated by other countries. The Nimitz ships have enabled the Americans to project power not just anywhere on any ocean or coast, but in most cases several hundred miles inland as well. Without nuclear weapons they are the most powerful conventional weapons systems any country has ever fielded, and just one of them if nuclear-armed has more firepower than the entire military of France. (No, that is not a France slam. The supers are simply that cool.) The Americans have ten of them. The combined rest of the world? Zero.
So long as the Nimitz carriers (or their soon-to-be successors in the Ford class) are the top shelf of military capacity, anyone seeking to oppose the Americans has to find a way to push the Americans at least a thousand miles away from shore (ergo why the Chinese are so heavily invested into long range anti-ship missiles). And should any naval power seek to ally with the Americans, they will always be entirely in the shadow of the massive, raw American power that the Nimitz ships provide. So long as the Americans are the only people with fully-operational supercarriers, no one but the Americans gets a vote as to how the Americans and their allies perform global strategic policy – even if you are one of the allies.
There are a lot of non-blind students of global strategy in the United Kingdom, and about two decades ago they all came to the same conclusion: if the UK is to matter at all, we must have our own supercarrier. And since, like any other vessel, ongoing refits are part of the process, we must have at least two. The end result was the launching of the Queen Elizabeth carrier program. Weighing in at 65,000 tons displacement they will be the largest combat ships ever floated with the notable exceptions of their inspirations: America’s Nimitz and Ford classes. Fully operational, they will give the Brits exactly what they are after: a seat at a table for two, the only table that matters. When the first ship of the new class started sea trials in December 2017, a veritable army of bubbly erupted at Whitehall.
Just one problem. The Brits screwed it up a little bit.
Maintaining weapons development systems over multiple decades and multiple administrations is difficult. In the time since the plans for the Queen Elizabeth class were first floated, the Brits have had a dozen elections and five prime ministers (and unless my political tea-leaf reading has gone completely off the rails, they’ll have a sixth before long). With each change of leadership there is a change in priorities, and oftentimes life rudely intervenes. Financial crises of the Asian, European and global kind have competed with the British Navy for resources. The Iraq War, the Afghan War and the Libyan intervention ruthlessly pulled British defense prerogatives away from the sea and towards land. The Joint Strike Fighter development program has gone egregiously, criminally, hilariously over budget.
At each step the Queen Elizabeth carrier program had to re-justify itself and fight for funding anew. In the process the Brits found themselves forced to mothball their existing jump carrier fleet in total in order to funnel resources to the new supercarriers’ construction effort. The Brits had to transfer their navy aircraft, pilots and flight crews to the U.S. Navy in order to maintain any hint of naval aviation capacity. And now, with Brexit looming, they’re having to slim the rest of the naval force to keep their supercarrier program on track.
Which means the Brits no longer have sufficient ships to protect their new supers once they are fully operational.
Carriers are not just massive and massively capable combatants, they also represent years if not decades of investment into equipment and personnel, and while they cannot be sunk easily, sunk they most certainly can be. As such every carrier is but the nucleus of a battle group, with all the other vessels’ primary purpose to ensure the carrier does not sink. The British Navy has atrophied so much for so long that it can no longer assemble two credible battlegroups and still defend Great Britain itself.
For the Queen Elizabeths’ deployments, this is nothing short of a Charlie Foxtrot. The new British supercarriers dare not venture further away from shore than the reach of British air power, whether that air power be launched from the United Kingdom itself or from the territory of a trusted ally. Support ships can certainly be built up more quickly (and cheaply) than the supercarriers themselves, but ships don’t grow on trees. This will be the state of the British Navy for at least a decade. Probably two.
This presents London – the naval power par excellence of earlier eras – with a galling choice:
- Abandon all hope of ever projecting power, and treat its shiny new supercarriers as the same sort of idiotic chest-beating paperweights the old Soviet “carrier” was,
- Fold its supercarriers into the Americans’ battle groups and de facto merge with the United States on all strategic policy… and hope against experience, culture and hope itself that the Americans will listen to your strategic opinions because you contributed a couple big boats.
The decision has already been made. The Brits know better than to fly solo, and they certainly know better than to fly solo against the Americans. The key memory is the 1956 Suez Crisis.
At that time the Brits were certain when the Americans said under the Bretton Woods system all the empires would be disbanded, that it didn’t apply to the British Empire. The British assault on Egypt inadvertently forced the Americans to choose between maintaining the British Empire and their own new global order. It wasn’t a hard choice. The result was strategic castration – with the Americans using all their ample political, financial and military strength to force the United Kingdom into a permanent, subservient position within the alliance that has lasted ever since.
To underline how annoyed the Americans were, they also forced the Brits to stick to the letter of the deals signed to support the United Kingdom against Nazi Germany in the early days of World War II before the Americans themselves were involved. The terms of such loans were so onerous that the Brits didn’t finish paying them off until the 2000s.
And so the Brits have no choice but to stiffen that lip and march forward into the very much known.
- They will seek a direct bilateral trade deal with the Americans in order to replace the European Union at the core of their economic strategy. It may have fewer regulations, but it won’t enable the United Kingdom to be as wealthy as they have been, and the Americans will offer few concessions because the Brits are economically and strategically without options.
- They will surrender the financial centrality of London to New York City either as part of the trade negotiations in the hopes they can glean a few concessions on other topics, or because without a firm Brexit deal the financial sector will up and leave London anyway.
- Should the Trump administration manage to extract a final NAFTA deal from the chaos of the current negotiations, the Brits will grudgingly sign on knowing full well that direct competition from Mexico will do to the United Kingdom what Team Trump says Mexico has done to the United States. The alternative is to be a forgotten side deal only tenuously linked to the American market.
- And no matter what military adventure the Americans go on, the Brits will be there. They know better than anyone it is far better to be in the Americans’ shadow than in the Americans’ way.
Put simply: what Trump wants, Trump gets. It’s that simple, because if the goal is security and stability for the British people, there is no other option.
This might sound humbling, horrible even. But it really is not. So the Brits don’t matter strategically on their own. They are still safe. They are still wealthy. With the world crumbling down there are worse sides of history to be on than being an adjunct to the Americans. And isn’t it the fate – if perhaps not the goal – of most parents to eventually move in with the kids?