How to Save (Or Destroy) the Royal Navy

Britain's Queen Elizabeth waves to British Royal Navy crew members performing a salute on the HMS Bulwark amphibious assault ship during a tour of the Grand Harbour in a traditional Maltese fishing boat at the State Visit and Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Valletta, Malta, November 28, 2015. REUTERS/Toby Melville

What happens when saving money takes precedence over strategic effectiveness?

Talk about role reversal. A long century ago, starting in 1909, Great Britain entreated its Pacific dominions—Canada, New Zealand, Australia—to construct “fleet units” to supplement a Royal Navy that confronted multiple challengers in multiple theaters. A fleet unit was a modular task force composed of a cruiser and its coterie of destroyers. Naval potentates such as Adm. Jacky Fisher expected each dominion to construct and maintain one. It would serve as the national navy while doubling as a module in an imperial navy. In peacetime each fleet unit could perform routine functions on its own, acting as a standalone armada. Or dominion navies could merge into a grand Pacific fleet alongside Royal Navy forces when storm clouds gathered. Having massed for action, the imperial fleet would face down some predator—presumably the Imperial Japanese Navy, a force casting covetous eyes on maritime Asia.

The fleet unit, then, was a strategic concept for a mass-production age. Fleet units comprise building blocks of a multinational navy. In theory they’re interchangeable, featuring standard hardware, training and doctrine. A common language, cultural heritage and worldview helps. Plug and play!

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Assembling an interoperable imperial navy while conscripting dominion governments to help bear the burden represented Britain’s way of regenerating its naval posture in the Pacific Ocean. In those days Europe was choosing up sides for the Great War. The Kaiser’s Germany was bolting together a battleship fleet hard by the British Isles, and menacing British shores with each keel laid. The German High Seas Fleet taking shape in the North Sea thus beckoned Royal Navy ships homeward from distant stations, there to run a naval arms race in defense of the homeland. Evacuating Britain’s Pacific holdings to compete with Germany left a power vacuum, tempting an Imperial Japan flush with high-seas victories over Russia and China. The fleet-unit concept purported to fill that vacuum—applying counterpressure to offset Japanese ambitions.

Today, though not in so many words—and, in fact, perhaps with little deliberate strategic design—Britain is reconfiguring its Royal Navy as a fleet unit for service in an imperial fleet. America is the liberal imperium now under strain. It’s in need of material aid in the Far East to offset another would-be hegemon, namely China.

That seems an unlikely role for a Royal Navy in decline. London is reportedly set to divest the Royal Navy of its “gator” fleet, the amphibious transports and support vessels that land Royal Marines on foreign shores. Much of a navy’s capacity to exploit control of the sea resides in amphibious ships and marines—the very forces now on the chopping block. In effect top political leaders are demoting amphibian power projection to an afterthought in British strategy. Others will project power onto foreign shores after the Royal Navy helps win fleet battles. No longer will Great Britain possess the wherewithal to conduct maritime campaigns as an independent great power. It is relegating itself to supporting-actor status.

Decommissioning the amphibious contingent will leave behind a specialist surface navy centered on two Queen Elizabeth-class supercarriers now preparing to join the fleet. The Royal Navy is morphing from a balanced fleet into something less.