October 9, 2009: After several months of debate, the British Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have been ordered to cut back on spending, so that money and resources may be used to support army operations in Afghanistan. Among other things, the army has been pointing out that only ten percent of spending on new equipment goes to the army (based on actual and planned spending between 2003-18). This, despite the fact that it's the army that is doing most of the fighting during this period. Although the army recently pulled out of Iraq (where it had been since 2003), it is still in Afghanistan, and more troops are headed there. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have not been fully involved in a major operation since the Falklands in 1982, although they have been involved in several more limited efforts. The point is that they face nothing like what the army is dealing with in Afghanistan.
The British armed forces have 191,000 troops on active service. Of those, 38,000 are in the Royal Navy, 109,000 in the Army, 41,000 in the Royal Air Force, and the rest in joint staffs and operations. The annual defense budget is about $58 billion.
While the army gets the largest portion of the budget, because most of the money goes to personnel, the navy and air force get most of the procurement money to pay for ships and aircraft. What annoys the army the most is the continued effort to maintain Britain as a major naval power. The generals can understand the need for destroyers, frigates and submarines to defend the seas that surround the British isles, but they chafe at the nearly $40 billion to be spent on four SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear subs) and two aircraft carriers (and their escorts). To fund this, on a shrinking defense budget, the army is starved for modern combat equipment. This is allowed to happen while thousands of British troops are in combat.
The army wants Britain to recognize that, in the last century, the United States replaced Britain as the dominant naval power. U.S. naval power is stronger, compared to every other fleet on the planet, than the Royal Navy ever was. The U.S. has more nuclear weapons (in ICBMs and SSBNs) than everyone else (many of Russia's are technically in service, but are not fit to use.)
While many Britons like the idea of the country having its own nuclear deterrent (the nuclear missiles on the SSBNs) and aircraft carriers, the army commanders point out that the nation's first duty should be to troops are in harm's way. Until recently, the government did not agree. Britain is now considering cutting back on aircraft and warship purchases. The four new SSBNs, to replace the current four, are particularly in danger. Building three, or less, is being openly discussed. The option of dropping the SSBNs entirely is also in play.
Military spending, as a percentage of British GDP, has declined from four percent at the end of the Cold War, to 2.3 percent now. As long as there were no large scale military operations, this decline could be tolerated. But with the fighting in Afghanistan, shortages of military equipment and resources are more visible, and alarming. But there is not enough popular support for a sharp increase in British defense spending, so the services that are not as heavily engage will have to cut back, in the hope that the navy and air force will be not required to make a major effort in the next few years.