The United Kingdom’s participation in the strike on Syrian chemical weapons facilities highlighted Britain’s determination to remain a major player on the world stage and protect British interests across the globe. However, years of austerity have taken their toll on the Royal Navy and its ability to meet the challenges of 21st-century warfare. Will the British government continue to manage the decline of the once great Senior Service or will it support the sailors charged with protecting the nation?
After almost a decade of military reductions, cost-cutting initiatives, and a general hollowing out of the armed forces, British power projection shortcomings became apparent last month during the American, French, and British strike on Syrian chemical weapon facilities.
Of the 105 missiles launched from numerous ships, bombers, and fighters, the UK played the role of a third tier participant behind the French, only providing four Royal Air Force Tornado and four Typhoon jets. Of the eight British aircraft, the four Tornados fired a total of eight Storm Shadow missiles at the Him Sinshar chemical weapons facility near Homs in western Syria.
However, the limited RAF role flashes warning signs for British military power since the Tornado is set to retire next year, further limiting UK ability to field cruise missiles during conflict. Additionally, the Typhoon jets used defending the Tornados will not be cruise missile capable until next year due to cuts in funding.
The Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigate (approximately £170 million each) was not used because it is unable to field cruise missiles. The new frigates set to replace the Type 23 are expected to be cruise missile capable (assuming cost-cutting reductions are not made) but are not due to be delivered until the mid-2020’s at the earliest.
The HMS Duncan, a £1 billion Type 45 destroyer, was in the Eastern Mediterranean but, in order to save money, had not been fitted with cruise missile capabilities. “It is pretty depressing” a military officer said.