In a development that can only add to the confusion within me between the red-blooded Irish nationalist and the military history geek fascinated by the heritage of our nearest neighbour's armed services, the Financial Times had quite an interesting little article in its weekend magazine on Saturday in which Matthew Engel goes aboard the frigate HMS Kent.
As Engel makes clear, the Royal Navy is clearly feeling the pinch under Britain's current defence review, and is suffering from the effects of what the article terms "sea blindness" among the UK's population. For a nation whose existence was once so clearly tied to the sea, Britain now tends to forget that it is an island, assuming that airlinks and the internet will keep it safe from blockade should a worst-case scenario ever arrive. Similarly, the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are not, in the eyes of the public, "naval wars", and the Royal Navy's contributions to these operations are overlooked (despite the fact that the Royal Marines have suffered considerably in both theatres, and are part of the navy. Similarly, the Fleet Air Arm has contributed to Britain's air operations in Afghanistan). So overlooked has the RN been, that there are dark mutterings that some are calling for its disbandment under the current defence review.
While I suspect that such a fate will be avoided, I do find a certain sadness in the Royal Navy's current predicament. After all, while the British Army has, over the course of Britain's imperial history, been on the frontline of colonial enforcement (or oppression, depending on how you look at it), the Royal Navy has tended to have less complicated, more readily heroic image. Spared from being placed in the sort of positions that led to Amritsar or Bloody Sunday, the Royal Navy finds itself with a more positive heritage, from association with Trafalgar to the anti-slavery operations of the 19th century. Indeed, even in the relatively complicated politics of the late 20th century, the RN steered clear of controversy (with the possible exception of the sinking of the General Belgrano).
The Royal Navy will survive these cuts, that is fairly certain, but what emerges on the other side of the slashing of budgets will be a much truncated service. Indeed, it seems a growing likelihood that Britain's most prestigious and impressive naval assets, aircraft carriers and the warheads on sub-launched ballistic missiles, will be jointly operated with France. A sad, and disappointingly low-key, fate for the Silent Service.
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