Britain emerged as a world power in the years after its defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. By 1815, following the defeat of Napoleon, it had become the most powerful nation in the world. Then came World War I and World War II—both conflicts for which Britain was not well-prepared. It's been downhill ever since. In the three decades after 1945, Britain shed virtually all of the colonies that had taken centuries to acquire.
Yet Britannia remained one of the world's leading military powers, still able to project power around the globe. In 1982 Britain carried out one of the most ambitious amphibious operations since Inchon, sending 65 warships and 7,000 Royal Marines and soldiers to evict the Argentines from the Falkland Islands, one of its few remaining colonies.
Britain was also America's most important ally in the 1991 Gulf War, the 2003 Iraq War and the 2001 Afghan War. The British sent 45,000 troops to the Gulf in 1991, including an entire armored division, and sent roughly the same number in 2003, including an armored brigade. Today they still have 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, making them the second-largest foreign contingent after the Americans.
But the days of British military power appear to be ending—with the obituary written, ironically, by a Tory-dominated government supposedly dedicated to a strong defense.
The Strategic Defense and Security Review released this week by Prime Minister David Cameron is bad news for anyone who believes that a strong Britain is a vital bulwark of liberty. Granted, the news isn't as bad as it could have been. The government will cut "only" 8% from the defense budget over the next four years—not the 10% to 20% that had been rumored. Britain will continue to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense—far less than the U.S. (nearly 5%) but more than most members of the European Union.
In announcing the cutbacks, Mr. Cameron promised that Britain would still "punch above its weight." His words ring hollow.
The British army, already cut a third since the end of the Cold War, will lose another 7,000 soldiers, dropping to 95,500 Tommies from 102,500, one-sixth the size of the U.S. Army. Also gone will be 40% of the British army's tanks and 35% of its artillery, thus making it very difficult to replicate the sort of armored blitzkrieg that Britain carried out against Iraq in 1991 and 2003. In the future Britain will be able to keep only one brigade of about 7,500 soldiers in the field long-term, well below the number deployed today in Afghanistan.
Both the navy and air force will also see manpower reductions, about 5,000 in each case. Only 40 new F-35 fighter aircraft will be bought, down from initial projections of 138. The navy will lose its Harrier jump jets and its flagship, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. Britain will be left with one aircraft carrier but, ludicrously, without any carrier-strike aircraft until 2020. The Royal Navy will be allowed to finish building two new aircraft carriers, but only one will be operational; the other may be sold or mothballed. The navy's fleet of destroyers and frigates—its workhorses—will shrink to 19 from 23, the lowest number of warships since the days of the Spanish Armada. A decision about replacing Britain's aging Trident submarines, which carry its nuclear deterrent, has been postponed.
Republicans expecting to take over one or both houses of Congress may be tempted to emulate the British example to deal with our own budget woes. But while Mr. Cameron's courageous cutbacks in bloated domestic spending should inspire admiration, his scything of defense—one of the core responsibilities of government—is an example that we would do well to avoid.
The fact that British defense capabilities are in steep decline means that even more of the burden of defending what used to be called the Free World will fall on our overstretched armed forces. The British can cut back secure in the knowledge that Uncle Sam will protect them if anything goes truly wrong. But who would we count on in a crunch?
Mr. Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is writing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.