Itâ€™s getting choppy but Britanniaâ€™s 19 ships canâ€™t rule a single wave Camilla Cavendish | Sunday Times | 22 September 2013 The impression that our military is held together with grit, luck and bits of string is made all the greater by the news that the RAF will fly its new spy planes in American colours because we canâ€™t afford to repaint them. It is shocking to realise President Assadâ€™s air defences would have been impregnable to the RAF had we decided to face down the tinpot tyrant. We couldnâ€™t have launched a single plane until the Americans had blasted his runways with Tomahawk missiles. Only last week I learnt that three of the navy ships that provided gunfire and other support to our much-vaunted success in Libya were only in that part of the world because they were on their way home to be decommissioned. How does the accelerated diminution of our armed forces fit with the oft-repeated statement by ministers that Britain is still the fourth biggest defence spender in the world? A paper by the UK National Defence Association, published tomorrow, argues that these headlines about spending give false comfort about our capabilities. It suggests Britain is about to slip behind India in the spending league as that nation, like Japan and the Gulf states, rearms. The authors lament that so much money is still being sucked into outdated equipment contracts with no escape clauses. And they point to analysis that ranks Britain 31st in the world, behind Spain, in numbers of armed forces personnel. Now we all know there are millions of blokes in uniform standing uselessly at checkpoints around the world, cigarettes dangling from their lips, who would be easily overpowered by the average British squaddie. So numbers arenâ€™t everything. But 31st is still quite low. And this is before the government tries to pull off its latest money-saving wheeze of recruiting 15,000 part-time reservists to fill the gap left by its decision to cut the regular army from 102,000 to 82,000. It is not clear where these 15,000 brave souls will come from, whether employers will be willing to sponsor them or why the supposed cost savings have been judged to outweigh the considerable risk of relying on untested reservists. The impact on morale will be devastating if my conversations with regulars are anything to go by. Politicians assume the military will improvise but this new policy could destroy a critical mass of skills and goodwill. You can have the most advanced technology, but if youâ€™ve got only one aircraft carrier and itâ€™s in for repair youâ€™ve got nothing. What is the minimum we need to protect our national security against unforeseen threats? The navy plays a crucial role in protecting UK trade interests and supporting military operations. The 1994 Frontline First review for the Major government, and the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, agreed that Britain needed a minimum of 32 frigates and destroyers to assure national security. In 2004, under heavy financial pressure, the first sea lord reluctantly agreed to reduce that number to 25 to sustain the aircraft carrier programme. So how many frigates and destroyers do we have today? Nineteen. Set aside the debate about whether we should engage in places such as Afghanistan or Libya. Britain is a net importer of food and fuel. So its government has a basic responsibility to protect our trade, most of which comes by sea. Trade would be disrupted if the Chinese blocked supply lines in the Indian Ocean, where they are building up forces, or if Iran were to act on its repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which a third of the worldâ€™s oil passes. In the mid-1980s the Iranians caused havoc by dropping mines in the shipping lanes. Today they have anti-ship cruise missiles and submarines too. Defence experts say we would have to mobilise all of our 19 ships, and most of our planes, to make a meaningful contribution to an action to stop an Iranian blockade of the area. We would not be alone, of course. The United States would react to such a provocation, despite its dwindling reliance on foreign oil. Yet what this scenario makes clear is that there are few situations in which Britain is now capable of acting unilaterally. We could no longer retake the Falkland Islands as we did in 1982 â€” although the defences we have built there make it unlikely that Argentina could successfully invade again. Whitehall assumes we will always act in concert with our allies, especially the United States and France, still the only other countries capable of sustaining offensive operations at a distance. Todayâ€™s policy-making is based on the minimum we need for the Americans to continue to take us seriously. Broadly, this means being able to deploy a division of 15,000 troops, to muster one carrier battle group and mobilise an expeditionary â€œair wingâ€ force. It is pretty clear we are already at this minimum. Clearly we cannot do everything. For 20 years the argument has been that we need a â€œsmart footprintâ€, with nimble special forces and advanced equipment. Quality has been emphasised over quantity, because the sheer size of the Chinese, Russian and Indian populations means they will be able to hold more territory with uniformed men than Britain ever can. Our edge is in intelligence and stealth, which makes sense. Yet even the most ardent advocates of this policy will admit that quantity has a quality of its own. You can have the most advanced technology, but if youâ€™ve got only one aircraft carrier and itâ€™s in for repair youâ€™ve got nothing except your allies. If you cut the regular army too deeply you lose the pool from which to draw the special forces. Current policy seems to assume there will be no attrition: that we can protect our interests without having to spend much on replacing equipment. It is dangerous to assume our luck will hold. The most fundamental duty of government is to protect its citizens. Historically, the most cost-effective way to achieve this has been to project an aura of power that deters potential enemies. Ships are particularly effective in this regard. Unlike aircraft, they do not have to move or provoke but can simply sit, for months on end, projecting a silent menace. In such an uncertain world it makes no sense to have reduced the Royal Navy to its lowest level of personnel and ships for centuries. Numbers do count, however smart the technology. The coalition has had to make difficult financial decisions â€” not helped by budgetary landmines planted by the Brown government. But ministers seem unwilling to accept the implications of their policies. The government is quietly stepping up our armed forces presence in the Gulf. But Michael Clark, the defence expert, argues this could end up as â€œa hostage to fortuneâ€ when our â€œability to deploy strategically significant forces is so lowâ€. What strikes me, talking to politicians, is that defence is seen as just another spending department. There is little sense that our defence needs will ultimately be defined by our enemies, not by any one administration. Or that, unlike social security, a loss of capability is not easily reversible. The West is disarming while the rest of the world rearms itself. Yes, the military has whinged for years about budget cuts. But it would be wrong to ignore it just when its argument really bites.