The John Nott 1981 Defence Cuts revisited

British Royal Marines in the Falkland Islands ...

An image we ever want to see again? (Image via Wikipedia)

The parallels with 1982 are all to worrying. An aggressively-sounding Government in Buenos Aries (even though technically Democratic), a newly elected but unpopular Conservative Government seeking to slash public expenditure, and economic problems in both countries.

In 1982 the Secretary of State for Defence had just implemented a Defence Review the previous year. It was conducted in the context of economic problems, a Thatcher-led desire to slash budgets, and a Soviet build-up during the era of ‘reaganomics’. Nott’s solution was to concentrate almost solely on Britain’s role in NATO. The purchase of Trident was confirmed. The British Army of the Rhine, although the centrepiece of British defence within NATO, was to be limited to 55,000 men. The Royal Navy was to lose one fifth of its 60 Destroyers and Frigates. Aircraft Carriers were to be phased out, with the sale of HMS Hermes and the newly-built ‘through deck cruiserHMS Invincible. Amphibious ships were to be scrapped too, meaning the end of HMS Intrepid and HMS Fearless. Essentially, the Navy was to become an anti-submarine force to operate in the North Sea, North Atlantic and the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap. The ability to act independently out of the NATO area was effectively being given up. And amongst other things, the Royal Navy Dockyards were to be drastically wound down and privatised, meaning thousands of redundancies. One of the lesser-known items in the review was the withdrawal of the antartic patrol ship, HMS Endurance.

These proposals were underway when the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982. The kind of crisis that the Nott review hard ruled out had happened. Reportedly MOD Civil Servants were most upset that the Falklands War had scuppered their beautiful review. When the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, obtained permission from Margaret Thatcher to assemble a Task Force, apparently John Nott went as white as a sheet. He knew that his career was finished. Somehow I cant help feeling that for a lot of people their careers were more important than the fate of British Citizens in the South Atlantic, and the fate of the men sent to fight for them.

The upshot of the Falklands War was that almost everything that had been offered up as savings was rescued at the eleventh hour. Hermes was sold, but the three Invincible Class Carriers -as we are allowed to call them now – were retained. Fearless and Intrepid were reprieved, and replaced with HMS Albion and Bulwark recently. HMS Ocean has also added to the Royal Navy’s expeditionary capability. Endurance was also reprieved, and replaced in the early 1990’s with a modern vessel. The Destroyer and Frigate fleet was pegged – in the short term – at 55 ships.

The cost of the Falklands War – financial, human, and material – has been far in excess of the relatively meagre savings sought by Nott. The hundreds of lives lost in 1982. The ships sunk, aircraft lost, ammunition expended. The cost of a sizeable garrison, and building a military base at Mount Pleasant. The Falklands Island has had a patrol ship,  a Frigate or Destroyer on guard, and auxiliary vessels since the war. The running cost – to this day, and still rising – must be incredible. All inspired to save a few quid. Evidence, if any is needed, that Defence cuts can be shortsighted and a false economy. Argentinian sources suggest that the decision to invade, although largely spurred on by domestic unrest, was further emboldened by the Nott cuts. The Junta’s reasoning was that if the British were cutting their forces – and the ice patrol ship in particular – not only would they be unable to respond to an invasion, but they obviously did not care about their overseas posessions enough to defend them in the first place.

Fortunately, British resolve was restored by the war. Although it is tragic that in the modern world we even need to resort to force, had Britain capitulated in 1982 we would, in Henry Leach’s words, have been living in a very different country were words counted for little. Britain’s role as a force on the world state was maintained, a brutal military dictatorship fell, and the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact received a timely reminder of the quality of NATO standard troops. But all by the skin of our teeth, and if Nott’s cuts had been fully implemented, we would have not been able to act.

Whilst Mrs Thatcher received plaudits for her handling of the Falklands War, more searching inquiries suggest that the war needn’t have happened in the first place. If only the Foreign Office under Lord Carrington had not been so clueless, the Defence Secretary not so subservient, and if Thatcher had not been so single minded and ideological in wishing to strip public spending. Worryingly, the upcoming Defence Review may once again remove Britain’s ability to react adequately to any crisis in the world, particularly in the South Atlantic. This cannot have been lost on the Argentinians. Do we really trust David Cameron and ‘Boy’ George Osborne to sort things out for us if their cuts go badly wrong?



Filed under debate, defence, Falklands War, Navy, politics

30 responses to “The John Nott 1981 Defence Cuts revisited

  1. x

    You do realise you have put a link to a Guardian article on defence; Are you feelin’ OK? 😉

    I think you will find that Euro-centric view of UK defence goes back a bit further than Mrs Thatcher. You could say that one Denis Healey (Silly Billy, ask your dad..) who brought about the end of the RN as a permanent global navy. Or you could say that UK’s permanent presence on the Continent after WW2 meant a shift in our priorities (which ran against the grain of this island’s traditional geo-political role.) A Labour government of the ’80s would have probably got rid of more than an elderly icebreaker half a world away. The UK in the ’70s was in a mess; we lived in the shadow of “the bomb.” Different times. Things don’t happen in vacuum; unless you are politics student or lecturer…….

    But you are right we are doomed. Yesterday Dannatt was on Radio4 talking rubbish again. Though there is some enlightened and cogent arguments out there for positive reforms, not just cuts, I doubt they will be heeded. The Navy is being silent, the RAF is fighting the BoB, and the Army are forgetting that without the other two (capital intensive) services they can’t go very far or do much unless somebody invades Aldershot, Catterick, etc.

    I just hope that HMG don’t mess with the nuclear submarine programme. That is the one thing we still do well.

  2. James Daly

    So in essence, really, we are in one big mess regardless of what the SDSR comes up with. The only outcome in question is excatly WHAT kind of a mess we end up in.

    Historic Labour Governments have an abysmal record on Defence, I’m ashamed to say. Probably how come New Labour came to power with the feeling that they had to prove their defence credentials. I know its always fashionable to knock the Government of the day, but compared to other Labour Governments 1997 to 2010 wasnt tooooo bad…. admittedly thats not saying much.

    And as for the Guardian article, that will teach me for selecting a link without reading it. Simon Jenkins, what a load of tosh. You wouldn’t think he co-wrote The Battle for the Falklands. Actually, I’ll leave it as an example of poor journalism.

  3. However, until the new carriers arrive in service, we cannot put a task force to sea with air defence fighters. Unless, that is, someone has the balls to order the regeneration of Sea Harriers that are stored or used for ground based training.

    The post March/April 2006 pages of the Sea Jet thread, particularly page 100 onwards, talk about the idea of regeneration:

    In 1982 many of the ships and aircraft sent South were saved from the axe, brought out of mothballs, or used for things they were not intended for. Adapt, improvise and overcome!

    We are in a mess. The assumption, as ever, is that nothing unexpected will happen.

  4. x

    James as an historian you mustn’t reject any source. The Guardian does represent a body of opinion within the elites of the UK. Tiny they may be, detached from the reality, and yet they are influential. History is written by the victors and in 50 years time the “Guardian perspective” may be the default in history. Actually if sales of the Guardian from the campus shop at the Kremlin the “Guardian perspective” is already the default! You should read what Polly Toynbee says about defence matters; but as long as their government money to keep her husband in a job it is all well and good. (Actually they are axing his quango…..!)

    Do Labour governments have a bad defence record? Actually in terms of capital investment actually they don’t. The like to buy hulls and tanks etc. etc. Where they do fall down perhaps, or should that be mimic the Conservatives, is in the procurement of all the fun, hi-tech systems.

    Just a thought as somebody who is left-leaning and interested in the RN there may be a rich vein of study for you in researching attempts to unionise the lower deck.

  5. x

    This is the book you need to read,

    and because I feel sorry for you here is the review in The Grundian,

    As Fox as military history it is poor. But the chapter on Mrs Thatcher is very good.

  6. James Daly

    I agree every source is useful, and you need to look at the full range of sources out there. I would probably file it under the heading of opinion rather than argument, as a broadsheet column by a big name political journalist and light on evidence. Jenkins is indeed one of those kinds of elite figures who for some inexplicable reason hold large sway with the political circles. Hastings is another, which is odd as some of the stuff he comes out with would be blown to bits if handed in as an undergraduate essay. At least in academia you have to cite your sources.

    The feeling I have – as an admittedly left-leaning, defence-minded young-un, is that the general public think that Labour has a poor record on Defence whilst the Conservatives ‘look after our boys’ – its a line the Tory’s played on in the previous election campaign. But then, given that all Governments inherit the last administration’s long term plans, and that defence planning is based on long-lead procurement, at what point does one government stop and another start anyway?

  7. x

    Have you never watched “Yes, Minister?” 🙂

    A party needs a decade in power to make real change that shifts the national outlook. The UK in 1990 was a different place to the UK of 1979. But personally I don’t think 1979 was that much different than 1970 (perhaps back even to 65/68.) Did Blair really turn around the economy in 2/3 years? No UK Plc is a multi-trillion organisation, it is difficult to turn around the fortunes of a small business in a year. The foundations of New Labour’s spending spree were laid back in 1979.

    Has NewLabour “changed” the economy after thirteen years? Yes! Has NewLabour brought about social change in thirteen years? Yes! And if we have another full term of Conservative government there will be change again.

    Perhaps there was no shift in national outlook in the late 60s and 70s because we didn’t have stable government.

    National outlook is such a clunky term. When I press SUBMIT the term I should have used will spring to mind.

  8. James Daly

    Governments and the political parties that form them do seem to have more continuity than people realise. The parties have got a lot more in common than they have ever had before, even though they might claim to have differences, when they actually get in power they are hostages to exactly the same external factors – the economy, the previous Govts planning, and whatever Rupert Murdoch wants – and the room for maneourvre is minimal to say the least.

  9. x

    Well that is it really. The UK is too small economically; it is driven and not a driver. MPs are drawn from a narrow section of society. I struggle to understand why they choose to be Labour MPs when they have little in common with Labour’s traditional roots. Perhaps a parallel could be drawn with the rise of Romanticism in that the “idle rich” have the freedom to indulge ideas because they have a safety net? Then again have high ideals and then living up to them is another matter. For example the Left, the Guardianistas, opposing grammar schools while sending their own children to private school. etc. etc. etc. Though this happens all the way through Labour ranks. One of our local councillors was opposed to council home sales; yet he was the first to buy his council house. One of county councillors protested a new opencast mine on Saturday; then started work at weighbridge on the Monday. etc. etc. I wonder how many of the union leaders calling for strike action over the “cuts” will give up their union pay?

    I don’t think the masses are that bothered by Rupert Murdoch. Yes he may drive an issue. But there are times when he has to reflect what the public thinks. If the working class (the under class) were that motivated by Murdoch surely the turnout at the General Election would have been much higher and there would be no coalition? I know for a certainty that BBC holds no sway with the masses.

    Can we get back to ships? I find all this political talk boring? 🙂

  10. s jones

    There are three big differences between the situation in 1981 and the situation now:

    Firstly, back then the Argentine forces were much better equipped (in comparison) than they are now.

    Secondly, after the Falklands war the UK has maintained a big garrison at Mount Pleasant. It would not be an easy task for the Argentine forces of today to conquer the islands in the first place. The five RAF Typhoons stationed there could probably defeat the Argies’ two dozen Skyhawks and Mirages without a single loss. It is also probable that any sign of unfriendly Argentine action would result in Britain further increasing its military presence.

    Thirdly, on the other hand, oil has made Falklands a much much more tempting target than it was back then. Argentina cannot capture the islands on their own, but with the help of Brazil or Chile it would be a lot easier, especially as the Brazilean Navy has an aircraft carrier.

    In case the CVF gets canned it is essentially vital that the Mount Pleasant base is maintained and, if possible, enlarged. And it’s even more important that British diplomacy succeeds in preventing Argentina from getting allies for its illegal cause.

    The Falklands can be kept British even without the carriers. The end of carriers will however be the end for Britain as a global power, with the unavoidable result of France replacing UK as the Americans’ most important ally. If that’s what Cameron really wants, then so be it.

  11. James Daly

    Its probably worth revisiting my earlier ‘Falklands: then and now’ series.

    On paper things arent as bad as they first appear. The Arg Air Force has not received one new airframe since 1982, not even to replace losses. Skyhawks and early generation Mirage’s would be easy prey to Typhoons.

    The Arg Navy has no carrier nor anything like the Belgrano, although it does now have a good number of exocet-armed MEKO escorts, which would be a worry. They’ve only got 3 subs, and if they operate as badly as they did in 82 they wouldn’t be a worry. The Navy might be receiving a French LPD, which of course is bad news for us from a Falklands point of view.

    The Arg Navy is now all-volunteer, and one would think that this would have improved its efficiency. Cordial relations with Chile especially would mean the Arg Army could deploy its best units.

    4 Typhoons, Rapier, an infantry company and an OPV and a Destoyer on station might be enough to make the Args think twice. The Typhoons are far superior to anything the AAF can put up, Rapier has been upgraded since 82 and will be bedded in, and we can reinforce the infantry complement quickly too.

    If we could get a task force together consisting of one strike carrier and a number of escorts we could substantially reinforce the Islands by sea, and of course there is the air bridge via Ascenscion. The problem would be lack of logistic support and numbers of escort hulls.

    If the worst came to the worst, we could put up an amphibious group of Ocean (LPH), one preferably two Albion (LPD), a couple of Bay Class (LSD) and more escorts for protection. Strategically, we now have submarine launched Tomahawk LAM that would perform a similar role to the Black Buck Vulcan raids. We can now fly Apaches off Ocean too, which would aid battlefield support.

    In terms of land forces, our units are more experienced than for many years – virtually all infantry battalions have seen service in Iraq or Afghanistan at some point.

    Having said all that, the rumoured loss of one of the LPD’s, the muddle over the carriers, the lack of escort hulls, and the poor state of the merchant navy mean that things are likely to get worse.

  12. x

    I think most of the ASW effort on the way to the Falklands was direct more at stalking Soviets than at the Argentines.

    I wouldn’t worry about Meko either. I think Merlin doing surface sweeps with its rather natty radar would keep them at a distance. Better still Merlin with Harpoon would sink them.

  13. James Daly

    Oh for sure, looking at the specs Harpoon seems to outgun Exocet – which would explain why the RN dropped Exocet and went over to Harpoon on the T23 and T22 Batch 3’s.

    Falklands 2010 with the current Orbat’s would be a pretty interesting wargame exercise.

  14. x

    Remember the USN saw Harpoon as a “second battery weapon.”

    If my beloved T22 go in October I hope there Harpoon find their way on to the Daring. Is the Ark still carrying Phalanx? If so perhaps the Goalkeepers from T22 could replace Ark’s Phalanx and then those too can be fitted to Daring. I would rather Daring have Sea RAM, but beggars can’t be choosers. Won’t happen as there is no imagination or can do attitude in MoD(N)

    PS: Merlin fitted to carry a large ASM is one of my hobby horses….

  15. I guess we need to wait to see what the SDSR will propose.

  16. x

    I don’t hold up much hope WEBF.

  17. James Daly

    The way the SDSR is being conducted – speed, lack of consultation, overarching desire to cut budgets, lack of understanding from Boy George at the Treasury, etc – makes me think that this is nothing more than a wrecking job, and the MOD and the forces will be left to pick up the pieces afterwards.

  18. James, I think your reference to the 1981 Nott cuts is a useful reminder that these cuts will send signals to potential adverseries – and to allies.

    Where will the next crisis be?

  19. James Daly

    Only the naivest policy maker would not be aware that Buenos Aires – and indeed many other capitals – will be watching the SDSR keenly. And as you rightly mention, not only potential adversaries – we will lose standing amongst allies such as the US, and in a broader sense NATO, the EU and the Commonwealth. The reputation of our armed forces is something that has been hard won over hundreds of years. But reputations do not come into the cold hard world of accountants and civil servants.

  20. Indeed. But the Treasury are not interested. The old saying about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing comes to mind.

  21. James Daly

    Another issue that occurs to me is the paucity of the Naval Dockyards. In 1982 the workforce moved heaven and earth to get the ships ready in record time – Hermes was fully stored in 4 days, Intrepid was brought back from extended readiness in a matter of weeks. Most of the STUFT needed modifications too. There just isnt the workforce or the expertise to do that kind of job now, and we no longer have Chatham or Rosyth either.

  22. James next you’ll be saying that we need to be able to respond to unexpected crises…tut tut, HM Treasury thinks not.

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  28. We’re in a much worse situation now post SDSR. The politicians read the lea leaves, and saw nothing.

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