A death on the ocean wave

The profit making drive of capitalism demands that no institution, however steeped in the traditions of history, is immutable or inviolate. Nothing—and most certainly not the vapourings of the nostalgically-inclined—will be permitted to stand in the path of exploitation and accumulation.


So it is with that steadfast and patriotic instrument of human misery and oppression, the Royal Navy. In an age in which British capitalism, no longer in a position to plunder the riches of a colonial empire, has found it more convenient to throw in its lot with Western Europe, the Navy in its present form has come to be seen as an increasingly expensive anachronism. (Philip Geddes, in an article contributed to the New Statesman of 29 May, compared the cost—£7 million—of a Leander class frigate of eight years ago with its £130 million successor, the all-missile-armed Type 22).


That the Navy is still required to “defend” British shores does not alter the fact of the increasing irrelevancy of much of its hardware: an ocean-going battle-fleet is a highly impracticable proposition when it comes to keeping open the Channel ports. And, as Geddes has observed, “The fishery-protection and offshore-resources squadron is something of a joke—sometimes, its ships can be outrun by modern trawlers.” In short, some sections of the sea-going Navy are ripe for the chop.


The Navy is also farcically top-heavy in other areas. For example, there is an admiral for every front-line ship currently in commission—nearly 100 in all. The Admiralty also employs 32,000 workers in its naval dockyards and a further 5,700 personnel in its administrative and design departments at Bath. So the dockyards are to be run down and savings made elsewhere.


These decisions must be viewed in the context of the government’s determination to arm itself with a Trident missile submarine fleet. For this baleful indulgence Britain’s capitalists must stump up £6 billion—a figure already challenged as a gross under-estimate. Then there is the (again, conservatively-estimated) £10 billion to be found over the next ten years to pay for the replacement—with the Tornado—of the ageing Jaguar and Vulcan bombers. Set these figures alongside military spending during the current financial year alone of £12.3 billion, to which must be added the £220 million spent so far on the recently-launched and almost certainly abortive aircraft carrier Ark Royal and we have some measure of British capitalism’s current arms-spending problems.


One conclusion must stand out clearly from the current debate on the condition of the Navy and of the armed forces as a whole: it has nothing to do with a reduction in the destructive capacity of the British ruling class. As has been indicated, if the Navy is to be pruned it is because it has become, at least insofar as its surface vessels are concerned, inordinately expensive, and highly vulnerable to attack from guided missiles.


The Trident missile system, on the other hand, is massively effective and relatively invulnerable. A frigate tied up in port or sinking in the Channel is no match for a submarine containing—should the Defence Ministry opt for the most advanced form of Trident—sixteen D5 missiles each fitted with fourteen independently-targeted warheads.


Arms Sales
A revealing—and wholly characteristic—factor in ruling class thinking on armaments is what is sometimes euphemistically termed “spin-off”. This means the sale of military hardware to “friendly” powers. Such sales not only line the pockets of the arms manufacturers and traders but can also offset in part the manufacturing country’s own arms budget. Capitalists the world over vie with each other to exploit the available markets. One has only to recall the deal short-circuited by the Iranian revolution—made by the British government to sell the Shir-Iran tank to that other implacable enemy of the working class, the late unlamented Shall of Iran, to understand how much profit is up for grabs in such transactions. Not that such profiteering is confined to western capitalism: its eastern counterparts, as represented by Russia and China, paddle in the same stinking morass.


The crowning irony, even to those who view the more bizarre of capitalism’s activities with relative equanimity, must be the projected sale, by the USA, of arms to the Chinese. And this coming on top of the disclosure by US Government officials that the USA has equipped two listening posts in north-west China for the purpose of monitoring Russian missile tests. What price America’s alleged ideological differences with “communist” China now?


But in this same field, perhaps the ruling class of India must take the highest a- ward. In 1978 ninety of their surplus Centurian tanks found their way, through the Spanish arms firm Barrieros Hermanos and a Norwegian broker, Fearnley and Eger Chartering, of Oslo, to, of all places, Pretoria. (Guardian, 15 May).


Both western and eastern capitalists can fall foul of their own perfidy as a consequence of shifting political and economic alliances: the USA and Vietnam, for example; or Russia and Egypt. In each case the client state changed sides. But, whichever way the cat jumps, the mercenary crooks who enrich themselves by dealing in arms are unlikely to require a change of pillow in the night. Rather will they buy themselves a new phrase-book.


The cost of fighter aircraft has become astronomically high. Jan Connell, Defence Correspondent of the Sunday Times (29/5/81) quotes a study by James Fallows, Ex President Carter’s speechwriter: “One aircraft manufacturer estimates that ‘if present trends continue, by the year 2054 today’s entire American defence budget would buy just one plane’ ”. Dare we hope that capitalism will one day strangle itself in the entrails of its own ludicrous “defence” policies?


Who Loses
As for us of the working class, we may indulge ourselves with hand-wringing lamentation — our masters’ withers will remain unwrung. The fact remains, however, that it is through the efforts of the working class alone that the arms race is allowed to proceed at all. Who, after all, makes the weapons? Who makes the machines that make the components that go to make up the weapons? Who works the mines? and who pours the steel? Indeed, who makes the paper and metals to provide the capitalists with their money-tokens and their bills of exchange, without which no marketing could take place? One thing is certain: it is not the capitalist. (But who will sweep up the profits?)


The largest question of all, however, must be: who are destined to slaughter each other in unprecedented numbers with the sterile products of their own labour-and brain-power in the next of capitalism’s wars? Once we start to ask ourselves questions such as these we are halfway toward finding the answer to others even more pertinent. But such interrogation is a service we can only render ourselves; nobody else can do it for us.


Richard Cooper