Rear Window: The fleet's in the Solent, all's right with the world: The Past illuminates the Present

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'IT IS upon the navy under the good Providence of God that the safety, honour and welfare of this realm do chiefly depend.' So wrote Charles II, and his faithful servant Samuel Pepys strove mightily to build a fleet fit to carry that burden, writes Brian Cathcart.

If the House of Commons Defence Committee is to be believed, Malcolm Rifkind, the Queen's Secretary of State for Defence, is not striving quite so mightily. 'It is evident that, in the event of full-scale war, the Royal Navy would be incapable of defending our sea-routes,' the committee said last week. 'It is our view that this shortcoming poses a serious, and potentially fatal, threat to the long-term security of this country.'

Before reaching this conclusion, the members of the committee had turned detective to establish the real strength of the surface fleet. The main fighting force these days is composed of destroyers and frigates, but how many did Britain actually possess? The Ministry of Defence used to say 'around 50', then 'around 40', now it says 'about 35'. 'Real availability,' the committee found, 'can be stated at present to be between 25 and 30 ships, and in the future between 20 and 25.'

For a century after Trafalgar, Britannia really did rule the waves. When Queen Victoria reviewed the Fleet at Spithead on 17 July 1867, she was inspecting the force that made her country the first global superpower. As recently as 1953, her great-great-granddaughter reviewed a fleet of 44 frigates, 25 destroyers, eight cruisers, seven aircraft carriers and one battleship.

Today the external threat is reduced and for the navy 'there is some easing of the tasking requirements'. A fire sale is under way. Six frigates have been sold to Pakistan. Four brand new submarines, which cost pounds 930m, are to be leased, possibly with their crews, or sold off. A diving support ship which cost pounds 200m was sold for pounds 2m.

The Queen's Golden Jubilee, 10 years off, will be the occasion for another Spithead Review. She should set aside half an hour.

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