Back in October, I asked a military expert if a combined Rest-of-the-World army could conquer the United States of America. It was a question that sprung from nothing other than curiosity but a lot of patriotic Yanks seemed to assume that I was genuinely putting in calls to top international generals to "see if this thing is doable". I was met with a flood of abuse, most of it outlining the physical punishment I could expect to receive if I ever set foot in Podunk, Idaho or Halliburton, Texas. My favourite was a Twitter account called ButthurtBrit, which was set up just to abuse me. Their best tweet was:
@oscarrickettnow Q:could your combined defensive ability and ability to call cops stop me and 10 friends from punching your face off? A: no
— ButthurtBrit (@ButthurtBrit) December 8, 2013
Good work, lads! The thing is, they were all entirely correct – I really was hoping to get a bunch of countries together so that we could attempt to conquer the United States. But once I found out how awesome America’s military might is (clue: very awesome), I began to feel even more depressed about being British than I usually do.
So, with a century of British military decline looming over me, I got in touch with Ian Keddie, IHS Jane's Western Europe Armed Forces Analyst, to ask if there was any other country in the world that couldn’t bomb Britain back to the Stone Age.
VICE: Right, let’s find out how rubbish Britain is at the fighting these days. What is the UK's nuclear capability like and how could it be disarmed?
Ian Keddie: The UK has operated a continuous at sea nuclear deterrent since 1968, its sole nuclear weapon since the retirement of the UK’s tactical weapons in 1998. This is currently a Vanguard-class submarine armed with up to 16 Trident ballistic missiles, each capable of carrying up to 12 100-kiloton warheads.
How much is 100 kilotons?
Well Little Boy, the weapon used on Hiroshima, was a 16-kiloton weapon. In reality though, we are limited to carrying up to 40 warheads between 8 missiles.
That still sounds like quite a lot. Could we just fire them whenever we want?
The UK relies on US technology to maintain and build the missiles and warheads but the UK can still choose if, when, or where to fire them. This means that to disable the UK’s weapons, the US could cut off support for them but it would take at least a couple of decades for that to completely erode. Your other alternative would be to try to destroy the submarines that carry the missiles, although they are virtually undetectable once at sea and in deep water, hence why two British and French SSBNs (Ballistic Missile Submarines) collided in 2009.
You could attack the three boats that aren’t at sea and are under maintenance in HMNB Clyde, or Faslane. You'd need the capability to launch a cruise missile or penetrate the UK’s air defence with your jets. Maybe Special Forces could manage this but there are several hundred Royal Marines based at Faslane tasked “to provide military support to undertake final denial of access to nuclear weapons”.
Alright. What if someone did manage to defeat 700 desperate marines?
Even with the other three boats disabled you could face retaliation from the remaining submarine while it's hidden for a few months. In order to completely remove the British deterrent you'd need to therefore find and destroy the SSBN currently on patrol, meaning you have a better anti-submarine capability than Cold War Russia, and simultaneously carry out the most audacious surprise attack since Pearl Harbour.
Okay, that’s harder than I thought, but doable. Where would you begin an invasion of Britain? Are there any military bases overseas that are worth taking out?
If we take the nuclear deterrent out of the question and you have a military with the capability to reach and invade the UK, you still need to overcome some serious hurdles. Initially, your problem will be gaining air superiority, to do this you would need to defeat a force of over 200 combat aircraft and unless you are the USA you’ve got to base most of your own aircraft relatively close to the British Isles until you can capture airfields of your own. Attacking from the North would let you base yourself in Iceland, Norway, or the Faroe Isles. From there, you might be able to overcome the Tornados and Typhoons at RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Leuchars to effectively gain control over most of Scotland.
Wouldn't Scotland put up a fight?
Scotland is much less populated than England. This would reduce the threat to the invading forces and the burden of controlling the local population. It would give the UK time to regroup and prepare a counterattack with most of its forces intact but with the momentum on your side and a foothold in the country, you could reinforce your own position at the numerous airfields in Scotland in order to make a push South. The only place to consider attacking abroad would be Gibraltar but only if you needed to use the Mediterranean for your own ship movement…
I guess a Falklands detour wouldn’t make sense either, unless you’re Argentine. Britannia used to rule the waves, but I get the feeling she doesn't any more. How easy would it be to destroy the British navy?
Today, the Royal Navy is in the middle of a considerable transformation and is certainly a lot smaller than it used to be. Versus another navy, the biggest weakness it would have at the moment would be the lack of an aircraft carrier, a problem the UK will have to face until at least 2020 when both the ship and new F-35 jets are operational. The navy still has 13 frigates, six destroyers and seven nuclear attack submarines. The destroyers are designed for air defence and are amongst the most advanced in the world… To defeat the Royal Navy you would need to engage it with an equally advanced navy or with a considerably larger force, something not a great deal of countries have. Those that do could not realistically deploy a significant number or ships halfway around the world.
Who are we talking about here?
Britain’s geography has always been the country’s biggest advantage and is still a significant hurdle in the 21st century. It means that there will always be a need to gain air and sea superiority before movement of any invasion force can take place. The requirements for carrying out a successful invasion are pretty substantial, which makes the list of realistic threats to Britain quite small. The bigger military powers are an obvious contender to begin with; the USA and Russia have certainly got the manpower and capability to carry it out but China, for example, doesn’t yet have a global reach and couldn’t support enough troops and aircraft that far from home to make it viable without support. Britain’s biggest defence is ultimately the alliances it is part of…
This is important because, really, old wounds never heal: Could France successfully invade the UK?
France is extremely comparable to the UK in terms of capability; the militaries have similar numbers of troops, tanks, ships and aircraft. In this instance, I would say that the advantage is with the defender; an amphibious assault is extremely difficult to pull off without massive casualties and jets would face a combined threat of enemy aircraft and surface-to-air weapons, so it's unlikely they could muster the numbers needed to pull this off without leaving France completely undefended.
Take that, cheese-eating surrender monkeys! How much help would Britain need in order to defend itself from a military superpower like the US?
If we don’t factor in the nuclear deterrent then the UK would need a huge amount of support to tackle the US. America could deploy several of their aircraft carriers to deliver over 100 F-18s each. If they capture any airfields within range of Britain they could base huge numbers of planes there extremely quickly and the US Air Force has strategic bombers that could easily reach across the Atlantic. The entire EU combined might have a fighting chance if there was a cohesive response but the US military would certainly be able to act together more efficiently. The economies of the USA versus the EU are almost matched in terms of size so it is an interesting scenario to consider. The military capability of the US is on a scale unlike anyone else, Russia and China have the next two largest air forces but they have half the number of combat aircraft that America does.
Okay, time for a classic British fallback: the past. Let's wind the clock back to the glory days of empire, when an Englishman could get off the boat in Bombay and find a G&T waiting for him at the local gentlemen's club. Could the might of the British Empire in its heyday compete with the US today?
Again, even with the assets of all Commonwealth countries, the combined militaries would struggle to equal the USA. The disposition of the countries would make it a different challenge compared with the European scenario: Canada would be "annexed" in a matter of days, effectively making North America a fortress. From there, the US Navy could cut off Australia and New Zealand with relative ease, two or three Nimitz-class aircraft carriers could field enough aircraft to defeat their air force and remove them from the war, no invasion necessary. India would be a significant challenge, as would Pakistan and the UK, especially the submarine fleets of the three countries if the US decided to invade by sea. But the initiative would probably be with the USA as their military has the organisation and logistical skills to carry this out whilst the existing countries would be too disjointed to put up a cooperative response.
If your “New British Commonwealth” – shall we say NBC for short? – was administered well by those gin-sipping bureaucrats and the military was a single cohesive entity then it would be a close thing. The NBC would be the world’s second superpower and the second largest economy, extensively nuclear armed and with a population in excess of 2.2 billion across 53 states. The military of an NBC would certainly rival the USA and would probably have an even larger navy in order to keep all of those colonies in check. Individually, though, none of these countries would pose a real threat to the US outside of their nuclear arsenals.
I’m most disappointed in Canada; I really thought the Mounties would give us the edge. Okay, let's say an invading army has taken the UK from us. Where should we hide out and wage guerrilla war?
With the dust settled and the bulk of the military defeated, an occupying army has taken over mainland Britain. Resistance groups would be most successful by operating in the remote parts of the country or remaining in the most urban areas. It’s likely that an invading force would want to leave London as intact as possible because it features the bulk of the administrative and economic centres of the country. So carrying out an insurgency inside the capital would be pretty effective and gives you a huge, and diverse, population to hide amongst. Attacks on targets of opportunity or infrastructure could cause serious disruption at a small cost to the guerrillas.
The alternative would be to head away from the population centres. Whilst the UK as a whole is pretty densely populated, Scotland is actually incredibly sparse, especially away from the central belt. From a remote base in the Highlands it would be possible to build up a store of weapons, possibly smuggled in from mainland Europe or Ireland, and still be within striking distance for attacks on enemy forces. It depends on your ultimate aim but the general concept would be to make it too costly for the invader either politically or economically. Why are they holding the country; is it for resources, territory, strategic location, or ideological reasons? A base in the Highlands could give you an opportunity to attack the North Sea oil facilities, a key resource. Attacking fresh water reservoirs would be a major blow to an occupier’s logistics and power generation facilities would also be a suitable target.
Great, through a combination of Braveheart-style rural ambushes and post-apocalyptic urban sabotage, the spirit of the Britons will live on. Thank you Ian, this has been less depressing than I imagined.
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