London — Flags flying, paintwork gleaming, guns bristling, pride and discipline unmatched, British naval warships ruled the oceans of the world for centuries with power and panache.
But no more. The empire has gone, and the long postwar economic decline here means Britain simply cannot afford a major nuclear deterrent and large conventional forces as well.
So Margaret Thatcher's government is changing the mix of its armed forces as a whole. It appears to have decided to concentrate on nuclear weapons and defenses at sea, to cut back on the traditional frigates and carriers so dear to naval and imperial hearts, and to leave the Army and the Royal Air Force relatively unscathed.
In so doing, the Conservative government has created enormous controversy here.
Critics say the basic issue is whether Britain can continue to play a significant nuclear and conventional role within NATO -- guarding the North Atlantic, for instance, and keeping 55,000 troops on the Rhine and its planned Trident ICBM force -- at a time of escalating costs, world recession, and the need to keep 11,000 men in Northern Ireland.
Five of those men have just been killed by a huge bomb near the Irish border in the worst incident since 18 soldiers were killed in an ambush at Warren Point in the summer of 1979. The Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army, seeking to keep its cause before the world press, has claimed responsibility. Prime Minister Thatcher has repeated her refusal to be blackmailed into granting political status for hunger-striking IRA prisoners in the Maze Prison.
The Royal Navy has tried to ward off proposed cuts in its surface fleet by playing the same game armed services use in Washington at budget time every year.
It has leaked to a sympathetic journalist dire warnings that, if cuts now being considered go through, it would be reduced to little more than a coastal defense force without carriers -- or "a rowing boat on the Serpentine [River]," as a rival newspaper wrote sardonically.
Figures in the billions of pounds flew through the supercharged air as the Fleet Street press pounced on the story and headlines grew bigger and blacker each day.
The controversy began when Navy Minister Keith Speed, educated at Dartmouth and a naval officer for nine years before going into business and politics, warned in a speech May 15 of cuts now being considered.
Not only had he not cleared the speech in advance with his boss, Defense Secretary John Nott, but it is reported he even had his wife type the draft to keep it away from official channels.
In effect, Mr. Speed tried to rally Conservative backbenchers against cuts and changes that are due to be announced in June or July of this year. While supporting the Trident program, Mr. Speed feels it should be paid for out of national revenue and not from the Navy budget. He also objects to what he says is a basic decision that antisubmarine warfare in the eastern Atlantic no longer requires large surface ships.
Mrs. Thatcher, under pressure on the economic front after two years of controversial campaigning against inflation, was furious. She promptly sacked him for defending his budget in public rather than in private.
Mr. Speed had spoken on the eve of a two-day House of Commons debate. That went ahead as planned. Meanwhile, government officials hastened to spread the word to NATO allies, including the US, that Britain's NATO commitments would be met in full.
Mrs. Thatcher is sensitive to any US and European criticism that she is presiding over a radical pruning of defenses. She is identified with keeping defenses high against the Soviet Union, whose own Navy has been expanding rapidly in recent years.
Backbenchers in her party cling to imperial traditions and rise up in wrath whenever headlines threaten them.
Navy sources leaked to the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper that if Mr. Nott had his way, 29 of the Royal Navy's 63 surface warships would be scrapped prematurely. Naval strength of 66,000 trained personnel would fall by 30,000. The sources threw in the warning that two dockyards were set to be closed, at a cost of 13,000 jobs -- at a time when British unemployment is more than 10 percent as a whole. The Fleet Air Arm would be decimated and the Royal Marines disbanded.
The Army would suffer cuts worth L2 billion ($4.2 billion) over 10 years. The Navy would lose L8 billion ($16.8 billion), but the Air Force only L500 million ($1.05 billion).
In reply, British officials say published defense budgets (L12.5 billion this financial year) will not be cut.The L5 billion Trident program will not be touched, nor was there any intention of reducing NATO commitments.
Mr. Nott told Parliament he had never considered, and Mrs. Thatcher had never asked him to consider, cutting "the published defense budget."
But Mr. Nott also spoke of the awesome costs of today's defense: If Royal air Force jet pilots flew just one more hour once a month, the extra cost would amount to L8 million ($16.8 million) a year.
In private, officials agree that changes in the overall mix of forces are inevitable to avoid a drip-drip-drip attrition in ammunition, fuel, training, and equipment.
Officials agree that in the three years from 1979, the Thatcher government will fall just short of boosting defense spending by 3 percent in real terms each year. (it will reach 8 rather than 9 percent.) They claim this is better than some other NATO members.
Reductions in the British Army on the Rhine will be kept down to 1,000 to 2, 000 men to avoid antagonizing chancellor Helmut Schmidt in Bonn. Mrs. Thatcher hopes to form a powerful new London-Bonn axis in the wake of the ouster of Valery Giscard d'Estaing of France.