I wonder what has changed in 30 years?


War Hero
James Callaghan's despair at Britain's defences.......

James Callaghan privately despaired of the "scandalous" state of Britain's defences against a possible Soviet attack in 1978 after secret briefings warned that the armed forces would have been virtually powerless to resist.

Newly declassified documents show that the country was beset by crippling shortages of manpower, aeroplanes, minesweepers and missiles and had only enough aircraft ammunition to last two days.

Appalled at the scale of Britain's exposure to the Soviet threat, the Prime Minister scribbled on the margin of one secret memo: "Heaven help us if there is a war!"

He called for officials in the Ministry of Defence to be sacked because of the vulnerability which, he was told, stemmed from "crazy" decisions taken under his Labour predecessor, Harold Wilson.

Callaghan ordered the chiefs of staff to conduct an urgent review of Britain's defences in late 1977 after reading a secret report from the Joint Intelligence Committee which warned that the Soviet ability to strike without recourse to nuclear weapons was better than previously thought.

Rather than focusing on the traditional fear of a nuclear strike, the paper showed how the USSR could use conventional weapons to knock Britain out before taking on the rest of Nato.

"I take it someone has worked out how we can defend ourselves," Callaghan commented.

But when the chiefs of staff reported back on January 16 1978, a covering letter from the Defence Secretary, Fred Mulley, conceded that Britain's capability to defend itself was "uncomfortably thin", files released at the National archives at Kew show.

The report itself stated bluntly: "UK forces cannot match the threat postulated by the JIC assessment."

Against an estimated 200 Soviet bombers thought likely, the RAF would be able to muster only 98 aircraft which would quickly run out of ammunition, they warned.

"Stocks of air defence munitions would sustain operations for only two or three days," the stark assessment added.

Anti-submarine defences were judged inadequate and there were only enough surface-to-air missiles to reload launchers once.

There was also a "crippling" shortage of pilots while the Army would have been overwhelmed for the 15 to 20 days it would take to mobilise reserves and even then been inadequate in the face of large-scale sabotage.

"In the event of nuclear attack by ballistic missiles there would be no defensive capability," the report stated baldly.

In a face-to-face meeting with Callaghan on February 20 Mulley disclosed that such was the shortage of minesweepers that the Navy may be forced to chose between keeping the English Channel clear or the approaches to Faslane, home of the nuclear deterrent.

"The Prime Minister asked why we were in this situation; it seemed to him a scandal," minutes of the meeting record.

They add: "The Prime Minister said that the conclusion he drew from the paper was that one or two people should be sacked."

By March Mulley had prepared a paper for Callaghan explaining that the MoD was to help plug the missile gap by buying some second hand from Sweden.

An exasperated Callaghan disdainfully underlined the words "second hand" and "Sweden" next to a large exclamation mark.

He had urged Mulley to consider finding a way to replace Britain's "obsolete" fleet of 32 minesweepers only to be told that, even with an extra shipyard trained to build them, it would only be possible to make four more by 1988.

"I cannot believe we can only build four more Hunts in 10 years," Callaghan wrote at the top of the memo.

"Heaven help us if there is a war!"

By John Bingham


War Hero
As Glasnost and opening of Russian borders proved in the late 80s and early 90s the Russians were even in a more parlous state than we were. They may have had the numbers but couldve they sustained a high tech war with profesional competent armed forces. The Russians were not capable of effecting an offensive war.
In times of peace if costs have to be cut its the Armed forces that bear the brunt. Winning non existent wars dont win votes, and in the end that is a politicians aim, to keep him/her in power.
Are we in a better state now than then? I think so, smaller maybe.
Hell, I joined in '78!
If you think back, it was to get steadily worse, even though Maggie got in and started throwing pay rises around. I remember the Skipper of the Scylla making a broadcast in '80, explaining the Defence White Paper. In effect we were to prepare to spend most of our time alongside, as there was no money for fuel.


War Hero
What concerned me was the concern the PM of the day expressed about our lack of ability to take on a sustained attack.

Seems 30 years on and we are still no further forward.

One chap commented on GMTV this morning about the then front line F4's, (Phantoms), having enough weapons for just over 2 days. Very worrying.
Oil_Slick said:
NotmeChief said:
Well we are even worse now.

Dunno about Russia, we would have a job against the Channel Islands.

Only if Aurigney Air provide the airlift.
Or Rock Hopper' - used to love the name of that airline, which said it all really. The new version 'Blue Islands' doesn't quite fit the bill somehow.
"But when the chiefs of staff reported back on January 16 1978, a covering letter from the Defence Secretary, Fred Mulley, conceded that Britain's capability to defend itself was "uncomfortably thin", files released at the National archives at Kew show."

Thats because our WASP flight disbanded............how prophetic and weird timing. We were armed to the teeth with Mk 44's, AS12's and a Dope ona rope with a Verey pistol.........Oh and the boat had some 6 inch pop guns and a Seacat.........controlled by a spotty 18 yr old oik!

Come on Russkie, I dare ya


NotmeChief said:
Well we are even worse now.

Dunno about Russia, we would have a job against the Channel Islands.
Its worse then that. We couldnt even kick the French's arse anymore.


Lantern Swinger
My first ship in 1977 was an Ikara Leander and the next one an Exocet Leander. Whilst they were great ships to serve in, there was the ever present thought that they were "fire and forget" frigates with a life expectancy of minutes in an engagement.

Have a read of the articles in the Naval Review from the 70's and 80's. They offer an interesting insight to how the authors, viewed and interpreted the then current day issues.

As for the "revellations" of the parlous state of things 30 years ago, those of us serving at the time were well aware of how things stood, but we also had a belief in the service. I do not doubt that those currently serving are equally as proud and dedicated as we were, despite the cards dealt by the politicians.

What has changed in the last 30 years is the ease with which people can now communicate and be able to discuss issues such as these. Can you imagine a similar discussion taking place in the public domain 30 years ago?


War Hero
Whilst understanding the seeming need to reduce costs, a 'Fleet' with famously more Admirals (allegedly) than ships is a bit sad. The Government originally said there were to be 12 Type 45s to replace the then 12 Type 42s in Service, This was cut and then cut again to, I believe just 6 platforms. So, tight gits or lying bar stewards? Don't even mention the Astute boats or the 2 proposed carriers! Or the mothballed CVS. Or the JSF. Or..............
Still, got to pay for Iraq / Afghanistan somehow I suppose.

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