Saw this article in The Economist this week and it got me thinking. It seemed a fair assessment of the current situation. The future is gunboat diplomacy (once again). Any thoughts? The Senior Service is feeling unloved THESE are fretful times for the Royal Navy. With the empire gone and the cold war over, the British sailors who once ruled the waves are struggling to define their role. In Iraq and Afghanistan these days, the army is in the limelight. It is not that the navy has nothing to do. A quarter of a century after the Falklands war with Argentina, it keeps a watchful eye on the south Atlantic. It maintains a reassuring presence off west Africa and in the Caribbean (where it helps with hurricane relief and drugs interdiction). The navy patrols the waters around the Middle East seeking terrorists and weapons; its marines have just come back from a tour in Afghanistan; Harrier pilots help support ground forces; and, in Iraqi waters, the navy protects Iraqi oil terminals. But it is a strain to do these things. Ships in less crucial arenas are being stripped of personnel, equipment and spares to strengthen vessels in the Persian Gulf. Worse, Iran's almost casual abduction of 15 British naval personnel last month and, after their release, the decision to let some sell their stories have tarnished the reputation of the Senior Service. This at a time when it is struggling to defend its budget before a spending review this summer that will determine its shape from 2008. The number of destroyers and frigates, the workhorses of the navy, has declined from 49 during the Falklands war to 25. More reductions loom. The head of the navy, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, gave warning in February that further cuts could reduce the fleet to the status of the â€œBelgian navyâ€â€”harsh words for the heirs of Horatio Nelson. Sir Jonathon said (then half-denied) he wanted a 30% increase in his operating budget, and assurances that two new aircraft carriers would be built. More warning horns were blared this week. Writing in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British defence think-tank, Sir Jeremy Blackham, a former deputy chief of the armed forces, and Gwyn Prins, of the London School of Economics, say Britain â€œrisks losing irretrievably the capacity which it has had since before Nelson, but especially from the time of Trafalgar to the present, to be a decisive force across the globeâ€. The navy trumpets the construction of a new generation of Type-45 destroyers for air defence and the arrival of new amphibious assault ships. But the RUSI paper claims that the commissioning of new frigates and destroyers is slower than at any time since the 1920s. True, the new ships are bigger and more capable than the ones they replace, but the authors argue that quantity has a quality of its own. They want the 17 current frigates (built to hunt submarines) to be replaced eventually with at least 30 multi-role ships. Only this number would give Britain a â€œglobal footprintâ€ and preserve the country's capacity to build warships. This is wishful thinking, of course. Defence spending is unlikely to get more than a modest increase in the coming budget. There are more pressing demands than the navy's, including support for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and improved pay and conditions for servicemen. Yet the navy has urgent work to do. Two inquiries have been ordered into the hostage fiasco in the Persian Gulf. Some weaknesses are already apparent, not least the need for better training and protection for naval boarding parties. The Ministry of Defence said it had taken 22 minutes for the mother ship, HMS Cornwall, to despatch a helicopter after losing contact with its kidnapped personnel. So forget futuristic new frigates for now. What Britain may need most urgently is some small, fast patrol craftâ€”gunboats, in other words.