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John Humphreys – Defence: what does Britain need?

February 17, 2010

Via YouGov:

Defence : What Does Britain Need?

Posted on: 04 February 2010

Douglas Hurd, the former Conservative foreign secretary, used to say that Britain liked to “punch above its weight”. The country might no longer preside over the world’s most powerful empire and have become instead merely a small country of sixty million people on a planet of six billion, but we were still the fourth or fifth biggest economy, we still had interests to defend right across the world, we still had a permanent seat on the Security Council and we still fancied ourselves as a force for good across the globe.

That was twenty years ago. But little has changed in our sense of ourselves since then. Indeed a case could be made that we have behaved even more like a boxer slightly out of his class. Over the last ten years or so British forces have seen more action abroad than at any time since World War Two. Whatever the rights or wrongs of our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no doubt that we are still punching and probably above our weight.

But how long can it go on? After a time underweight boxers , however plucky, just flag. And there is a growing consensus that that time is coming for the British military (if it has not already). If money provides the nutrition which keeps the military boxer on his feet, then fatigue time is most certainly at hand for the money is running out. It raises the question: what sort of defence can we afford and what sort of boxing fights should we be preparing for?

These are the issues raised in a green paper on defence spending published by the government this week. It is the precursor of a full strategic defence review that is certain to be conducted by the government formed by whichever party wins the forthcoming election. The last such review was twelve years ago when the world looked a very different place.

You might suppose that such a major issue would be the subject of heated debate in the coming campaign. But that looks fairly unlikely. There will, of course, be rows about defence. Opposition parties (and quite a few former top brass in the Ministry of Defence) have been accusing Gordon Brown, when he was chancellor, of starving the military of funds. The result, they say, has been the shortage of helicopters, body armour and other vital kit in both Iraq and Afghanistan. At the Chilcot inquiry on Wednesday, Sir Kevin Tebbit, the former permanent secretary at the MoD, said Mr Brown had “guillotined” the defence budget and that Sir Kevin had had to manage an essentially crisis budget throughout his time in the job. The Prime Minister resolutely denies all these charges.

But regarding future defence strategy and spending, there is unlikely to be a huge inter-party controversy. All the main parties recognise that in the decade of public spending austerity that lies ahead of us defence will take its share (at the very least) of the cuts. None of the parties has singled out defence for exemption from such pain as they have, variously, with health, schools or overseas aid. The influential International Institute for Strategic Studies reckons there will be a real cut of between 11% and 14% in the defence budget by 2016.

How will the savings be made? The first port of call in all exercises of cutting public expenditure is ‘waste’. No one doubts there is real scope here. There’s agreement that the military is top-heavy and that the number of top brass can be cut. Furthermore, with one civil servant in the MoD for every two members of the armed forces, bureaucracy will face the axe. It has even been suggested that savings could be made by amalgamating the three separate services of army, navy and air force into two, though the squeals that that would cause would require real political nerve.

The MoD has been notoriously wasteful in its procurement policies. Few, if any, of its orders for weapons systems or even ordinary kit come in on time or anything other than wildly over budget. An independent report, so embarrassing that the government seemed to suppress its publication for as long as possible last year, concluded that the procurement budget was “substantially overheated” – in other words, the ministry had gone on a buying spree. That is set to change, or so it is suggested.

Yet in its green paper the government has already exempted from the cuts its decision to update the Trident nuclear deterrent at a cost of £20bn. This will perhaps provide the one row during the election campaign as the Liberal Democrats want the decision reversed. The government seems also to be protecting its order for two new aircraft carriers, arguing that as some of the work on them has already begun, it would be too expensive to cancel now. Not as expensive as carrying on, say critics of the decision.

The government seems to hope that savings can be made by greater cooperation with our allies. It has long been argued that Europe as a whole wastes far too much money on duplicating military spending and that procurement partnerships are the way forward. In particular it is argued that now that France has rejoined NATO’s integrated military structure, Britain should link up with its ancient enemy in a new ‘entente cordiale et militaire’ to save money.

But all such matters are essentially secondary. The primary question is what should we be using our military forces for and in what way. After the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan many military commentators argue that a belief that underlay planning – that in any operation we should aim to go in fast and get home quick – has proved false. That notion will have to be revisited in the forthcoming strategic defence review. But the main question it will have to answer is where the future threat to our security lies and how we should prepare for it.

This is a notoriously difficult issue because the world tends to change faster than strategies designed to deal with it. It is, after all, only twenty five years ago that our defence strategy was still premised on the existence of the Cold War (and we still have troops stationed in Germany, put there to deter a Soviet Union that no longer exists). Since then, our forces have had to fight in an unexpected war in the Balkans, as part of a humanitarian exercise in Sierra Leone, to overthrow Saddam Hussein and to try to bring an order to Afghanistan so that, in the government’s account of things, we may better protect ourselves from a terrorist threat on our own streets we didn’t even dream about before 9/11. Each example has required different strategies, different tactics and different resources.

Some military thinkers argue that future wars will not be about battlefields with professional forces pitted against each other but will take place “among the people”, where it will be difficult to distinguish enemy combatants from ordinary citizens and where diplomacy and politics will be as important as military force. They cite Iraq and Afghanistan as obvious examples. What use, they ask, are (say) aircraft carriers in such situations? And there is a whole new area of warfare that threatens our security which we have hardly begun to think how to defend ourselves against: war in cyberspace.

So there is plenty to ponder. And at the centre of the discussion will be the issue of deciding at what weight we want to punch. The government’s answer is fairly clear. The green paper says: “This government believes that the UK’s interests are best served by continuing to play an active global role, including through the use of armed forces when required.”

What’s your view? Where do you see the main threats to Britain’s security in the coming decade? How would you shape a defence strategy to deal with it? Should we seek to cooperate more with allies such as France in defence spending? Should we go ahead with updating Trident? Should we carry on with building two new aircraft carriers? Do we need three separate services or not? Is Gordon Brown guilty of starving the defence budget of necessary funds or not? Should defence spending be exempt from future cuts, or not? And, at the most fundamental level, do you think we have been punching above our weight and, if so, should we go on doing so or not?

Here’s a thought – end poverty and inequality!  Best route to peace ever.

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