22 December 2017

Britain faces serious questions on its defence capability


Most of the controversies surrounding Britain’s national security capability review have focused on the mismatch between the Ministry of Defence’s forward commitments and the available budget. The result is a funding gap said to be £20bn over the coming decade. The origins of that gap lie in familiar problems of managing large defence projects, a failure to make efficiency savings promised in the past and a decline in the value of the pound. Yet much else has also happened since the last comprehensive spending review in 2015 — not least the EU referendum, the election of Donald Trump and demonstrations of the potential of social media as an instrument of conflict (notably in Russia’s interference in western political processes). Some fundamental questions are starting to come into view about Britain’s international role

. As a trading nation and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK has global interests and responsibilities. But in terms of direct physical threats to its security position it has a privileged geographical location. It is surrounded by sea with allies for close neighbours. It no longer needs a global military presence for purposes of imperial defence. The Argentine claim on the Falkland Islands is the only serious threat left from those days. How then to explain to the public why the UK still maintains one of the world’s larger military establishments?

The main causes of insecurity lie in concerns about terrorism, cyber attacks and information warfare. The first lines of defence here are the intelligence agencies and the police, with the military in a back-up role. This is all reflected in the broad range of activities that come under the heading of national security. We should ask if the balance is right. The Foreign Office, for example, has been run down over the years. What is the role of diplomacy, in addition to military measures, when addressing upheavals in the Middle East? 

The first lines of defence here are the intelligence agencies and the police, with the military in a back-up role This question becomes more relevant if it is the case that the age of western interventions is now over. These began as the cold war came to a close with the 1991 Gulf war. The break-up of the former Yugoslavia saw British forces heavily engaged in Bosnia and Kosovo. Then in the 2000s came the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq under the heading of the “war on terror”. These led to prolonged counter-insurgency campaigns. During the 2010s the action in Libya and against Isis in Iraq and Syria has largely been confined to air strikes. Will there continue to be reluctance to engage in major ground operations? What does this say about how large an army is now needed? 

The threat from Russia provides the most compelling rationale for the defence effort. Without Moscow’s bellicosity, and in particular its aggression against Ukraine, Nato would probably not have adopted the defence spending target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product nor made conspicuous deployments to reassure allies in northern Europe. Britain just about meets its commitment to the 2 per cent target, one of very few countries to do so, and has a battle group in Estonia. There is no reason to suppose that Vladimir Putin will change course for the moment, and evidence of Russian efforts in the cyber-sphere point to a need for more counter-measures. 

Yet economically Russia is relatively weak. It has major obligations in Syria, and seems uncertain about what to do about the separatist enclave in Ukraine. What are the implications if it turns out that the danger from Russia has peaked? Recommended Britain confronts limits of its military power UK defence secretary fights to protect his budget Royal Navy cheers arrival of biggest and most expensive warship Another challenge to the cohesion of the Atlantic alliance comes from Mr Trump. He is readier than most to give Mr Putin the benefit of the doubt and regularly observes that the US has been paying more than its fair share on Nato commitments. 

Nor is Mr Trump the only senior American politician to wonder why Europeans cannot do more to cope with Russia. Can we assume that Nato will endure? Meanwhile, the combination of Mr Trump’s election and Brexit has encouraged the EU to develop further its competence in defence and security, most recently with the Permanent Structured Co-operation plan. For the moment this is unexceptional and a long way from a “European army”. How should Britain relate to defence and security initiatives taken by its erstwhile EU partners after it leaves the bloc? So far the government has kept its options open. In any case, whatever Europeans can do to bolster conventional capabilities and reduce dependence on the US, there is no obvious substitute for the American nuclear guarantee. If that no longer seems reliable as a source of deterrence against Russian nuclear threats, what implications does that have for the role of the UK’s Trident nuclear strike force? 

Finally, some of the most important international developments are taking place in the Asia-Pacific region. If Britain considers itself to be a global power should it have some presence in an area in which it was once a major player? This is a role that has been discussed for the expensive new aircraft carriers for which F-35 fighter jets, also expensive, are being purchased. What risks can be taken with these vessels, for example, in asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where there will be worries about their vulnerability to anti-ship missiles? Some of these questions are more fundamental than others. Some may require earlier answers than we might wish. 

Others may not need definitive responses for a while. But they all argue for a public debate that goes beyond worries about cost-cutting, and on to a broader reflection on the demands of national security. The writer is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London and author of ‘The Future of War: A History’ *This article has been updated to reflect that fact that the Gulf war began in 1991.

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