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A Strategically Defensible Review

In America, Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs, Party politics on October 22, 2010 at 3:42 pm

By Polarii for The Daily Soapbox

George Osborne has delivered with surprising gravitas his Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). It was indeed comprehensive, incorporating almost every government department in the cost cutting measures. Whether such cuts are good or bad or necessary, and whether they fall in the right place or not, and what they will mean is a tangential theme to this article. Instead, we shall consider the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDR). It was delivered by the Prime Minister to the Commons on the Tuesday, and almost – but only almost – snuck under the news radar. It is, in many ways, more important than the CSR, and so demands closer scrutiny. It is also more radical, believe it or not, and it should not go unmarked amidst the various cries of uproar that the CSR has triggered.

The SDR was a long-overdue document. Labour conducted the last defence review in 1998, and, for some incomprehensible reason, they did not think to have another after the world-changing event that was the 9/11 attacks. This changed the nature of warfare: previously, it had been thought that Britain would be the major contributor against legions of Soviet tanks rolling across the plains of Europe. By 2001, that threat had gone. In its place has arisen a guerilla effort in some of the most hostile environments known to man. And in this age of unipolarity (which will only last for another 20 years or so), other powers have turned to financing or supporting these guerilla groups, or, more intriguingly, using technology to undermine key computing services – case in point, the Estonian Cyberwar of 2007, widely alleged to have occurred with the blessing of the Kremlin. Piracy on the high seas has also been on the rise. All these threats would have been anticipated in a review in, say, 2002 or 2004.

Yet, we had to wait for a new government, and a time of cuts, to work out our defensive priorities. This left any new government in an awkward position: to cut defence under 1998 priorities would clearly be stupid; but to run a review alongside a programme of cuts would look vindictive. The Coalition wisely went for the latter. Though the SDR occurred in the context of cuts, it ensured the cuts were better directed at things that are no longer useful: accordingly, some 100 pieces of heavy equipment are to be discontinued (tanks, artillery, so forth) and there will be increased investment in more mobile units (helicopters, Humvees, etc). Anyone who knows anything about Afghanistan will tell you that this – at least for the medium term – is a sensible move.

However, the SDR makes a broad change of focus for Britain’s long-term strategic objectives. A military presence in Germany is to be discontinued. This is because two strategic threats – the Soviets, and the possibility of a re-emergent fascism in Europe – are now so distant as to be unthinkable. Plus, a number of former Soviet countries (Czech Republic, Estonia) are much more westward looking, and have joined NATO. There is now no longer a need for Britain to hold Europe on behalf of the Europeans. This has led to cuts of 7000 in the army. For the first time since WW2, Britain’s army will be smaller than Germany’s. Given the relative land held by each country, and the length of their borders, it seems that normality has been restored. Army forces can now concentrate on crisis points: Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, and wherever else may arise.

Now for the Navy. Britain’s strongest defence has historically been the Navy. That is entirely unsurprising for an island nation. It is an area in which Britain has traditionally excelled. But the Navy’s role has changed – it is now suffering cuts to its fleet of destroyers and frigates. It may well have suffered cuts to its aircraft carriers too, but the Labour government were stupid enough (or wise enough) to ensure that the contracts cost more to cancel than continue. This is a sound move: the countries that will most likely present a problem for Britain over the next 20 years are: Somalia, Iran, North Korea, Argentina (this last is tenuous). Against all these nations, having seaborne air power would be an eminently sensible move. Two carriers also keep Britain in the major leagues of military power: only the USA has more aircraft carriers. Furthermore, by fitting catapults for aircraft onto the aircraft, the Harrier jump-jet can be retired and French and US planes can use our carriers.

While it may not seem that UK-France relations are at their strongest ever, it is a sensible alliance to be forming. Up until WW1, Britain and France adopted a concerted naval policy, with France protecting the Mediterranean, and Britain the Atlantic – protecting both countries’ trade. A similar policy of naval co-operation seems to be forming between Cameron and Sarkozy, and not within an EU directorate. This will help retain the military influence of both countries within the world (though not to the level of the Imperial Age). It may also draw France away from the idea of an EU-Russia Defence force, which, as it is currently envisaged, is dangerously anti-Atlanticist; possibly leading to Europe becoming a plaything of Russia. We just have to hope that this sensible alliance outlives the two pragmatic politicians currently in office.

As for the airforce, the Harrier is being retired; the Tornado remains. Bases in Scotland could well close – not especially alarming, given the threat posed by military giants such as Norway and Iceland – retaining bases towards the South. Cuts of 5000 jobs are not unreasonable, and they will probably be regained once fiscal retrenchment has occurred. The RAF has managed to avoid being merged into the other branches, and it will proudly retain its identity of service and professionalism.

As for Trident, its renewal has (again) been deferred, to save money. This seems to have been driven by several factors: the nuclear threat to the UK is not terribly high for the next ten years (by which time, Iran will have nukes); it is cheaper to do it later and paying for it would mean cutting something else; the old system is not top-notch, but it still retains a good retaliatory capability; the Lib Dems don’t really want it. A combination of these views result in the decision, and I am too far removed from the decision-makers to analyse which combination. More pleasingly, budgets to GCHQ, SAS, MI5 and SIS will be increased – which is incredibly sensible given that the main threats over the next 10-20 years are terrorism and cyberwar; these are also areas in which Britain has traditionally excelled, even above major superpowers.

In short, I am loath to see cuts to defence spending, seeing as defense is the primary duty of the government. To paraphrase Lenin, without adequate defence spending, there will be no schools or hospitals. It also pleasing to see that the aid budget is now being diverted to genuinely poor areas, which are generally those areas where conflict may arise. Investment in backwater areas is the solution to extremism, rather than war. Further requirements for Afghanistan will be taken from the reserve, which prevents the troops suffering needlessly. The cuts prioritise certain areas – that is the Navy, Intelligence, and International co-operation, which are the areas Britain has most historical experience to bring to the table. It is, given the circumstances, given the potentially deep divisions in the Coalition about defence, a surprisingly elegant solution. It was right of Dr Fox to fight for the defence budget, and right of David Cameron to intervene to protect it from an extra 2% of cuts. It is a difficult pill to swallow, but it looks like life-saving medicine.

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