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Be prepared: Iran's nuclear programme is a threat that will need to be countered 

The most famous post-war assessment of Britain's international position came in 1962 from the US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who observed: "Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role." Acheson's words suggested not only uncertainty about Britain's role but also its decline in international status.

In the early weeks of the new coalition government, his words continue to reverberate around Whitehall. Unless we articulate our strategic ambitions and match them financially, we will never escape Acheson's pithy dismissal. Britain's first National Security Adviser, Sir Peter Ricketts, will deliver a National Security Strategy in the autumn, and the first comprehensive Strategic Defence and Security Review since 1997 is set to be finished by the year's end. 

The defence review is already compromised by the leadership of the outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Jock Stirrup and Sir Bill Jeffrey, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, who have been allowed to retire early. Sir Jock is partly responsible for the last government's directionless Afghanistan strategy and his leadership of the review is a terrible miscalculation. Given his association with procurement overspend and failure adequately to equip troops early in the Afghanistan campaign, it is hard to see how his defence review will carry authority.

These two documents, although unlikely to rekindle public interest in defence, are nonetheless crucial in defining the country's strategic posture. Britain finds itself at a key strategic turning point that will define its place in the world for decades to come. The crunch in public finances will serve to make this perhaps the most important defence review since the end of the Second World War. If wide-ranging cuts to the armed forces are made, capabilities and skills will be lost that will be impossible to retrieve. We face two potential dangers: first, that the defence review is skewed towards our recent past, Iraq and Afghanistan; and second, a "balanced scenario" where inter-service rivalry leads to cuts being distributed evenly across the services without sufficient consideration being given to the shape of the armed forces that will secure our vital interests. Such "salami-slicing" would leave us with the worst possible outcome, the inability to operate independently as a military force, except in the most limited capacity. 

There is no doubt that apart from the independent nuclear deterrent, great power status requires independent conventional military capacity. The reality is that all the five wars since 1997 that Britain has been involved in were unforeseen. We must continue to fund our armed forces at a level in all three services to meet unpredictable threats.

It seems that we have collectively forgotten the relationship between diplomacy and military capability. Consequently, there is a significant danger that we will never have a comprehensive public debate about Britain's grand strategy and how we can best equip ourselves to achieve our desired ends. Recent defence debate has defaulted instead to discussion of our immediate concerns, the increasingly directionless Afghanistan campaign and the dire state of the public finances.

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