We Have to be Ready For Anything

The forthcoming defence review must answer our need to be able to face unpredictable threats

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.

These are serious concerns. Despite the new government having ring-fenced the defence budget for a year, the country’s fiscal position means that in the longer term significant cuts are almost certain to be made. 

The last defence review took place at the end of the last millennium. The triumph of liberal democracy then seemed assured, underpinned by American hegemony, a project in which Britain was a steadfast partner and a bridge to her less consistent European neighbours. This was an important role as both Nato and the EU expanded to fill the vacuum in Europe left by the end of the Cold War.

The nature of the threats facing Britain and the definition of a global role have become considerably more complicated after almost 12 years at war, shown during the leadership debates in the run-up to the May election.  There was unsurprising consensus among the three main parties that Britain’s prominent position on the international stage be maintained. However, the underlying strategic issues informing Britain’s stance in the new international environment received almost no attention at all. Our desire to be able to operate as an independent military force, our readiness to intervene in conjunction with the United States, the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, the defence of our security interests against wildly divergent threats, including piracy, challenges to American unipolarity and the rise of China, India and Brazil, should all have provoked serious questions about what sort of military force will best serve our interests. These questions cannot now be avoided for to do so would be calamitous. 

A military force predicated on the campaigns of the past decade would be a significant folly. The Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have led to considerable debate about the shift in modern combat towards asymmetric warfare. There is nothing new about such combat because irregular warfare is fighting’s oldest form. However, it would be a major intellectual error and probably a tragic policy mistake to discount the possibility of war between the international community’s larger actors. Those who point to the declining frequency and changing nature of interstate wars seem to forget that such conflicts have rarely been numerous or of a predetermined nature. A young Winston Churchill could have made a similar observation about the rise of insurgency warfare during the second Boer War, but just over a decade later it would become apparent that the prevalence of interstate wars matters less than their severity once they do unfold. 

The recent sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by the unpredictable but large North Korean forces and the 2008 South Ossetian conflict are the most recent reminders that conventional conflicts persist in the post-Cold War environment. After nearly two decades of double-digit military spending by China, the balance of power in Asia appears to be shifting and Beijing’s military strength is likely to undergo a continued transformation over the coming decades. In part due to China’s rise, America’s strategic priorities have shifted away from the Euro-Atlantic Nato heartland of the Cold War to the Middle East and Asia. America’s shift in focus makes our ability to act independently all the more crucial.

Asia contains a hotbed of disputes, some of direct, some of indirect import to Britain. But the strategic consequences of China’s rise, although largely ignored in Britain, are not limited to Asia. Beijing’s growing influence in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East has the potential to spark conflict with any number of rivals, in which Britain might become embroiled. 

Against this backdrop, William Hague has declared that he will run a “distinctively British foreign policy” but it is far from clear what this means. It seems unlikely that Tony Blair’s Chicago doctrine of pre-emptive intervention, which guided New Labour’s foreign policy, will continue. The month before assuming office, Hague highlighted Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear programme as the central concern he would face as Foreign Secretary. Once in office, he made it clear: “We’ve never ruled out military action in the future but we are not calling for it either.” With the idea of pre-emption much less palatable in Westminster, the question remains whether a distinctively British foreign policy requires a distinctly British military. The defence review will have to decide what level of national autonomy in defence capabilities we wish to maintain, as opposed to merely maintaining the capability to make a contribution to coalition operations, which would seriously undermine Britain’s international influence.

As the former Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind has noted, superpower status is currently reserved for the US, a club that will perhaps one day include China. However, Britain is one of a few countries that has a global foreign policy, coupled with either the economic power or military strength to advance it. Among our European neighbours only France, by virtue of its military strength, and Germany, through its economic might, share that role. The defence review is fundamentally about whether Britain wants to maintain a level of force projection to support the concomitant foreign policy clout.

In part, this is a question about the nature of the defence relationships we choose to pursue. Hague has promised a “strong but not slavish” relationship with the US and this would seem to suggest the continuation of the bilateral “special” relationship and strong ties to Nato, at the expense of Europe. But despite protestations to the contrary, the special relationship under President Obama does not seem as strong as it once was. As the US’s strategic focus turns away from Europe, Washington has made clear its preference for Britain to play a leading role in the EU, not in support of an autonomous European defence force but to bolster European commitments to Nato.  However, neither Hague nor Defence Secretary Liam Fox is inclined to join EU-wide defence undertakings. Bilateral operations and perhaps joint equipment procurement with France seem more likely. 

There is a price to be paid for such muscular independence. 

Bilateral operations with the US or France would require a significantly more developed military capability than less onerous contributions to broader-based coalitions. Nonetheless, there are some areas of big-ticket expenditure where the UK could probably afford to reduce acquisition in line with scaled-back global reach. Most major powers with aircraft carrier capability make do with only one and the reduction of our carrier fleet from two to one ships would also allow a reduction in the F-35 jets operated from them.

A recent paper on the UK’s defence budget by the Royal United Services Institute concluded that if numerical reductions can be “limited to 20 per cent or less…it would probably maintain the UK as Nato-Europe’s largest naval power, albeit with an acceleration in its decline relative to powers such as China and India”.  Such reasoning suggests that some level of multilateralism is necessary.

However, this misses the crux of the issue about Britain’s future place at the top table. Multilateralism cannot be at the expense of our ability to operate as an independent military force. It would be foolish to suggest that inter-state warfare is no longer a threat and therefore the capability to wage it is not worth retaining on an autonomous basis. From this premise it would be even more foolish to relinquish the ability to act independently of Nato or the EU. If we haphazardly fund our armed forces in such a way that we are not able to deal with threats presented by individual states, then any spending over and above home-defence is wasted. 

Given the nature of potential threats to our national interest in the future, the process of determining our grand strategy must be subject to thorough open debate, so that Britain’s true strategic interests guide the process rather than being dictated by the Treasury.

The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, raised perhaps the three most useful questions that need to inform this dialogue. First, what are the standing commitments for defence? What does Britain aspire to do on her own? Where Britain is operating as a member of a coalition, how do we want to influence our partners?

Of these, by far the most important is our national aspiration — what kind of country do we want to be? If military spending remains the same, Britain will have to choose between several variants of an independent expeditionary capability. But if spending is reduced further, as seems likely, we will be reduced to contributing piecemeal to multinational forces over which we have no overall control. 

If the government does not actively choose, structure and fund our military as some form of expeditionary force, we will by default lose our autonomous defence function and the associated skills, probably permanently. The penalties in terms of international power and influence will be profound. It is unlikely, in that case, that we will ever contradict Acheson’s assessment of our place in the world.

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