UK’s credibility with Washington rests on a knife-edge.
When circumstances change, defence policy should too. Yet British governments have a patchy record. For many years, Conservative governments preferred a series of budget cuts to a properly conducted review of defence and security. The last serious effort to calibrate military spending with foreign policy was under Labour in 1998. The coalition government’s review of 2010 was another budget-driven exercise, which lacked intellectual rigour and did deep damage to Britain’s military power.
The defence review promised for 2015 — a date chosen to avoid difficult decisions before the election — must surely aim to set straight glaring deficiencies in capabilities arising from the 2010 review. The lack of a maritime patrol aircraft has been a humiliation, which forced a proud maritime nation to go cap in hand to allies for assistance last year when the presence of a Russian submarine was suspected in the UK’s nuclear deterrent transit area. Libya exposed the chronic shortage of ships designed for combat, and Britain’s inability to launch air attacks from the sea. TheUK does not have enough combat aircraft. The army, the navy and the air force all want for specialised personnel.
Moreover, there is an unhelpful technological argument that is becoming fashionable among some who are entrusted with explaining why Britain is still safe despite major cuts to the military power previously thought necessary. Even the Chief of Defence Staff’s 2014 Rusi lecture gave this new creed added respectability by describing a new warfare where the metrics of firepower are no longer the dominant factor. Cyber, data fusion, robotics would, it is prophesied, spawn this new way of waging war. If kinetic force is now less important, perhaps we are still safe with fewer capabilities and less mass?
This proposition needs much thought. It should be tested carefully through research and simulated war games. None of this has yet been done. History suggests relying on revolutionary technologies is risky. For every technological breakthrough, another arrives to negate it.
The Ministry of Defence is preparing for the coming review, but there are considerable obstacles to producing anything useful. There is the strong possibility of a hung parliament, with an uneasy coalition in government. A coalition of the Labour and Scottish National parties might even have a deputy prime minister committed both to the destruction of the union and the dismantling of the nuclear deterrent. There is little chance of an overall majority. Another general election might follow before long. In such circumstances, is any government capable of doing what is needed to maintain the UK’s place in Nato and its international interests and responsibilities?
The US is the UK’s principal ally. Yet our credibility with Washington rests on a knife-edge. Informed sources on both sides of the Atlantic say so, yet ministers deny it. This is denial on a grand scale.
Our potential enemies are not standing still. Every technical advantage is transient. The introduction of radar made a difference in the Battle of Britain. But it was our ability to build new fighters faster than Germany that was decisive. Imagine if we had concluded that radar allowed us to fight a war with fewer resources, and mothballed some of our fighter force and our factories.
The evidence points strongly to the likelihood that these new modes of warfare are adjuncts to hard kinetic fighting power. They may be indispensable, but they are adjuncts nonetheless. Why is it that the nations most involved in developing cyber-weapons also see the need to possess massive conventional forces?
We sorely need a defence review of real depth and integrity. If another round of botch and cut is all that is on offer, it would be better to wait until our rulers have the time and inclination to think deeply about Britain’s defence.
The writer was Chief of the Air Staff from 1992 to 1997
This piece first appeared in the Financial Times