hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Events, Dear Boy, Events - Time for Britain to Conduct a Serious Defence Review

Former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan when asked what kept him awake at night replied; "Events, dear boy, events".  With British warplanes and warships in action against Libyan targets it is again the unexpected that has derailed Government policy.  Last year's intellectually and strategically bankrupt National Security Strategy (NSS) and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) should thus be shelved and a proper security and defence review conducted.  

The Government thought it could cut defence as though it were simply yet another bloated  remnant of Labour's profligacy.  Sadly, Britain does not live in a security vacuum.  Rather, events have proven both the NSS and SDSR misguided to the point of self-delusional.  Indeed, never has that over-used and misunderstood word 'strategic' proven so inaptly and ineptly applied to national security.

Obsessed purely by the national balance sheet the British Government sought to sacrifice defence for security and to mask retreat with meaningless management speak.  With an 8% cut to the defence budgets (which in reality is nearer a 20% cut of the actual budget) the aim was to shift Britain from being an engaged leader of the international community able and willing to uphold its international military obligations to a fortress Britain detached from the world around it.  Henceforth investment would be made in purely defensive instruments against terrorism, cyber attack and missile attack. 

This revolutionary shift in Britain's security and defence posture had been signalled in a major April 2010 speech by Foreign Secretary William Hague in which he signalled that henceforth London would place the national interest first, i.e. Britain would over time withdraw from foreign 'adventures'. Sadly, as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council and as one of the world's major economic and military actors Britain is not to be afforded such a luxury being too powerful to hide from dangerous change whatever the short-term financial imperatives.  

The sense of disconnect between security and defence was reinforced by an aside from Hague to Defence Secretary Liam Fox at last week's House of Commons Defence Select Committee hearings.  Hague urged Fox to move the debate away from defence cuts to security 'gains'.  Fox cut a forlorn figure because in his heart he knows he is being asked to sacrifice Britain's hugely respected armed forces for a vague and unquantifiable security concept that will profoundly weaken Britain's strategic influence. Put simply, the Government does not have a strategic clue.

Hague is thus essentially wrong.  The National Security Strategy is merely a shopping list of possible risks with a false set of vague priorities that profoundly undermine the ability of government to properly establish sound security and defence policy.  As such NSS for all its rhetoric generates no planning drivers because it is based on a profoundly wrong set of assumptions the most erroneous of which is the desire to recognise only as much threat as the Government believes it can afford.

Thankfully, the French came to the rescue.  The November 2010 Franco-British Security and Defence Treaty demonstrated the profound contradiction between a formal policy that was committed purely to building a cheap security fortress and the offensive political posture that a country such as Britain is forced to adopt. 

And then out of the strategic blue came Libya.  With much of the Middle East a primed powder-keg of instability and almost one year into the Coalition Government it is time for Prime Minister Cameron to put aside the foolish naivety implicit in the cost-cutting SDSR and start a proper defence review.  Only then can Britain match its military capability to its strategic responsibilities.  Grave damage has already been done. The rapid scrapping of the paid for new Nimrod MRA4 surveillance aircraft was an act of strategic Ludditism designed only to protect an appalling decision by removing the evidence.  Thankfully, it is not too late to save other vital strategic influence assets such as the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. 

That of course will not happen because Whitehall can never be wrong.  Five years hence those responsible for the mess that is Britain's defence policy will of course appear on television to sagely justify their incompetence.  It is a cycle that is oh so British.  To paraphrase Churchill never has a great country been so ineptly led by so few at the expense of so many.       

Events, dear boy, events!

Julian Lindley-French

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