Britain still has a taste for being a world power – and a determination to be a key influence on the United States, a senior defence analyst has told the BBC. But it faces a choice on how to play out that role, says Michael Codner, head of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute.
With a general election looming and both Labour and the Tories promising to hold an early Strategic Defence Review, big questions are bound to be asked about the future of the armed forces. Structures, equipment, procurement, all depend on what exactly we plan to do with our soldiers, sailors and airmen. As war is essentially the pursuit of politics through other means, the need to form a policy on our use of defence in foreign affairs is paramount. Two big projects are likely to come under close scrutiny – the new Aircraft Carriers and our Nuclear deterrent.
One option would be to scale back on our spending, and become more of an ordinary European power, and plan to only take part in action as part of a NATO or EU alliance. This would see us lose much of our independent expeditionary capability. Whilst this would be cheaper, it would leave places such as the Falklands vulnerable, and our ability to co-operate with and influence the US would be much reduced.
Another choice would be to retrench even further and only retain the forces necessary to defend the UK, our sea lanes and our air space. But in an increasingly globalised world, this would not be feasible. History has proven that to deliver security at home you sometimes have to act further afield – Afghan poppy fields and Indian Ocean sea lanes are cases in hand.
One policy, which Mr Codner favours, is what defence experts call “strategic raiding” in which British forces are able to intervene swiftly and with a high degree of independence. It places a high value on naval and air forces for “theatre entry and sea basing”, and specialist light infantry. The classic “strategic raiding” operation, he says, is the successful British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000.
The fly in the ointment is Britain’s long-term commitment to involvement in Afghanistan. As long as we are committed to fighting in Helmand, that must quite rightly take priority in resources. But in the even-longer term, we need to leave ourselves balanced and flexible enough to meet future threats. And of course, future threats do not often give us prior notice. Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban and Somali Pirates did not hand diplomatic ultimatums to British embassies. And in any case, the ‘Ostrich’ approach in the 1930′s caused us no end of trouble.
Public opinion is important. Britain has been largely succesful in its foreign interventions since Suez in 1956, and while public opinion quite rightly recoils at the sight of Union Jack draped coffins arriving home, there is also a feeling that all the time we are succesful, spending money on defence is justified. Failures, however, would bring this under the spotlight.
To achieve any kind of over-arching policy it is vital that the 3 services somehow manage to co-operate more and stop squabbling over funding and resources. This is partly as a result of Whitehall’s ‘divide and conquer’ approach to running the armed forces. But would it really be too much to ask for an Air Marshal to admit that we need Chinooks not Eurofighters, or for an Admiral to concede that we need smaller, flexible carriers and more frigates and destoyers?
We might doubt exactly how much influence the UK has over the US in terms of defence. If our generals had been listened to before the Iraq war, much of the debacle that ensued afterwards might have been avoided (see General Sir Mike Jackson’s memoirs). But on the other hand, the 1982 Falklands War, and Britain’s convincing success against the odds, had an almost immeasurable effect upon the United States military.
While much of our defence policy will be heavily scrutinised, Britain still has an influence on the world stage out of all proportion to its size. Whether, and how, this can be maintained is another matter.