|The Evening Standard
8 July 1998
|What it takes to keep up with America
by Gerald Segal
A cynical observer of previous British Strategic Defence Reviews (SDR) could be forgiven for thinking these exercises are never strategic and rarely real reviews. But the SDR announced today in Parliament is different. Britain now looks set to have a modern military prepared for the likely wars of the future.
Armed forces are correctly cautious about change and so it is not surprising that it has taken nearly a decade after the end of the Cold War truly to rethink British military strategy. While previous defence reviews gave us a peace dividend - UK defence spending declined by nearly 30 per cent in real terms since the mid-1980s and at 2.7 per cent of GDP is at the lowest level since the mid-1930s - there was little new thinking about how a modern military should be used.
Today's SDR is different. It recognises that post-Cold War wars require professional and flexible armed forces able to combine the punch of the different services and act swiftly and intensely with close allies. Operations will sometimes be peacekeeping and sometimes high-tech warfare.
The audacity of the SDR owes a great deal to the drive of George Robertson: the Secretary of State for Defence spent the 1980s learning how to think strategically in the dying days of the Cold War and adopted New Labour attitudes towards defence well before Tony Blair and Robin Cook abandoned their commitments to unilateral nuclear disarmament. The result is an SDR that defines the UK as a great power with global interests and a strong commitment to defend Western values and interests. It will not be squeamish about using force and will do so with a range of allies only some of whom may be European.
There are four distinctive features of Britain's new defence strategy. First, there is a commitment to deploy professional forces trained to fight hard and in fluid conditions. As the United States - the world's leading power and the UK's main ally - increasingly adopts the features of the Revolution in Military Affairs that requires high-tech information warfare, Britain has decided it needs forces capable of acting in coalition with the market leaders. An important part of this commitment to modern war will be to place greater stress on joint service operations instead of separate and proud air, naval and ground services. Heavy-lift aircraft and "air cavalry" complete with Apache attack helicopters will help make "jointness" more than just a slogan.
Second, there is a commitment to possess forces capable of operating in at least two, often very different, battlefields at a time. Thus Britain would be able to make a critical difference to the success of Western strategy in both the Gulf and Bosnia and prevent the likes of Saddam Hussein calculating that the Western powers are too distracted to respond to an unexpected challenge.
The SDR also indicates that Britain is unlikely to fight alone. Its forces will almost certainly be deployed in coalition with allies in which the British naval contribution will be the most important - hence the promise to deploy two new 40,000-50,000-ton aircraft carriers and supporting ships and aircraft in powerful and mobile battle groups.
The stress on these naval forces is also a demonstration of Britain's willingness to deploy forces around the globe. We shall not undo the cuts of earlier Labour governments which ended permanent British deployments east of Suez. But Britain will recognise that Europeans cannot afford merely to sit tight in fortress Europe. A trading nation with a commitment to an open global market economy recognises that military force may be needed to defend freedom of navigation and warn off bullies and rogue states. Like the United States, Britain appreciates the need to respond if Asian countries should be threatened by an aggressive China. And by continuing to deploy a significant number of ground troops in Germany, Britain shows a recognition that it must demonstrate to its more naive European partners and its sometimes-wobbly American ally that Nato must remain at the core of Western defence policies. Only a close-knit alliance whose troops can train together intensely in order to prepare the standard operating procedures for modern war will provide the ready-made tool to be deployed in Bosnia or the Gulf.
If Britain had decided to make radical cuts in its Nato deployments, either to save money or to help create a solely European defence force, the Americans would be more likely to go home. Britain knows, even if most Continental Europeans do not like to admit it, that the defence of Western security interests around the globe and even in Europe requires an active American ally.
Finally, and for some members of Old Labour most gallingly, the SDR retains a strong nuclear weapons capability. In a clever compromise, the Review manages to make significant reductions in the number of nuclear warheads to be deployed on British submarines, but retains a credible strategy of deterrence by keeping four submarines carrying sea-launched ballistic missiles.
Taken together, these main features of the SDR add up to a distinctive strategic vision. Although the Government is playing the SDR in a low key, it seeks to achieve an increase in Britain's voice and power in the world. Tony Blair and George Robertson believe that if the UK is to remain a global power it must possess the ability to act like one. Britain's unique contribution is to be the United States' closest and most militarily effective European ally: this is not so much the old vision of an unsinkable aircraft carrier, but rather of a sturdy bridge for the Western powers.
Reflect for a moment how the world's other great powers are faring. French defence reforms lag far behind those of the UK. Germany and Japan have no will to be global military powers. Russia's forces are rusting. China's real power is at least a generation away from living up to its political hype. Some may wish to whisper it quietly, but the SDR will ensure that, at least for a generation, Britain will rank second only to the United States in deployable modern military power.
l Gerald Segal is Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 08 July 1998