In a recent letter published in Le Figaro, French parliamentarian Paul Giacobbi calls for a proper reckoning with France’s military ambitions. He highlights the disparity between France’s international ambitions and the budgetary pressures its military faces and suggests the absence of debate on the issue is an unsustainable state of affairs. While an open letter isn’t exactly a national reckoning, it is the start of a debate that isn’t even being considered in the United Kingdom.
After all, with enormous savings expected from welfare, education, healthcare and other vital areas of government spending, it is unreasonable to expect defence budgets to escape unharmed. Indeed, there have been cuts, as thesehelpful BBC infographics illustrate. However these cuts have not come with a public debate on the future of the British military – the MoD was reduced to duelling Buzzfeed lists to defend its aircraft carrier programme from the Campaign against the Arms Trade. The issue, as Giacobbi points out, is that there has not been a decrease in global ambitions to match the decreased budgets.
To contribute in some minor way to this vital debate, this article will look at the kinds of threats Britain is likely to face in the future, and suggest reforms to British strategy to ensure her security without compromising her budget.
It is important to bear in mind that the United Kingdom is an exceptionally secure country. One can think of few countries with less threatening neighbourhoods to contend with. Any debate on the future of the British military must surely begin with the acknowledgement that there are simply far too many fantastic leaps of logic required to construct a scenario in which the United Kingdom is literally called upon to fight for its survival. As perversely entertaining as Call of Duty-esque scenarios of Special Forces soldiers battling through the London Underground are, it is precisely their absurdity that makes them enjoyable.
Nevertheless, as in any field involving the interactions of hundreds of millions of human beings, there can be no absolute certainties. While it is hard to imagine what series of unfortunate events would leave the United Kingdom under direct threat, prediction is a fool’s game. Given the increased costs of rearmament compared with maintaining existing forces, there is a degree of risk involved in disarmament.
Indeed, while the specific merits of the Trident renewal programme are beyond the scope of this article, the combination of an uncertain future with the savings to be gained from keeping our current capacity instead of scrambling to reacquire it at a later date seem to be a compelling reason to reject unilateral disarmament (at the risk of structural realist hyperbole, the fate of Muammar Gaddafi is another).
With a large majority of UK trade happening with its European neighbours (54% of British exports go to the EU), it is clear that a stable and peaceful Europe constitutes a vital interest.
It does not, however, follow that the world is a safer place. The UK is a G7 economy and has close relationships with countries the world over – as such, its interests remain global. In the near future, these interests will continue to be served by a continued engagement with NATO. With a large majority of UK trade happening with its European neighbours (54% of British exports go to the EU), it is clear that a stable and peaceful Europe constitutes a vital interest. Recent events in Ukraine demonstrate that Europe’s relatively stable borders are not guaranteed, and reaffirming our commitment to uphold the sovereignty of NATO states currently nervous at the prospect of further Russian irredentism is essential if Eastern Europe is to avoid spiralling into a debilitating security dilemma.
The United Kingdom seems likely to continue to face a terrorist threat. Indeed, many analystswarn that the massive presence of foreign fighters in the Syrian civil war is liable to prove a headache for counter-terrorist operations when they come home – this is sure to have been behind the Home Office’s moves to impede British citizens’ participation in that conflict.
However, after over ten years of war, it seems likely that the appetite for further preventative wars is limited. Whether or not Gordon Brown was right to claim that British troops were fighting in Afghanistan to keep the streets of Britain safe, that war will come to an end for the UK in less than a year. Beyond that, it doesn’t seem likely that Britain will join the USA and France in entering another round of open-ended anti-terrorist operations from Mali to Yemen.
Finally, there are the more discretionary operations the UK may choose to embark on. These are often less justified in terms of direct threats to the national interest, though given the costs they impose, they are never pointless. Again, the UK’s participationin the world economy is largeand instability the whole world over can be construed as a threat to the economy, as well as British citizens and companies overseas. Furthermore, the developing norm of humanitarian intervention, codified in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s “Responsibility to Protect”, is increasingly leading some states to frame the prevention of atrocities as a national interest. However, this tendency to roam abroad in search for problems to fix may be down to a surplus of military power – when you have a multi-billion pound hammer to spare, a lot of things will start to look like nails.
So far, we have covered some of the threats that Britain may need to use military force to defend against. There are legitimate arguments for Britain to respond to these threats, but also for us to avoid getting involved. In the next part, we will look at how the UK can reform its national strategy to respond to these threats more effectively.