by Karl Johnson
It’s good to know what other countries are thinking about us. I was drawn to a recent article in the American Spectator by Australian lawyer Hal G P Colebatch, entitled Setting the Stage for a Losing Falklands War: Are Britain’s Armed Forces Going Over a Cliff? It mentions our delays in completing our new aircraft carriers, speculative reports in our press that the British army might be cut to 60,000 troops in the near future, and the sale of Russian fast jets and helicopters to Argentina. Colebatch concludes that with a defence budget of less than 2% of national income and a ‘bath-tub Royal Navy’, Britain will be unable to protect its territorial interests against an increasingly nationalistic Argentina, with the inference that we will similarly fail to add our weight against Russian expansionism and the spread of Islamist extremism.
My first impression was that it’s encouraging to know that there are sufficient Anglophiles in America to warrant a concerned piece about the state of our armed forces. Then I considered that the article was quite misleading. Yet I still find myself in broad agreement with its substance.
Colebatch’s argument is one that needs taking down and building up again slightly differently, because it is very nearly right. The truth is that the Falklands are fine. The British armed forces have undergone a painful reduction in the past 25 years, but this is part of a wider trend of demobilisation that has affected most of the world since the end of the cold war. The dissolution of the iron curtain led to an era of globalisation and growth in trade in which large-scale defence expenditure was a hindrance. Britain’s defence cuts have been less stringent than those of most other countries in recent years, and our budget is still one of the largest in the world even at 2.3% of our GDP.
Argentina remains in steep national decline and has not experienced any substantial military engagement since the 1982 conflict. There are mischievous rumours that the Argentine government is reluctant to let its warships visit foreign ports for fear of them being seized by creditors (a result of their policy of using the state’s assets as collateral for debts), and according to the South American Mercopress, a flypast of the air force to mark the country’s bicentenary in 2010 was cancelled due to “the risk of the obsolete aircraft over Buenos Aires.”
Meanwhile, Russia, still one of the world’s great military powers, is trying to do more with less, as its ambitions are not matched by its economic clout. Despite having a budget larger than ours, Russia’s need to cling to the vestiges of its Soviet empire has left their military at breaking point. US military correspondent David Axe claims that ‘the Russian fleet is on the edge of a precipitous decline in ship numbers and combat power, owing to huge industrial shortfalls that have been decades in the making’. On recent voyages their aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov has killed one of its own crew and caused a 300 tonne oil slick off the Irish coast. It is clear that attempting to maintain a certain level of capability with such diminished budgets for the sake of national pride is irresponsible.
Britain doesn’t have this problem. Instead of maintaining an enormous, rusting fleet, we have cut its numbers so that those ships we do keep can be kept at sea for longer, and be pushed harder, than those of our potential enemies and can be replaced with greater frequency. This means that our crews are vastly more experienced, and have much more confidence in their ships, even if our navy is smaller than we’d like. The same principle applies to air force squadrons and army battalions: cut quantity to preserve quality. Every Western European nation has made the same choice.
But even so, I’m not sure the post-cold war decline in global military strength is the sign of progress we might think it is. It coincides with a decrease in the power of the state, as globalisation and internationalism continue to undermine sovereign nations in the West, their legislatures, and their electorates. It has also failed to coincide with any decrease in the violence and instability affecting much of the world, and it now seems our citizens and interests overseas have not been as unsafe as they are for some time. With the world in its current state, it’s hard to believe that our defence cuts have made us any safer. We now live in an environment in which any cut in defence capability, no matter how necessary, well-planned or reasonable, will be interpreted by other countries as a symptom of national decline, as can be seen in the American Spectator.
This is why I sympathise with what Colebatch calls an ‘ominous, heading-for-a-cliff feel’. It may not be a uniquely British phenomenon, but that doesn’t make it any better. European nations have lost capability and are now unable to fully react to the threats that have appeared in the past year. Russia may not be strong enough to project power around the globe, but they are still one of the world’s heavyweights and can very easily support operations on their doorstep. With no European counterbalance they can re-envelop the former Warsaw Pact countries that have since turned to the West, and the period of European reconciliation that followed the end of the cold war will be over. This could coincide with a steady rise in attacks on British citizens at home and overseas as ISIS establishes itself as a permanent presence in a ruined Iraq and Syria and begins to export its violence with greater frequency.
This scenario isn’t Armageddon. It’s vision of a near future in which we are a little less powerful and richer, less safer and free. We’d probably get by. But it’s a vision we should try to avoid. Pushing up defence spending to 3% or so would be a very small step which could go a long way. We could use it to replace lost capabilities, help push through those procurement projects which, like the new aircraft carriers, have lagged behind, and encourage the start of a regional trend of Western European nations bolstering their defences.
At a more tactical level, a guarantee that a Labour government would increase spending could make up for the perceived neglect of the Armed Forces under Blair and Brown, head off accusations of woolliness from the right wing press, and call the bluff of the Conservatives, who see themselves as the strongest party on defence and the natural repository of votes from all who have the Forces best interests at heart.
3% would not be disproportionate, reckless or aggressive. It’s just a suggestion that after a quarter-century of relative peace, we may have to return, with our allies, to our traditional role as a stabilising force in the world.
Karl Johnson is a law student and a trade unionist with the GMB