For the British political elite the loss of empire did not signal the end of the imperial mentality. As a consequence, Britain’s defence capability continued for decades to be built upon the ridiculous assumption that she still had the military responsibilities of a great power. This has meant until recent years that Britain has shaped her defence to be able to operate, in theory at least, anywhere in the world, with a very full range of expensive military toys such as aircraft carriers and heavy tanks, neither of which is necessary for the defence of modern Britain.
That policy was mistaken but not inherently dangerous. It cost the British taxpayer a great deal of money spent unnecessarily, but it did not commit Britain to dangerous adventures or leave Britain incapable of defending herself.
In Tony Blair’s hands this “great power” mentality has transmuted into an ideology what might be described as liberal neo-colonial interventionism, crystallised in what became known as the “Blair Doctrine” which overthrew the idea of national sovereignty on which the UN was founded by advocating that the “international community” had the right to intervene in any country militarily if the government of the country was behaving in a vicious manner towards its people,
Because of the difference between the forces and equipment needed to handle such large scale foreign interventions and what is required to defend the UK, such a policy implied that Britain’s armed forces were no longer to be primarily designed to protect British territory, but would exist to operate as an agent of some ill-defined international order, be that the UN, Nato or some other association. This is what has happened. To call them defence forces is rapidly becoming a misnomer.
Creating the liberal neo-colonial armed forces of tomorrow
The shaping of our armed forces to implement the Blair Doctrine rather than British needs is already well under way. This is exemplified by recent equipment proposals which, at massive cost, lumber Britain with weapons which are not needed. Two giant aircraft carriers have already been ordered at a current estimated cost of £13 billion and a new “mini-tank” which can be lifted to foreign fields by air is proposed at another £6 billion (Sunday Telegraph London 5 Oct 2003).
In addition to these vast equipment projects, Britain is committed to providing a rapid-response force for “international emergencies” and is being gradually and secretly lured into an EU defence force. The effect of this reshaping of our armed forces is to starve them of the means to defend Britain. The aircraft carrier project alone will take a quite disproportionate amount of the defence procurement budget for many years, while the mini-tank project, if it goes ahead, will result in the end of our heavy armour regiments altogether. Perhaps most damagingly in the long run the manpower of the British army is to be reduced to 82,000 regulars with recent rumours of a further cut to 60,000 after the 2015 election.
The defence policy Britain needs
It is improbable that Britain in the foreseeable future will have to fight, as a matter of necessity, either an aggressive war abroad on its own or in alliance with another country such as the USA. What Britain needs are armed forces which will prevent attacks on Britain itself, guard her waters and (just conceivably) allow her to break a blockade. Such a policy could be easily met within Britain’ s present spending, because it is always easier and cheaper to defend your own territory than to have to invade another territory.
Having armed forces which are designed to operate only in the defence of Britain should mean that recruitment of both regulars and reservists becomes easier because long and frequent tours of duty abroad would no longer be a problem. In particular, shortages of specialists such as military medics should become a non-issue. The policy would have the further great advantage of hamstringing politicians. Whatever their natural inclinations, even the most reckless politician is constrained in what he can do by simple practicalities. If Britain has armed forces which are only equipped to defend British territory, they cannot easily be sent to fight abroad, even in conjunction with a power such as the US.
What are we guarding against?
There are three general threats to Britain, nuclear war, conventional war/blockade/sanctions against Britain and terrorist attacks from within and without.
Nuclear war we can only deter by possessing a credible independent deterrent, which would also deter a direct conventional attack. As for blockades and sanctions, these can be resisted by ensuring we are self-sufficient in necessities.
At present we have Trident and that is it for nuclear weapons. Trident may not be under our control – Tony Benn believed that it could not be operated without the release of American codes because it is dependent upon US satellites for its guidance system – and we scrapped our freefall nuclear bombs in 2003. Britain should develop a variety of nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
To have a potent threat below the nuclear, Britain should also pursue the development of weapons such as the neutron bomb and lasers and any other appropriate sub-nuclear new technology which arises. Such technology would permit Britain to defend the Falklands with some certainty whilst deploying little manpower.
The Navy and Airforce should be reshaped utterly. To defend Britain, we require not giant carriers but plenty of submarines, minesweepers and small assault ships such as destroyers to police our immediate seas. The airforce should turn its efforts towards the development of unmanned planes and a space programme capable of at least launching our own satellites – at present we are entirely dependent on Nasa or European Space Agency satellites the use of which could be denied at any time. The space programme would be run in conjunction with general missile development.
The regular army would be large enough at 120,000 and it is supplemented by a decent sized TA and properly organised reservists, that is the regular soldiers who have completed their service and then go onto the reserve list. (Editor’s Note: The problem with creating this at the moment is that soldiers leaving the Army are tired of overseas deployments, as being a reservist would perpetuate that agony. Reducing overseas deployments would make this recruiting task easier.)
In the end, the only certain defence is that which a country can provide for itself. Relying on foreign suppliers for military equipment is self-evidently dangerous because it places us in their hands. There is also the inability of Britain to ensure that foreign equipment is upgraded through further development.
A country like Britain has it within its power to produce all the weaponry and associated equipment it needs. That is especially so if the defence of British territory is the sole concern of Britain, because the range of equipment needed becomes much reduced, for example, we would not need heavy tanks or aircraft carriers.
Those who doubt that Britain could go it alone in producing their own equipment should reflect on the fact that until the early sixties Britain produced virtually all its defence equipment, including cutting edge planes such as the Lightning fighter and the V bombers, when our national wealth was, in real terms, very much less than it is today.
To those who argue for the economies of scale in joint-projects with other countries I would simply say one word “Eurofighter”. Originally intended to enter service in the 1990s, it did not become operational until well into the 2000s.
Nor is simply buying foreign a panacea. You have to take what the foreign manufacturer is willing to supply, which is not necessarily what you want. Take the case of the Apache Helicoptors purchased from the USA some years back. These have a rather distinctive design fault: rockets can only be fired from the right-hand side of helicopter because if they are fired from the left hand side debris may hit the tail rotor which is situated on the left-hand side.