The cuts by last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review come at an inauspicious time. The world, as many have commented, is going mad: Britain’s war with the Taliban shows no signs of cooling down, protests and revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa threaten further to destabilise some of the world’s most volatile countries, and the implications of the Ivorian crisis are grim for central African regional cohesion. But what does all this have to do with us?
Like it or not, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and one of the world’s major military powers, Britain has a moral obligation to assist appropriately in maintaining world stability. Not only does the spread of anarchy and despotism within particular countries cause humanitarian crises, but the knock-on effects of this often threaten, as now, to damage the quality of life of people in larger areas. Standing idly by as injustice is committed has not generally worked out very well for us in the past – look, for instance, at what happened when the government hid under the table in the late 1930s and Hitler was allowed to carve swathes out of central Europe.
Resources for policing the world have always been limited. Some of a certain political persuasion were quick to lambast the UNSC for turning a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide, and yet leaping to the aid of Kuwait in 1991. Yet these same people are often slow to campaign for the increased defence spending necessary for more extensive military commitments in the main nations which provide UN peacekeeping and security forces.
It’s the unpredictable nature of the modern world geopolitics, though, which imbues the allocation of defence spending with a great deal of uncertainty. The SDSR may not have significantly affected combat operations by the Army in Afghanistan for the time being, but one cannot help but think that it might have been handy to have an aircraft carrier off which combat sorties might have been flown during the current Libyan debacle which, funnily enough, nobody predicted.
Centralisation and versatility are one thing, cutting to save as much money as possible without scaling down global ambitions is another entirely. On the flip side of the carrier debate, notice how little has been said or done in the shorter term about, for instance, British Forces in Germany: having battle tanks ready to roll into East Germany at short notice might have been essential fifty years ago at the height of the Cold War, but do we really need them out there now, along with all the local overseas allowance and other benefits paid to troops in Germany? A phased withdrawal of BFG is planned, but even in the ten years that takes an astonishing amount of money might be put to more central and versatile use.
Looking more generally at the place of defence spending within the overall budget, there are some sobering comparisons. The suspension of TA pay and training affecting 19,000 fully trained soldiers in October 2009 for six months would have saved about £20m – consider that alongside £3.2m in parliamentary expenses claimed by 650 MPs in November and December of 2010. Other figures which serve further to put defence cuts in perspective can be found, not least soldiers’ pay and in the past the quality and availability of equipment on operations.
It’s easy to blame the current government for the SDSR and its associated woes. But there is the small matter of the £38bn shortfall in the defence budget left by Labour to consider. As in many other areas, New Labour did a remarkably efficient job of damaging the armed forces. From Tony Blair (that paragon of modern-day liberalism) taking us into a woefully unplanned and illegal war in 2003, all the way to the 40,000-man drop in the trained strength of the TA during the New Labour years, the fun just didn’t stop.
A choice faces the government, and it faces us. Do we continue to fight around the world to defend the oppressed where possible and mandated, or do we allow the mantle of world power status to pass to developing countries like China and India? For me, the idea that such nations, with their poorer citizens and (even more) unrepresentative governments – not to mention ethnic and religious axes to grind and irredentist ambitions – might be the ones meting out justice is disturbing. Ultimately, it is the motto of the Army which best sums up the ethos of British forces and their determination to do the job. We are called upon to respect Britain’s soldiers and affirm our support: unfortunate budget cuts there may be, but we can always rely on our boys to ‘be the best’.