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Britain, let’s talk about security

An inconclusive general election casts uncertainty over the shape of Britain’s next government. The issue of national security, amid conditions of severe financial constraint, will be high on the incoming administration’s agenda. But the political space for a fresh approach to the country’s defence needs is already narrowing.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
9 May 2010

The aftermath of Britain’s inconclusive general election on 6 May 2010 is dominated by intense political calculations about the character of the new government. The leaders of the two main opposition parties (Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) are negotiating over a possible governing arrangement; if these talks are unsuccessful, the governing Labour Party leader and prime minister, Gordon Brown, will himself try to make an agreement with the Lib Dems.

Whatever its political colour, there is widespread agreement that the incoming government must make a major review of defence policy one of its key tasks. The overstretch revealed by the British army’s corrosive campaign in Afghanistan already made this essential; the economic crisis of 2008-10 that accentuated Britain’s growing public-debt problems reinforced its urgency. An inevitable post-election financial squeeze on public spending will last until at least 2015, and there is tacit political agreement that defence spending too (which amounts to £43.6 billion [$64.5bn] in fiscal year 2010) will soon have to be seriously curtailed.

But the political uncertainty following the election may now complicate the process of defining what Britain’s defence priorities should be over the next generation, and how they can be funded in a period of severe monetary stringency. This matters even more when decisions have already been taken that could determine - and confine - the shape of Britain’s defence posture until the 2030s and even beyond (see "Britain's 21st-century defence", 15 February 2007). The very possibility of a different approach may soon be closed unless new decisions are made to keep it open.

The security agenda

This larger context has two main features. The first is that Britain’s ministry of defence cannot afford to maintain the country’s military posture on the current level of funding. In fact, senior military officers and civil servants acknowledge privately that the defence budget needs to be 10%-20% bigger (and nearer the latter figure) even to meet present needs - yet the certainty of defence-spending cuts as part of the effort to reduce Britain’s enormous public debt is likely to mean a 10% decrease.

The second feature is that on 3 February 2010, the Labour government published a document (known as a green paper) that outlined the country’s main defence-related issues in a way designed to set the context for a post-election review. On 15 January 2010, the opposition Conservative Party had released its own green paper outlining its approach to the defence of a “resilient nation”.

A central theme in both (though particularly in the Labour document) is that the world is entering a more fragile and uncertain era where climate change and the exclusion of millions of people from sustainable economic life are potential drivers of insecurity. Among the consequences could be greatly increased migratory pressures; political instability in the global south; more ungoverned space; and a marked trend towards radicalisation (see “After war, security”, 10 December 2009).

Such thinking is from a traditional military perspective still quite innovative, though in these and related prospectuses its expression remains limited and fundamentally “safe” (see "The politics of security: beyond militarism", 2 July 2009). The overall character of such official or establishment documents is to envisage an uncertain world in which Britain must have the kinds of military forces that will help keep it secure - whether on its own or (more likely) as part of alliances such as Nato.

What this thinking does not do is to analyse how the dangerous instability it identifies arises in the first place or understand how it can be prevented; It pays very little attention to, for example, low-carbon futures or socio-economic cooperation for sustainable development. These are the issues that should be at the core of a proper post-election security review (see "A world in need: the case for sustainable security", 10 September 2009). A huge obstacle to their being given the prominence they deserve, The chance of them moving to the centre of consideration, however, is made even harder by two exorbitant British defence projects now underway.

The national project

The first of these is the plan to replace the Trident submarine-based nuclear-missile force with a broadly similar system. The full, “lifetime” costs of a system based on four large new missile submarines are difficult to estimate; but with everything taken into account - including the Aldermaston nuclear-plant where the nuclear warheads are developed, which alone costs around £1 billion a year - it could amount to £70-100 billion. Moreover, much of this would be payable in the next few years.

If the result of the post-election impasse is the formation of a stable Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition - which at the time of writing looks unlikely if not impossible - there is a possibility of a substantial reduction in the size of the Trident plan. A more probable outcome, especially if a governing deal between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems is agreed and a second election (probably in autumn 2010) is held, is that any major decision on Trident would be postponed.

The second project (and much more indicative even than Trident replacement) is the building of two huge new aircraft-carriers - together with an extremely expensive programme to equip both them and the Royal Air Force with large numbers of the (United States-built) F-35 multi-role combat-aircraft. These, at 65,000 tonnes the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy, are exceeded in size only by the US navy's own nuclear-powered carriers. Once completed, they will give Britain’s armed forces a power-projection capability not possessed since the HMS Ark Royal - the last of the old fleet-carriers - was scrapped in 1978 (see "British sea power: a 21st-century question" [13 July 2006] and "Britain's 21st-century defence" [15 February 2007]).

The cost of maintaining the carriers and their aircraft will hugely constrain other military spending, and direct Britain’s defence spending very much into a “global-reach” posture. In this sense they represent a curious inability to overcome the notion of policing the world that animated Britain's outlook in its age of empire (see “Gordon Brown's white elephants”, 26 July 2007).

The inevitable consequence will be twofold: to constrain other defence programmes, and to establish a security role for Britain that very much prioritises maintenance of an old world order over tackling the urgent realities of climate change, rampant inequality, and human insecurity (see “Beyond ‘liddism’: towards real global security”, 1 April 2010).

The global consequence

The relevance of all of this to current political circumstances is that Britain needs a fundamental security review, for only on such a basis could the drastic spending cuts required over the next few years be implemented in a way consistent with a framework of clear priorities to meet these emerging security needs. In its absence, a narrower defence review is likely to result in haphazard cuts rather than ones based on a coherent analysis and thus likely to have a more effective result.

But the longer Britain evades the need for a deep review, the more difficult it becomes to cancel the carriers and the F-35. The fact that the construction of the first carrier has begun, albeit it is still at an early stage, accentuates the need for quick and decisive leadership based on clear understanding.

A thoroughgoing security review at this critical stage would suspend the plunge into an enormously costly force-projection impasse whose strategic logic is more appropriate to the 1960s than the 2010s-20s, and whose price is stratospheric. The cost of the F-35 alone has nearly doubled since 2002; the estimated current “fly-away” price of just one plane - and Britain plans to buy at least 130 - is $138 million (£94 million) and rising fast (see John Reed, “DoD Report Details Costs of F-35 Delays, Other Problems”, Defense News, 12 April 2010).

More generally, the carrier/F-35 programme is hugely indicative of “old thinking” - an attitude to defence that has simply not caught up with the emerging globalised and interconnected world of the 21st century. The implication is that the defence-review required would put far more emphasis on conflict-prevention rather than the fantasy of control (see (see Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century, Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010).

In this connection, it had seemed possible that the government formed after the British general election would be willing to undertake a full-scale reassessment of the United Kingdom’s security, which would include a hard look at the Trident-replacement and the carrier/F-35 programmes.

That may not now happen until at least 2011. The aircraft-carrier programme requires an immediate decision, even if one on Trident replacement is less urgent. The political dynamics in Britain after the election of 6 May 2010, in the context of a government whose authority in parliament will have to be carefully negotiated, make a change of course on the carrier project - even amid a financial crisis and tough spending choices - less than likely.

If the carriers are built to completion and the fighter-planes purchased, British defence policy will be channelled along a particular path that it will then long be obliged to walk, sail and fly. The potential to make a real difference over the acknowledged dangers of the coming decades would be closed for a generation. That is just one way in which immediate political decisions made in London in the exhausted aftermath of a national election may carry significant long-term global consequences.

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