To the extent that there is an open debate on British defence policy, it is centred on the arguments over whether Britain's Trident nuclear-weapons system should be replaced. The demonstration in London on Saturday 24 February 2007 will be the latest signal of public, political and some media concern.
Much less attention has been paid to another major, forthcoming military decision: whether to replace the Royal Navy's small Invincible-class aircraft carriers with two huge new aircraft-carriers. These 65,000-tonne vessels would be the largest warships ever to be deployed by Britain, and they would be equipped with the very expensive new American F-35 joint strike fighter (see "British sea power: a 21st-century question", 13 July 2006).
This combination of carriers and aircraft would give Britain the capability to fight alongside the United States in future wars. The widespread assumption is that the most likely region of any conflict will be the middle east, especially the Persian Gulf; as Britain's own oil reserves in the North Sea run down, the country will become progressively dependent on imported oil, and the Persian Gulf has well over 60% of the world's remaining resources.
The carriers themselves are not hugely expensive by modern warship standards (perhaps up to £4 billion), but the costs escalate massively with the likely price of the complex F-35s, as well as the running costs over thirty-years plus. Some tens of billions of pounds will be required, together with as much as £70 billion for the lifetime costs of the Trident replacement programme.
For about £100 billion, Britain will get a global expeditionary reach backed up by nuclear forces; this will help the country stay just within shouting distance of the Americans and thus serve to fulfil Tony Blair's desired legacy of hard power and a close, long-term working relationship with Washington.
One's clear, the other isn't
The final, official judgment about the two aircraft-carriers is likely to be taken in 2007, alongside the Trident replacement decision; but whereas the choice in favour of new generation of nuclear weapons seems preordained- demonstrations and other forms of protest notwithstanding - there has suddenly emerged a real uncertainty about the carriers.
This is potentially a significant political moment. If the carriers and a post-Trident nuclear system do go ahead, Britain will be very much stuck in the mould of a mini-United States, trying to punch above its weight and exercising "hard power" in the way Tony Blair emphasised in his "legacy" speech on defence on HMS Albion on 12 January (see "Tony Blair's long war", 18 January 2007). But if for any reason the carriers are cancelled, it could open the way to a major review of Britain's whole security posture.
The doubts about the carrier programme first emerged in the defence press in the United states in the third week of January, and they can be traced not to British but to French sources (see Pierre Tran, "French, U.K. Defense Chiefs to Discuss Carrier", Defense News, 22 January 2007 [subscription only]).
France currently has a single aircraft-carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, a nuclear-powered warship midway in size between the current British carriers and their planned replacements. The ship's numerous technical problems have led it to spend much of its service life in port; it is scheduled to go in for a long refit by 2014.
The French are keen to have a second carrier by that date, but have chosen not to build another ship of similar design to the Charles de Gaulle. A careful look at the British plans and a search for cooperation resulted in a deal that would at least bring some economies of scale: French buy-in to the design process, in exchange for committing about a third of the cost and (perhaps later) sharing some of the construction work.
An immediate concern for the French is that their version will launch aircraft from two ninety-metre-long steam catapults, whereas the two British carriers will use short take-off versions of the F-35. These steam catapults can only be purchased from the United States, and the French military needs to order them soon if it is to meet the 2014 deployment deadline.
Everything seemed to be going to plan until, in late January, doubts arose about London's intentions. The French apparently became aware of a view within the British government - possibly the treasury, headed by Tony Blair's probable successor as prime minister, Gordon Brown - that the whole scheme involving the two carriers and the F-35 aircraft purchase would prove both excessively costly and likely to channel the country's defence posture down a very narrow route.
In essence, the argument the French seem to have heard is that replacing Trident and building the carriers would starve much of the rest of the United Kingdom armed forces of a lot of the spending they wanted for years to come. Britain would end up being able to deploy one aircraft-carrier battle-group and one missile submarine at any one time. A somewhat cynical observer commented that Britain's once-mighty sea-power would be reduced to what would in essence be a two-ship navy.
Politicians and admirals
After the French concerns surfaced, the British minister for defence procurement, Peter (Lord) Drayson, quickly responded. He told the House of Lords that the government remained committed to the programme; at the same time, other sources made clear that no production contracts would be awarded until some major restructuring of the British naval shipbuilding industry had been completed.
There the matter might have rested - speculation spiced with some reassurance - until the leaking on 3 February of remarks made by the industry's coordinator for the project, Peter McIntosh. He was speaking - according to the respected journal Defense News - at a closed forum where "Britain's leading maritime industry executives and Ministry of Defence officials were discussing the future shape of the fleet", and is reported to have told the forum that if things weren't hurried up, he was in danger of being part of a project that would end up being the longest programme never to happen (see Andrew Chuter, "Executive Warns British Carriers May Be Cancelled", Defense News, 5 February 2007 [subscription only]).
If the carrier programme is indeed cancelled and perhaps replaced by much smaller ships like the Invincible-class carriers, or more flexible amphibious warfare ships like HMS Albion, then Britain's navy will have a very different future. What is interesting is that there are known to be some quite marked differences within the higher reaches of the Royal Navy.
By no means all the admirals want Britain to be tied to one major role, especially as the rest of the fleet is already being cut back in many other ways. Some argue for more versatility in the context of what they see as a highly uncertain world where (for example) the current United States emphasis on force projection and expeditionary warfare is running into such difficulties in the Persian Gulf.
What is really significant is the question of political timing. Some time in the next six months, Tony Blair will almost certainly be succeeded by his finance minister. While Gordon Brown is a convinced Atlanticist, his treasury background is likely to make him look very carefully at the carrier proposal, not least because his current department is in the process of conducting the spending review that will decide the broad limits of government spending, including defence, for the 2008/09 - 2010/11 period.
A space to think
The carriers may well not escape the axe. Moreover, Brown is thought likely to use his brief honeymoon period to withdraw the majority of British forces from southern Iraq. This will mean abandoning their activities in Basra and restricting the deployment to around 2,000-3,000 troops securing supply-lines from the coast towards Baghdad. A commitment to the US will therefore remain, but it will be at a very much lower level and will be a marker for a more cautious future for Anglo-American military cooperation.
The decision to cancel the carriers could open up the whole debate on Britain's defence policy, including even the role of nuclear weapons. Instead of a restricted outlook that sees matter purely in terms of defence of the realm, a review could embrace a much more global perspective, recognising that entirely new security thinking will be needed to face 21st-century challenges.
With worldwide socio-economic marginalisation and environmental constraints such as climate change likely to be the real global-security issues over the next decades, this key decision might just open up space for some fresh approaches to sustainable security (see "Britain's nuclear-weapons fix", 29 June 2006).
It may well be that the carrier decision is maintained: after all, the defence lobby in Britain is particularly strong and there is very big money in this project. Just possibly, though, it may go the other way. If it does, then it may provide the first opportunity in decades to promote radically new thinking on British approaches to global security.