The coalition government of centre-right Conservatives and more centre-left Liberal Democrats that emerged from Britain’s general election on 6 May 2010 soon pledged itself both to severe cuts in public expenditure and a major review of the country’s defence posture. Now, four months after the election, both issues are colliding with a vengeance.
The outcome of the “strategic defence and security review”, announced by the ministry of defence in July 2009 and now well underway, promises to be very painful for the country’s armed forces. But how does the immediate political concern with money-saving relate to the larger security questions that are at stake in considering Britain’s long-term future as a country and as part of a global community?
Before the election, both the then Labour government and the Conservative Party sought to address the United Kingdom's long-term security concerns in respective “green papers”; each document reflected current thinking by addressing climate change and related issues. Labour’s paper went further in its global analysis (see "Britain, let's talk about security", 9 May 2010); but there was a shared acceptance that the world was entering a more fragile and uncertain era where global warming and the exclusion of many millions of people from sustainable economic life were becoming drivers of insecurity (see "A world on the margin", 20 May 2010).
The conclusion drawn from this welcome awareness, however, was that keeping Britain secure in such circumstances could best be guaranteed by consolidated military projects (and sustaining alliances such as Nato); a real focus on preventing or containing the problems in the first place was absent.
A turf war
The post-election environment creates new challenges for the architects and service-personnel of British defence policy. The predicament the defence ministry faces is accentuated by the fact that it already, even before the proposed reductions, faces serious economic constraints. The huge cost overruns in existing projects, such as the Nimrod MR4A maritime-reconnaissance plane and the new Astute-class of nuclear-attack submarines, contribute to a shortfall estimated at £32 billion. This cannot be met from current budgets.
There are further expensive current commitments. The Trident nuclear-missile replacement programme will consume up to £100 billion over a forty-year-plus lifespan, much of which comes early in its life; it frontloaded, the two huge new aircraft-carriers and their planes will cost more than £15 billion; the renewal of military-transport aircraft and the replacement of huge amounts of equipment worn out by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will also require billions.
The three branches of the armed forces have become intent on fighting for their own interests. The army persistently highlights the financial and personal costs of fighting in Afghanistan, and works hard to maintain the popular profile of its soldiers even amid persistent doubts over and criticism of the war itself.
The Royal Air Force for its part highlights the occasional forays by Russian long-range aircraft close to United Kingdom airspace, in the process raising cold-war echoes and memories (notwithstanding Russia is far less potent than the intensely militarised Soviet Union). The Royal Navy, meanwhile, emphasises a Russian Akula-class boat’s tracking of Trident missile submarines (though again, the Russian navy has barely a handful of boats with such a capacity). So far there is in London none of the “yellow-peril” talk of Chinese military expansionism that plays so well in Washington, but that will doubtless come.
An equal misery
The services’ concerns, amplified as they may be for protective purposes, are exacerbated by a report from the lower house of parliament’s cross-party defence select committee, which says that the defence review is being rushed. They are also articulated in the context of an exceptionally powerful and well-organised lobby representing the defence (military equipment and weapons) industry, which has serious worries about future profits.
At the same time, the new coalition government - at least its dominant Conservative element - remains absolutely committed to implementing sharp overall spending cuts, and to doing so quickly. The axe-wielding instinct here reflects an ideological affinity with the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership (1979-90), creating palpable unease among the government’s Liberal Democrat junior coalition partners. LibDem activists away from Westminster in particular are increasingly dismayed at their leadership’s acceptance of the Conservative agenda, and fear serious losses in local elections in spring 2011.
The Conservatives’ determination to cut broadly and deeply suggests that the defence review really is driven by financial concerns rather than strategic thinking. The probability is that the defence review will recommend a series of cuts across the armed forces as a whole - a sort of “equal misery” approach. This could involve substantial project-cancellations, including one or even both of the aircraft-carriers. But the savings involved will not be combined with a genuine rethink of fundamentals. In that case, the hope for a different kind of analysis of Britain's long-term security challenges - forensic, integrated and radical rather than driven by ideological fixation and political calculation - will not be met.
A cathartic moment
A question then arises about the influence of the idea of “sustainable security”. Will the urgent need for a rapid transition to a low-carbon and a more equitable global economy as a fundamental matter of security be dismissed or just ignored? (see The Great Transition, New Economics Foundation, 19 October 2009).
In the short-term the answer is probably “yes”, meaning that another great opportunity for new thinking will be missed. But in the medium term, this may change. For major cuts of Britain’s armed forces, amid the effort to maintain around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, will explode the pretense that Britain can play at being a mini-superpower. The need for a fundamental rethink will become unavoidable. Therein lies the opportunity for a proper, realistic assessment of the challenges that face the country - with sustainable security at its heart (see "A world in need: the case for sustainable security", 10 September 2009)
Britain's comforting attachment to past glories will still get in the way - and will need to be countered by an ability to adapt quickly and with imagination. But in this fluid and pressured situation for the country and its armed forces, the very shock of sharp cuts may be the catharsis that makes serious new thinking possible.