Britain’s strategic pause: lessons from an insecure and interventionist century

After 100 years of continuous war, can Britain learn the limits of military action to respond to shifting realities of insecurity? Continued investment in force projection and lack of commitment to genuine reflection on today's security challenges suggests it's not yet ready to let go of its militarist mindset.

Zoë Pelter
26 February 2014

The 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War has kick-started a period of national self-reflection for the British public and political establishment. The timing seems almost scripted: as the country prepares to look back at the tragic events of 100 years ago, so we prepare for the first incidence of peace in a century. Following final pull-out from Afghanistan later this year, the UK should cease to be engaged in combat operations anywhere in the world for the first time since 1914.

This “strategic pause”, as Ministry of Defence (MoD) insiders are calling it, comes on the heels of last summer’s controversial parliamentary vote against possible military intervention in Syria. Public and Parliament alike seem wearied by the diminishing returns of a "fight first, fix later" strategic approach. With national elections and scheduled reviews of defence and security strategies fast approaching, this national mood for reflection is an opportunity to reframe British thinking on national and international security – and get it right in 2015.

Limits of military action

The threats facing the UK today are a world away from those that instigated the First World War. A century on, a distinct lack of interstate war, the rise of global networks of terrorists and organised criminals, and the inability of many fragile states to respond to such challenges characterise an increasingly complex security landscape. There is also growing recognition of the role of a number of “non-traditional” drivers of global insecurity which act to multiply other threats. As with the localised devastation seen in the UK this winter, climate change is exacerbating economic, social and resource stresses. Thanks to the communications revolution, the world’s marginalised majority is suddenly and drastically aware of its inequality. Such risks highlight the increasing implausibility of military force being effective in tackling insecurity. What use are armies and navies in reducing the gap between elites and a disenfranchised underclass that is both local and global?  How can air forces address the myriad impacts of concentrated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?

As much as the global security landscape has changed, there remains an exceptional continuity in the British response to insecurity: a dogged, increasingly ineffective – and recently highly counter-productive – militarised approach. Given that, like World War I, the operation to dislodge the Taliban was originally intended to be “over by Christmas” in 2001, the war in Afghanistan is a case in point. The war has lasted 13 years, resulting in the deaths of 447 British troops, serious injury of thousands more, and costing the UK over £37bn, according to recent estimates from former Helmand adviser Frank Ledwidge.

Moreover, Ledwidge estimates that British troops in Helmand province have killed at least 500 non-combatants and the Costs of War project estimates that at least 16,725 Afghan civilians have been killed directly by the war’s violence, not including indirect deaths from reduced access to health care, malnutrition and lack of clean drinking water that have been exacerbated in the country’s war zones. For all these costs, military action has done little to decrease Taliban influence or stabilise Afghanistan. A recent review by CNA on behalf of the Pentagon’s policy directorate predicts a sharp post-withdrawal resurgence of Taliban influence and would require far more Afghan troops and police capacity than planned for.

Learning something from the Afghanistan and Iraq debacles, the UK has shifted towards a more streamlined version of the same interventionist thinking. This "no boots on the ground" approach, such as we saw in Libya (2011), also comes with unforeseen consequences. While NATO operations in Libya were deemed successful within the narrow definitions of the UN mandate, limited intervention there sowed the seeds of further intervention in Mali as weapons and fighters spread south, prompting the declaration of commitment by the prime minister, David Cameron, to the next “generational struggle” against Islamist terrorism.

A similar rhetoric of limited intervention was noticeable last summer during debates on possible military action in Syria, when the prime minister assured the British public that intended air strikes would be strictly “punitive”. Again, considerations of the potential ineffectiveness and future blowback of military action – on the people of Syria as well as the UK – took a back seat to the political visibility of military action as British agency.

Room to reflect?

There is a clear need for more nuanced approaches to tackle insecurity in the coming decades. The struggle against violent extremism, for example, requires approaches which seek to address the conditions that allow such ideologies and instability to thrive. However, the overarching message from British leaders is that we can expect more of the same. Earlier this month, the UK Government confirmed the upcoming purchase of fourteen F-35B Joint Strike Fighter jets, with a price tag of £2.5bn, in addition to new aircraft carriers costing at least £6.2bn. Neither system will be operational before 2019, almost a decade after the last British carriers were retired. Similarly, plans to renew the Trident nuclear deterrent with a like-for-like system will cost at least £25bn, with whole-life costs of replacement exceeding £100bn.

Decision is due in 2016. Such heavy budgetary weighting in defence spending towards nuclear deterrence and offensive force projection limit the country’s ability to assess strategic balance and diminish the opportunity to develop a wider range of security management options for the UK on the international stage. Investing over half a billion pounds on armed Reaper drones by 2015 predisposes the UK to this form of military action while the jury is still out on its legitimacy, ethics, legality and long term impact. The possibilities for constructive debate on alternatives to the current offensive defence approach are constrained by such massive forward commitments to next generation equipment that prioritises force projection.  

There is also uncertainty over the review of the National Security Strategy (NSS), which defines the threat environment that UK defence and security policy responds to through the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). Both documents are scheduled to be reviewed and updated following the May 2015 general election. While thinking on changes to the next SDSR is already underway, National Security Adviser Sir Kim Darroch indicated to the House of Commons on 11 September “no precise timetable” for the next NSS. On 30 January, Cameron told the parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy that the NSS review process – led by his Cabinet Office – was “now beginning” but implied that the SDSR was further advanced.

The 2010 NSS made a number of important observations about the changing nature of British security challenges – including climate change and the importance of conflict prevention – but these failed to translate into actionable policy prescriptions in the SDSR. This was in part the result of poor timing; while the SDSR should be a subsidiary document informed by the NSS, the documents were released a day apart in October 2010 after a rushed four month process.

If the UK is to engage in meaningful debate on approaching complex security challenges and subsequently turn that debate into relevant policy options, it must avoid the mistiming of 2010 and be open to dialogue with UK civil society and foreign partners on the nature of threats and opportunities. With uncertainty over the timing and scope of the NSS review it is difficult to see what room exists for UK to develop policies that genuinely reflect changes in international security.

Getting it right ahead of 2015

If British approaches are to respond effectively to changing security threats, the scheduled 2015 SDSR process will need to rebalance priorities, with a shift towards conflict prevention and provision of early and non-combat security support in fragile states. Progressive thinking in the current NSS and initiatives, such as the 2011 Building Stability Overseas Strategy, must now translate into a change of priorities in British security, including spending, decisions on deterrence and intervention.

The coinciding anniversary of the First World War and final withdrawal from Afghanistan may well provide a much overdue period of reflection on past lessons and future approaches to British security and defence. But if the UK is to learn the lessons of the past century – that unparalleled military interventionism cannot yield long term national nor global security – it must make 2014 a year of genuine consideration of the threats it faces in the next years. In turn, committing to an open process of reflection will allow the decisions of 2015-16 to positively contribute to sustainable peace and security for years to come.

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