Taking a break from his ideological assault on the welfare state, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne offers this original and subtle contribution to the debate over defence funding:
We are going to have a bunch of kit that makes us extremely well prepared to fight the Russians on the north German plain. That’s not a war we are likely to face.
First of all, we are not ‘extremely well prepared’ for a brawl with Russia in Europe. Post Cold War spending has seen to that. The British military is a small fraction of its former size. It is flat out sustaining a Battlegroup in Afghanistan, let alone a Brigade. And after Osborne savages the defence budget, Britain will hardly be able to project power at all.
But more fundamentally: should we only plan defence policy around what Osborne thinks is ‘likely’?
It wasn’t likely that Argentina would invade the Falklands in 1982. Or that Saddam Hussein would seize Kuwait in 1990. Or that Yugoslavia would quickly crumble in communal war soon afterwards. In 1910, the British Army was organised more for war in Afghanistan than in Western Europe against the Kaiserreich. History shows that remote contingencies happen.
Major war capability did not become obsolete with the end of the Cold War. The ‘north German plain’ symbol is the cliche and soundtrack of a dangerous complacency. Other states like China, India and Russia invest heavily in the kind of ‘kit’ that Osborne finds absurd. Russia recently fought a land war in Georgia, and puts its Blackjack bombers in British skies.
In fact, the dismissal of Russia as a has-been military power who went into history with the end of the Cold War is symptomatic of a complacency about power politics and major war, and we are still living with the consequences of our recent failure to take Russia seriously as a geopolitical heavyweight.
As for the defence contracts Mr Osborne dislikes, some of these relate to Gulf countries buying up expensive defence systems against a resurgent Iran. They haven’t written off major war capability either. Should the US become embroiled in a war somewhere between Israel and Iran, it could involve Britain in a conflict that is ‘unlikely.’ Not that this would be prudent, but the UK’s current position as a satellite of the American empire makes it possible.
‘Most likely’ is a more poor guide to how we should prepare ourselves. Our defence should not be organised like a betting game around perceived probabilities (and how does George Osborne know the future?). It should be aligned with our most vital national interests, even if they are unlikely to be threatened militarily. ‘Most likely’ must be balanced against ‘worst case.’
At this moment, what should be the most important defence debate in a generation, this is no time for amateur hour. For a Conservative Party that likes to identify itself with Britain’s status as a supposed serious power in the world, it is ironic that its money man is chopping its sinews while we speak.