Defence Policy and Foreign Policy

Strategy lies at the intersection of defence policy and foreign policy, where ideally the state aligns its military power with its relations and interests abroad.

So some brief thoughts about the British defence budget, now that its outline is becoming clearer: a slightly reduced Army being mostly protected due to its role on the frontline in Afghanistan; a reduced navy with aircraft carriers intact but with a reduced surface fleet and far fewer fast jets; and the RAF reduced but spared some of its Tornado squadrons.

The British Army is supposed to be mainly an expeditionary force. Therefore it needs a navy to deploy it. Should the navy be substantially reduced, this could be jeopardised. As my colleague Andrew Gordon argues, this has important implications for UK independence, confining British military power to coalition and the oversight of US permission. Any possibility of a ‘free hand’ diplomatically would be destroyed:

Britain’s Army and Navy have had a symbiotic relationship for centuries, and that the Army can go nowhere without permissive maritime conditions. The Army is both a benefit and a beneficiary of seapower, and has not fought a campaign since 1746 that did not depend on it (and, even then, Cumberland’s army was resupplied by coastal shipping). Every British regimental battle-honour contains the silent suffix ‘…and the Navy got us there’; and further reductions to Britain’s overstretched fleet may mean that the Army will soon find itself undeployable. The only way in which cutting the Fleet to save soldier-numbers would make sense is if all the British Army’s future errands were on the USA’s behalf. If that is the generals’ assumption, Parliament, the public and the Falkland islanders ought to be told now.

Carriers, which may be increasingly vulnerable to asymmetric methods to an unknown degree, also need surface ships to protect them. With fewer surface ships, and Britain’s  continued pursuit of ‘global’ military reach, the carriers could either be overstretched or too vulnerable as expensive assets to risk. Either way, the weapon (and symbol) is weakened.

So the defence and security review effectively puts the Army’s mission in Afghanistan and the symbolic prestige of the carriers ahead of diplomatic independence and the viability of the same aircraft carriers. This review has been criticised as a rushed ‘cost-cutting’ exercise, but there seems to be some kind of logic driving it, even if it is flawed: that prestige and credibility (having carriers, achieving a credible performance in the small war in Afghanistan, remaining a solid junior partner for the US) trumps independence and maritime self-sufficiency.

For my money, securing the sea lanes and air spaces so that Britons can eat, and being able to deploy the Army independently, is more important than impressing the US and more vital than the dubious prospect of countering terrorism by using the Army as a tool of social engineering. But for better or worse, the state seems to disagree. Coalitions, forward-leaning small wars and symbols of national prestige come first. And the cause to prioritise ‘the war’ has won out against ‘a war.’

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