Statement on the Defence Estimates: Britain’s Defence for the Nineties 
HMSO, 157 pp., £8, July 1991, 0 10 115592 1Show More
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This is the much heralded first post-Cold War White Paper, which has been eagerly awaited for two years. Last year, after the revolutions in Eastern Europe, it was hoped that the end of the Cold War would enable Western countries to reduce their defence efforts drastically. Tories like George Walden, in a celebrated speech to Chatham House (published in the London Review of Books), suggested that Britain’s international position had been ‘artificially inflated’ by the Cold War and that Britain would ‘be forced to spend less time basking on summit slopes’. Alan Clarke was appointed by Mrs Thatcher to be Minister of Defence Procurement and was reportedly pushing for dramatic changes m Britain’s defence, including the abandonment of Britain’s European role (which accounts for a major chunk of the defence budget) and a focus on Britain’s post-imperial role, ‘out-of-area’ (i.e. Third World) intervention capabilities and nuclear weapons. The aim was to release a substantial peace dividend in time for the next election.

The result of this debate was ‘Options for Change’, which was announced by the Secretary of Defence, Tom King, last July. He envisaged a 20 per cent cut in military manpower, including a halving of the British Army of the Rhine. The precise details of how these cuts were to be implemented were to be worked out later. Eight days after ‘Options for Change’ was announced, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The Gulf War seemed to reaffirm the importance of defence, Britain’s international role, and the need for advanced military technology.

The White Paper preserves the cuts announced in ‘Options for Change’, but it also preserves a traditional geopolitical framework. The Secretary of Defence refers in his Introduction to the ‘momentous’ changes that have taken place in Europe, and the White Paper also makes clear that the Soviet Union is no longer capable of mounting a large-scale offensive or surprise attack on Western Europe. Nevertheless, the overall impression provided by the White Paper is business as usual (with a lot of emphasis on ‘business’, since the presentation is very much enterprise-style public relations). The Secretary of State says that we have to respond to changes in Eastern Europe in a ‘careful and prudent’ way. The cuts are to be achieved through greater emphasis on ‘flexibility’ and ‘mobility’ and the ‘continuing pursuit of value for money’.

Britain is to retain all five of its military roles. Other European Nato countries have two or at most three military roles. Britain’s are to be as follows.

1. Britain’s independent nuclear forces. Despite the problems and cost of the Trident programme, and the difficulties in keeping even one ageing Polaris at sea, Britain is to go ahead with the purchase of four Trident submarines. Britain will also retain a long-range bombing capability – although this will be reduced – as well as shorter-range nuclear weapons delivered by helicopters, and other aircraft, short-range missiles and artillery.

2. Defence the UK Home Base. As a share of overall spending this has increased to 20 per cent of total defence commitment (it used to be around 10 per cent).

3. Britain’s contribution to the defence of the ‘European mainland’. The British Army of the Rhine is to be reduced from 55,000 to 23,000 and similar reductions are to take place in RAF Germany, including the closure of two bases. Major equipment programmes are to be continued. The Army will get a new tank, Challenger 2, though in smaller numbers than previously planned, and the multi-billion-pound European Fighter Aircraft project will go ahead. Moreover, Britain’s role in political terms is to be increased. In May 1991, Nato’s Defence Planning Committee announced its new force structure, with emphasis on reaction forces ‘available at short notice to provide an early military response to a crisis and, if necessary to contribute to defence’, and on multinationality – integrated military units from several different countries, designed to be the ‘visible symbols of Nato’s cohesion, solidarity and interdependence, and of the willingness and ability of the countries concerned, at a time when national force levels are being reduced, to take collective action’. A key element of this new emphasis is the new multinational Rapid Reaction Corps, which Britain will command, since the US is partially withdrawing, France does not want to be involved, and a German command might arouse too many anxieties. Essentially, then, Britain is taking over some of the United States’s functions. It is interesting to note the use of the term ‘European mainland’. It replaces the previous terms ‘Europe’ or ‘the Continent’, and is supposed to indicate that we are part of Europe. Nevertheless, the term still preserves an element of transatlantic distance.

4. Defence of the Eastern Atlantic and Channel area. Britain is to retain its maritime role in Nato, which is to keep Eastern Atlantic sealanes clear of submarines in order to protect North American reinforcements in case of war in Europe. For this purpose, Britain will retain three aircraft-carriers, although numbers of surface ships and submarines are to be cut. These large ships are very expensive and vulnerable and tie up a large number of surface ships and submarines in their defence. It is difficult to see what advantages they confer in anti-submarine warfare. The main role of carriers is intervention in parts of the world that are out of reach of friendly land-based air-bases. Ministers of Defence have tried to phase out carriers ever since the abandonment of an East of Suez role in the Sixties. The last such attempt was made by John Nott just before the Falklands War.

5. Out-of-area capabilities. The White Paper emphasises the need to retain a ‘national capability to deal with contingencies outside the Nato area’, such as the Gulf War. It describes the deployment of troops in the Falklands, Belize, Hong Kong and Cyprus, and the extensive military assistance programme to some 28 governments in the Third World. (Northern Ireland is treated as a ‘peacetime operation’ of the Armed Forces along with disaster relief, search and rescue, and bomb disposal.)

In other words, British defence roles hardly seem to have changed at all. On the contrary, Britain’s traditional roles seem to have been revived. The White Paper stresses that Nato remains the ‘essential framework for safeguarding the freedom and security of its members’, and that it is crucial to retain a North American presence in Europe. While welcoming greater European co-operation on defence, the White Paper is opposed to a defence structure for the European Community and therefore commends the Western European Union, which is regarded as the European branch of Nato. By taking command of the Rapid Reaction Corps, Britain is back as America’s number two, providing a continuing transatlantic link. In addition to Nato, the White Paper emphasises the national post-imperial role, with its insistence on retaining independent nuclear weapons, aircraft-carriers, and the importance accorded to national ‘out-of-area’ capabilities.

All that seems to have changed are the resources available to carry out these roles. The cuts are substantial. Although defence spending will rise next year in real terms owing to the cost of the Gulf War, military spending is expected to fall by the mid-Nineties to below 4 per cent of GNP. This is considerably lower than the heyday of the Thatcher years (5.1 per cent in 1984-5), but still high in comparison to other European countries or to previous peace time periods. It is very difficult to see how the cuts can be sustained without abandoning any military roles. A particular problem arises from the commitment to new generations of weapon systems which are to be ordered in small numbers. Either there will be pressure to increase defence spending again, which would impose a considerable burden on the British economy, or there will have to be a re-examination of Britain’s military posture and its underlying political assumptions.

What is striking about the White Paper is the total absence of any political or strategic discussion. The case for preserving Britain’s defence roles is simply assumed. The White Paper probably offers more detailed information about Britain’s Armed Forces and their weapons, about basing and about the use of financial and technological resources, than has been forthcoming ever before. But there is no analysis of the new international context, the objectives of defence policy or the situations in which force is likely to be used. The threats, now known as ‘risks’, to Britain are outlined in paragraph 306. They are the residual threat from the Soviet Union, which is an ‘unstable superpower’; ‘instability in Eastern Europe and elsewhere’: and ‘events outside Europe, including the proliferation of sophisticated and destructive weaponry’. There are two chapters about the Gulf War which include a wealth of detail about British military operations, the organisation of logistics and of medical support, the bravery of soldiers, the performance of such miraculous products of British technological ingenuity as the ‘Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator’ or the ‘Demountable Rack Off-Loading and Pick-Up System’. But one looks in vain for a discussion of the consequences of the British operations: the amount of destruction wrought by the bombing effort, the significance of the bombing effort for the overall objectives, the question of whether so many resources were really necessary. The Government merely says that there are no reliable estimates of Iraqi casualties.

This failure to examine objectives is shortsighted, and disturbing. The end of the Cold War really did open up an opportunity to reunite Eastern and Western Europe, and even to attempt to eliminate war in Europe. That opportunity is being missed. The re-affirmation of traditional assumptions about defence is a recipe for a new division of Europe between a rich insular West and a poor unstable East. If collective defence and multinationality are so important, why do they exclude Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union? Why is it important to have the United States and Canada in Europe and the Soviet Union out? Why is the Soviet Union still a threat? Presumably, it is because of that magic word ‘unstable’. But what is the best way of reducing the risk of ‘instability’ in the Soviet Union? By insisting on a fully-fledged market economy and aiming our defence posture against the Soviet Union? Or by integrating the Soviet Union in European institutions? It can be argued that our present policies have contributed to instability. The durability of Nato is one of the main arguments available to hardliners in the Soviet Union, to the centralisers and traditionalists. Whatever happens, the Soviet Union is likely to fall apart, but the conservatives can make that process more difficult and dangerous.

‘Instability’ in Eastern Europe and elsewhere is a problem, according to the White Paper, because crises might ‘spill over into Nato and jeopardise European peace’. In other words, Eastern Europe is not yet part of Europe. Crises in Eastern Europe are not our crises. They are external problems which have to be kept under control, if need be, with a British-commanded Rapid Reaction Corps.

The current war in Yugoslavia illustrates the point. It is commendable that Europeans are not taking sides as in previous Balkan crises, and that the European Community is sending peace missions. But peace-making involves much more than the odd outside mission. The European foreign ministers fly in, amidst much publicity, reach an agreement and fly out. The agreement falls apart within a few days. The risk is that Yugoslavia will become the site of a continuing conflict, of long-term, low-level violence, which the Western Europeans attempt to ‘manage’ through the occasional high-level peace mission and peace-keeping force. What is needed is the perception that the Yugoslav crisis can only be solved in the context of a unified Europe in which nations and borders matter less. Peace-making needs to involve long-term negotiation, large numbers of missions and observers, involving neighbouring countries such as Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania as well as Western European countries. There also need to be various forms of economic co-operation. This kind of effort could only be undertaken by an all-European organisation, such as the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), better-known as the Helsinki process, which encompasses all European countries including the Soviet Union. The CSCE hardly gets a mention in the White Paper.

The same kind of insularity is apparent in the White Paper’s brief reference to threats in the rest of the world, especially those emanating from proliferation. How does Britain’s defence policy protect us from these threats? Britain’s nuclear weapons are not a counter to nuclear weapons in the Third World: rather they are an example to be emulated. The decision to go ahead with major technological projects on the basis of a very small domestic market will greatly increase the pressure to export arms. Should we not be considering alternative ways of limiting proliferation?

There is little debate about these issues in Britain. Criticisms of the White Paper seem to be almost entirely parochial. The Labour Party has focused on defence job losses and the failure to introduce a policy of industrial conversion. The House of Commons Defence Committee, as well as the Labour and Liberal defence spokesmen, have criticised the decision-making procedures, which are said, probably correctly, to be Treasury-driven. The Parliamentary Committee on Defence Science and Technology, as well as the House of Commons Defence Committee, has expressed concern about the erosion of the defence industrial base and the risk that we might lose our ‘cutting edge’ in defence technology. There has been huge anxiety about the future of the regimental system; the Royal family is said to be especially worried. But no one has asked what we need the remaining 80 per cent of manpower, the whole range of new military projects, the new generation of nuclear weapons, for? Why should a not very rich offshore island in North-Western Europe, surrounded by sea and beyond that by friendly neighbouring regions, need to spend £24 billion pounds a year – more, as a percentage of GNP, than any other Western nation except the United States, Greece and Turkey – on preparations for war?

The Gulf War was a tragedy for the Kuwaitis, the Iraqis, the Kurds, and others in the Middle East. But it was also very sad for Europe. It stifled the post-Cold War discussion just as it was getting going.

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