What’s it all for?

Mary Kaldor

  • Statement on the Defence Estimates: Britain’s Defence for the Nineties
    HMSO, 157 pp, £8.00, July 1991, ISBN 0 10 115592 1

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).

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