23 Jan 14. Ahead of attending an all day seminar at the Royal Aeronautical Society I would like to draw your attention to what are, in my view, two of the most appalling articles with regard to UK defence that I have had the misfortune to read during my professional life. In the first, under the headline “Multicultural Britain rejecting foreign conflict, MOD admits” the often controversial left wing newspaper ‘The Guardian’ reveals that senior figures at the Ministry of Defence are openly saying that the department’s next two strategic defence reviews will be strongly influenced by the British public’s growing reluctance to see British troops deployed abroad. It is thought, the article goes on to suggest, “that the UK’s increasingly multicultural make-up is resulting in a general public that does not want British soldiers fighting in countries from which UK citizens or their families originate”.
This part of the story is quite true and, as I mention further down, the article is presumably built around comments made by the Secretary of State for Defence himself to a hearing of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee in October last year. However whilst there may be a more prevalent attitude of ‘war weariness’ among the voting public, a fact that cannot be ignored (even if it should be challenged by better education of why a robust defence posture is important to all of us), it should not be seen as a licence for those charged with the responsibility of our military capability, and the vital role that we play in NATO, to play to the left wing tune of others. I will return to this matter further down and will repeat the arguments that I laid out in my UK Defence (17) piece last October; a direct response to the evidence that Philip Hammond gave.
In the second article to which I refer today – entitled “International Relations: 70 years of foreign troops? We should close our bases” – Seumas Milne argues in the same edition of the Guardian that; “it is time US military bases in the UK are closed down”. He suggest that “having arrived at the height of the Second World War, 70 years on almost 10,000 US military personnel remain stationed in Britain, but rather than defending the country from foreign invaders, their presence keeps Britain locked into a damaging military partnership with the US”. What appalling claptrap this is.
The US military are not in this country to defend us; instead they play a superlative role in defending our NATO allies. To suggest that the presence of US military here locks Britain into a damaging military partnership is to ignore what NATO is for. And just what is NATO? The most successful strategic defence alliance in history and one that has played a pivotal role in defending Europe against the threat of aggression since it was founded after the end of the second-world-war. NATO may not be perfect, as it found out itself in recent as it became overstretched in various campaigns (such as Afghanistan and Libya) whilst simultaneously trying to push through its ‘smart defence’ initiative in order to coordinate the defence activities of its member states, but it remains a very necessary and potent force.
America’s presence on our shores, and the huge role that it still plays in the defence of Europe, sends an important sign to any potential enemy. Those so-called enemies may not be as visible today, as they were during the ‘cold war’ period, but there are enough historical lessons to know that previous policies of neglect regarding European defence have only ever ended in ignominy. As America disengages itself from some areas of the world where its presence has been taken for granted, we should encourage rather than dissuade our principle allies of the importance of NATO.
That NATO is bound to be less dominated by US involvement in the years ahead is taken for granted and with US attention increasingly moving toward Far East there can be no doubt that both NATO and Europe need to get their act together. While today there may be far less of a conventional ground threat to Europe there will, as seen recently in Mali, be an increasing need for individual European forces and NATO to play a larger part in providing; security force assistance, policing, and foreign internal defence missions to Africa. The US may, as it proved in Libya, be seeking to play a less dominant role in Europe and the Middle East but its role in NATO will not evaporate. That the US has chosen to retain its bases in the UK provides reassurance that it is not about to abandon its NATO responsibilities here. It provides stability and sends the right message; active deterrence most often allows peace and stability to walk hand in hand. This does not alter the need for Europe, over the next few years, to forge ahead toward a greater degree of defence self reliance as it emerges from the current round of forced capability and expenditure cuts. The Anglo/French accord on which we will hear more during the next few weeks is but one example of two NATO countries seeking to work more closely together – just as real allies should. Even so, this is not to be seen as an excuse for major countries such as France and the UK to make even greater cuts in defence capability. The bottom line is that if you believe defence remains of vital importance, if you believe and understand how important NATO is, then you will also realise just how important it is to retain an American military presence on our shores.
Back now, as promised, to the ‘Multicultural Britain rejecting Foreign Conflict’ article.
It is of course absolutely true that the Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond said in evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee last October that the; “public appetite for expeditionary warfare is pretty low and that based on the experience of ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan it would be realistic to say that I would not expect, except in the most extreme circumstances, a manifestation of great appetite for plunging [our military] into a prolonged period of expeditionary warfare any time soon”. Mr. Hammond went on to say that it would take several years before politicians and military leaders could start to rebuild public support for military operations abroad although he accepted that unexpected events can quickly transform public opinion. Clearly these words, and its theme, are now being sounded off by others in the MOD if the Guardian is to be believed. How regrettable and how dangerous it is and what sort of message does it send to our would-be enemies.
The sceptic could be easily tempted to argue that with early work now being done to formulate proposals that will eventually constitute SDSR 2015 Mr. Hammond is being rather fleet of foot by choosing to use the ‘get out of jail free card’. How so? Simply that it might allow him to support further cuts in our armed forces and actually get away with it. More likely on this occasion he is in fact being rather more open and honest by suggesting that if whoever is in charge of the next government fails to fund the defence budget based on, at least, the existing amount big structural cuts lie ahead.
As with many others politicians what you see in Mr. Hammond is not always what you get. His previous remarks in evidence to the Defence Select Committee suggesting that; “the rise in powers such as China means that Britain’s economic future depends on a willingness to defend western values of democracy and the rule of law mean that we are a nation far more dependent than others on an open global trading system, the survival of which is not a given” was a side of this particular Secretary of State rarely heard or seen. It would be churlish to argue against the notion that voters are, following a long period of involvement in the wars of others, not ‘war weary’. Nobody wants war and it would be ridiculous to believe otherwise. History shows that while there have been long periods when the world has seemingly been at peace with itself a war is almost always being fought out somewhere. Europe has thankfully been at peace with itself for the best part of seventy years and NATO has provided us not only with knowledge that those within its membership will act together against the threat of aggression but it has also provided the very foundation of peace and stability since 1949.
I can also observe with experience that Britain went into campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan because the Government that we had elected at the time believed it was right and proper to do so. No matter what has transpired since in terms of perceived knowledge or evidence, we intervened because the government of the day genuinely believed it was right to do so.
We did the same almost one hundred years ago during the Great War, not because we ourselves were immediately threatened, but because those that we regarded as our allies and friends such as Belgium and France were themselves threatened. We did so again in 1939 when Poland was invaded and when once again our close allies such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway were equally threatened. Would we do so again or are we now saying to the rest of the world that we are war weary and that we no longer have the courage of our convictions to support freedom? What message does this send to Argentina, or to other countries that might see us through statements such as these as preparing to take ourselves further away from the geopolitics? I hope we would always be prepared to support what we believe in and to protect the freedoms of others just as we clearly will our own hard earned freedoms and culture.
Whether you choose to believe war is inevitable is probably not the issue here; I do not like to see statements of perceived war weariness. This last point would have been just as true had it been made in 1918 and again in 1945 not to mention after the twenty or so other conflicts that British forces have been involved since the end of the Second World War. A good government does not prepare for war, but it should prepare for the threat of war. By maintaining a strong military with excellent all round capability a good government is able to demonstrate a strong conventional deterrent and, in doing so, sound a message of warning to a potential aggressor.
Who knows what and where the next conflict that we might be involved in will be? I certainly don’t and it is perfectly true and responsible to say that our ability to analyse potential geo-political events remains as difficult today as it was a hundred years ago. But that does not mean that we cannot be prepared. That does not mean that we should not learn from past mistakes when we have found ourselves inadequately equipped. There are a great many still alive today that can remember just how ill equipped we were back in 1939; although I venture to suggest none today would remember how ill equipped our Army, and particularly our Navy, was to face the same aggressor in 1914.
Let me conclude by saying that it is absolutely wrong in my view for a Secretary of State to say, or even imply, that there will be no military operations any time soon and that our armed forces will not be involved in foreign deployment for many years. The point is that we just don’t know; such a stance sends an inappropriate message to our armed forces, our allies and -worst of all – our potential adversaries.
Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS,
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.