Recent events in the Middle East have demonstrated how the Strategic Defence Review (SDR) is cutting the British military back to the barest of bare bones. In doing so, we risk losing our position as a leading world player, as befits a nation with a veto on the UN Security Council. Instead we are becoming a two-bit regional player, all diplomatic swagger but militarily impotent.
Amidst the criticism of the Government’s evacuation of British citizens from Egypt and Libya, one success story was the deployment of HMS Cumberland, a Royal Navy frigate, to Benghazi in February. Whilst other countries were having their military forces detained by the Gaddafi loyalists, HMS Cumberland steamed into port, rescued British and foreign nationals and then proceeded to deposit them in Malta, all in the space of an afternoon. But the only reason HMS Cumberland was in position to do this was thanks to the SDR, because she was “on her way back to the UK to be decommissioned” and happened to be passing Libya at the right time.
Shortly afterwards, on 28th February, David Cameron suggested implementing a no-fly zone, an idea since been supported by France, among others. Regardless of any zone’s legality, the only feasible way to enforce such a zone is from fighter planes launched from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. Fighter planes like the Harriers, whose last flight was in December, launched from aircraft carriers like HMS Ark Royal, decommissioned with ironic timing on 11th March.
With events in Libya, Cameron has attempted to establish an independent and influential British foreign policy voice. An independent foreign policy needs to recognise that the threat to a pacific existence does not come from national warfare; it comes from regional instability, currently occurring on Europe’s southern border. This policy requires the hard power of military force to reinforce soft diplomacy.
To deal with this, we need a military that has the ability to deploy anywhere in the world, from air, sea and land, quickly, effectively and independently, especially of the USA and Europe. Not so much independent of their consent or agreement, but independent of their military assistance. It is this independence which, by cutting back on key resources such as aircraft carriers, helicopters and fighter planes, as well as sheer manpower, the SDR removes. To balance financial restrictions, we need more innovative solutions to our defence quandary than the SDR. Solutions such as a greater use of reservists. Solutions such as streamlining our armed forces so that they are a coherent united force, each soldier, unit and hardware support another, rather than the current patchwork of tanks, fighter planes and submarines. Perhaps we should seek to emulate the US Marine Corps and their ability to fight as one unit in all arenas, rather than continue struggle to support three separate forces, shorn of resources, facing an uncertain future.
Alex Paul is a Lib Dem student and activist currently living in Edinburgh