Opinion: our growing military impotency is restricting our foreign policy

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

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28 Comments

  • It is true that we are no longer the military power we once were in terms of numbers “kit” wise but the UK still has probably the finest sailors, soldiers and airmen to be found anywhere in the world. In terms of humour whilst on active duty we are the worlds “superpower” still, I am proud to say…

    Anyone who has served in any branch of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces will remember (whatever period of British military history studied) that “our kit” has always been rubbish, late or both. The fact that your average serviceman still usually performs and completes the task required is testament to the quality of personnel and of course training.

    The problem for UK forces is procurement. The amount of tax payers money that has been wasted is a national scandal (and disgrace). Kit has always been the problem and always will be until someone/thing gets a grip.

    Part of the scandal of procurement is that defence spending is a UK job creation scheme so is also a political conundrum. Living on the Fylde coast we have two large military aircraft plants that employ thousands of people so buying cheaper foreign aircraft that may be more “serviceable” is the elephant in the room.

    The Harriers are wonderful aircraft but buggers to maintain (and fly) and to think that they would be any good against more modern fast jets is asking rather too much of the pilot. The Harrier (as a design concept) is now older than I am and I am the wrong side of 40. It was time for the type to take a bow and believe me I loved the plane but it was designed for the Cold War and for ground attack/ support not NFZs over Libya. What the Harrier achieved in the Falklands was down to training in the main and also due to the unique flying ability of the VSTOL type (Viffing) that was unknown to the Argentinian A4 pilots.

    As we experienced (with tragic losses in men and ships) during the Falklands Campaign, carriers and other ships are vulnerable to attack unless protected by a battle group, which is how the Americans do it. We have never had this luxury since the end of WWII and never will. The best and only way for us Brits/French/Italians etc to do NFZs is from airfields I have yet to see anyone sink a continent or indeed an island.

    Does military action solve anything? Not easy to answer in a short paragraph but I am sure that all Gadaffi and his sons would listen to or understand ultimately is a good smack in the mouth.

  • Hi everyone and thanks for your comments. As the author of this piece, I’ll try and respond to all the points raised in the comments!

    Jon – As pointed out by jedibeeftrix, we are hardly a second tier regional player, and indeed no government has ever tried to recast us as that. My point was that if we want to be that fine, but we are not acting like that. What I meant was that if Cameron wants to go around calling for no-fly zones and military action, we should have the military ability to back this up, otherwise our international profile is going to take a hammering. If we want to behave like an important international player, then we need the resources to do so and the SDR, in my opinion, is in danger of preventing this. I’m all for co-operative international action as you suggest, but we cannot expect to be taken seriously as part of this unless we can contribute our fair share.

    Geoffrey – I totally agree with you, I think Trident should be scrapped tomorrow. I’m not saying we should not cut our military at the expense of welfare payments, I think we should reconsider how we cut our military, and consider a radical reconfiguring of the military – do we need Trident? Do we need hundreds of Challenger tanks? Or do we need helicopters, an aircraft carrier and aircraft to fly off it and the rest? Should we increase funding and the role of special forces, such as SAS and Marines? As Andy says, all the SDR did was slice and dice our military, and I’ve tried to suggest that this is a bad idea, and that there are alternatives. And the arms trade is another matter entirely, but I am sympathetic to the view you express.

    Jedibeeftrix – This article was not meant merely as a diatribe against cuts as I do think some of cuts are necessary (whilst some are ill-thought out, such as EMA) but more of a consideration of how we cut, and the damage I think is being done to our military and our international profile by the way in which the SDR has cut the military. I accept that they need to take their burden, but all the SDR has done is salami slice, it hasn’t, in my opinion, produced the kind of force you talk about. I will be interested to see how British aircraft are going to participate in any enforcement of a no-fly zone, I can only imagine it will be from Cyprus using air tankers.

    bhainart – I couldn’t agree with you more about procurement – The Times conducted an investigation late last year and if half of what they’ve reported was true its shocking – every programme overspent and delayed. The Chinook debacle of the last decade just epitomizes that.

    Obviously since my article was written, events have moved on at pace and, according to Cameron in the Commons today British troops will be participating in the enforcement of any no-fly zone, crucially perhaps with US support. Personally, I will be very interested to see logistically how we manage to do that without any aircraft carriers, the only options I can see are sharing a carrier with France or using bases in a neighbouring Arab country (highly unlikely) or flying out of Cyprus with air tankers. But I feel that the military is still being stretched too thin, and if this is the role that we want for them in the future, then it is a role that will be compromised for the next decade by the outcome of the SDR. What I’ve tried to say throughout is Britain needs to decide on what role we want for our military – and then cut accordingly. Currently, we’re trying to keep all roles and having the materiel to fulfil none.

  • We have been here before -Anglo Americian interference in Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq. Now another invasion/interference in an independent country. I presume Britain and America will be doing the same in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. What about the treatment in Zimbabwe by Mugabe against his own people; in Burma; in Tibet – tof course there is no oil interests there and Britain and America are pals with the Sauds and Bahrain. More gross hypocrisy.
    Liberals do not believe in interference in the affairs of other independent countries – such imperialism and colonialism should be a thing of the past – have we learned nothing from the Iraq and Afghan debacles!
    What is happening in Libya is no threat to us and nothing to do with us – hands off Libya.
    A no fly zone will soon lead to bombing of innocent people in Libya and then troops. We are virtually bankrupt (or that is what we are told?) but now we seem to be able to waste millions on the bombing, invasion and no doubt occupation of an independent country – hands off!!

  • Andrew Suffield 18th Mar '11 - 7:24pm

    It is both unrealistic and unnecessary for the UK to have its own military which is capable of doing all this stuff across the world.

    It is both obvious and necessary that at least some of this stuff needs to be done across the world, and that we should assist where possible.

    It is not particularly difficult to conclude that we should make arrangements with allied nations for a focus on joint operations in future, and then none of us needs to maintain an oversized military.

  • bhainart wrote
    “Anyone who has served in any branch of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces will remember (whatever period of British military history studied) that “our kit” has always been rubbish”

    So true lol

    “In terms of humour whilst on active duty we are the worlds “superpower””

    true again, but most of that humour couldn’t be repeated in polite society ;-)

  • @jedibeeftrix

    “Please correct me if i am wrong, but a battlegroup at a minimum would require two air-defence destroyers, three anti-submarine frigates, in addition to a brace of RFA refueling and replenishment ships.

    How is this out of our reach given that even with the cuts the navy will end up with a 2020 force structure of:
    2x carriers
    6x T45
    12x T26

    It all looks very achievable to me, and a much more appropriate vehicle for British Foreign Policy than following the yanks into decade long counter-insurgency wars in far-flung dusty hell-holes………”

    True. but we haven’t got these assets yet. Your predictions are based on projections nearly ten years into the future. If we had had this conversation nearly ten years ago your assumptions on predicted UK capabilities would now be wrong…food for thought! Given the poor performance of defence procurement (to,put it mildly) your figures matter not a jot. 2020 eh, more like 2030 (and more delays) if previous experience in procurement is anything to go by.

    The 2x carriers sound impressive but does that take into account the fact that currently we don’t have the aircraft (right sort) for these carriers.

    When I talk of capabilities I mean realistic ones that could be called upon now (or made ready within a few weeks) not in years time…..

  • Not only is the British Empire no more but the U.S. hegemony is fast disappearing so it’s time to stop being America’s poodle in foreign policy.

    It looks like Iraq and Afghanistan have taught some people nothing.
    We aren’t seen as a strong independent force for good in the world, we are seen as the armed junior partner of the U.S. always ready to do it’s bidding.

    Not only did the U.K. being third largest spender on defence prove utterly futile for Iraq and Afghanistan it proved just as useless for the U.S. who spend more than double in defence than the entire European Union combined.

    It’s time to wake up and admit the world’s problems won’t be solved by spending ever more money we can’t afford on breathtakingly expensive war machines like Trident or Stealth Bombers.

  • Gareth Jones 19th Mar '11 - 10:38am

    At the core of this debate is our Grand Strategy or lack of one. What do we want our “place” in the world to be? Do we want to have a global role, and if we do will it have independent means or only in partnership with others (EU, US, or both)?

    Once we decide what our role should be then we need to fully fund our military (and FCO, DfID, etc) to achieve that role.

    Now, there are ways we can achieve this for less, ensuring value for money and sorting out procurement, but in the end we need to put our money where our mouth is.

  • @John Basil – “it’s time to stop being America’s poodle in foreign policy.”

    I do so agree with what John has said and other posters who have asked “Have none of us learned the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan?

    When the No Fly Zone was mooted last week I posted up a long comment – please go and read it -http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-its-time-for-a-nofly-zone-23443.html

    I won’t rehearse all the arguments, it has been done so many times. but for goodness’ sake, when are our Lib Dem ministers in Government going to put the brakes on the excesses of Cameron and his right-wing buddies. Whatever he “seems” to have said, it has been in his mind all along – “let’s all follow the US and Obama into yet another Middle East war” – I am so angry I am speechless – there are other ways in which we may support the beleaguered people of Libya and give them humanitarian aid without going in all “gung-ho” and bombing the living daylights out of everything and everyone! I despair – we seem to be at the mercy of a load of war-mongers at the one end and wimps at the other! I’m not happy at all! Our Armed Forces are well overstretched already without putting further burdens upon them, their families and the taxpayer. Some of what “bhainart” has said about procurement is so very true – it comes to a poor pass when troops have to buy their own desert gear, boots etc. – the MoD resources have not served our Forces well at all over the last 20 years.

  • Stephen Donnelly 19th Mar '11 - 6:17pm

    ‘Our growing military impotency is restricting our foreign policy’ Excellent news for most Liberals.

  • So Stephen you think you most Liberals are happy to sit and watch a dictator killing innocent citizens? If thats the case, you have a very skewed definition of “Liberals”.

  • @aAex Paul
    ‘So Stephen you think you most Liberals are happy to sit and watch a dictator killing innocent citizens? If thats the case, you have a very skewed definition of “Liberals”.’

    But it is OK for this government of which Lib Dems are part to kill the innocent civilians? Do you think they will not die by our forces? Remember Iraq war that the Lib Dems were against and the many thousands of ‘innocent civilian’ deaths and casualties? Yet here we go again on regime change because that is what it is really about. I honestly believe that you would have voted for the Iraq war if you had been in a coalition then. When is Britain going into Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia and if not why not? How hypocritical this government and others are!
    In the words of Bob Dylan

    The eastern world it tis explodin’,
    violence flarin’, bullets loadin’,
    you’re old enough to kill but not for votin’,
    you don’t believe in war, what’s that gun you’re totin’,
    and even the Jordan river has bodies floatin’,
    but you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
    ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

  • “most Liberals are happy to sit and watch a dictator killing innocent citizens”

    I remember Blair and his New Labour toadies attacking Charles Kennedy in the commons with the exact same words over Iraq.

  • Quite right Anne:

    ‘But it is OK for this government of which Lib Dems are part to kill the innocent civilians? Do you think they will not die by our forces? Remember Iraq war that the Lib Dems were against and the many thousands of ‘innocent civilian’ deaths and casualties? Yet here we go again on regime change because that is what it is really about. I honestly believe that you would have voted for the Iraq war if you had been in a coalition then. When is Britain going into Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia and if not why not? How hypocritical this government and others are!’

    Reading the message boards on the BBC it would apprear that most people are opposed to this ‘invasion’ which is exactly what it is of course in every way. Bombing followed by the inevitable ground offensive; and then of course more innocent lives lost.

    What also makes me angry is the lack of coverage of views opposed to this war. This is exactly how the Iraq invasion was covered by the media until it became clear with over a million British citizens on the street that (oh yes) perhaps we in the media should now mention in fact that we are not all wonderfully united in our devoted support to this hypercritical act of global terrorism. But as usual our voices are silenced in the jingoistic drum roll led by our so called popular press – this is something, as has already been clearly stated, completely alien to Liberals and liberals!

  • Our military intervention in Libya is not well founded. The ethical dimension on which it rests is a cloak for our interest in the Libyan oil and gas fields. Gadaafi may be mad and bad but this is the man we were happy to trade with for the last few years.
    It is hard to excuse Gadaafi’s ruthless treatment of his population, but we have now taken the position of recommending the insurgency as a government to replace Gadaafi. This is the sort of development which has failed in Iraq and Afghanistan which still have their own insurgencies and corruption.

  • ‘I honestly believe that you would have voted for the Iraq war if you had been in a coalition then. ‘

    Says Anne and it seems that Lib Dem Ministers are also supporting this hook line and sinker – no resignations! The Tories have really got them on the end of a line – they will swallow anything to stay in power or is it that they too had they been in governemnt with Bliar would have voted for the Iraq invasion.(?)

    I think support for the LibDems will erode even more now – after all a lot of support was gained by their supposed moral stance against invasion now even that seems to have been a lie!

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