Never has Britain looked more like a fading power at a crossroads. To fund the purchase of new Chinooks and other vital equipment to fight the war in Afghanistan, the MoD will close an RAF base, scrap fighter jets, slash staff, delay training, withdraw navy vessels from service and slow the roll out of new spy planes.
It goes without saying that as long as we have troops in Afghanistan, they deserve to be given the right tools and support to do their jobs effectively. But as many have rightly pointed out, properly resourcing the conflict is compromising our preparedness for future ones. The delusion that Britain can continue as a global military power has finally been laid bare. Like a cash-starved aristocrat selling the family silver to repair the roof on his crumbling pile, the British government can either slide toward ruin– or embrace reality, downsize its ambitions and be stronger for it.
Judging from these latest defence cuts, the government in my view has yet to face facts. The UK is poised to drop out of the world’s top ten economies by 2015 yet British forces are the second largest in Afghanistan after the US and were the second largest in Iraq. To finance these commitments, the government has decimated centuries of military tradition. Great Scottish, Welsh and County regiments have gone to the wall forever under the banner of cost-saving ‘amalgamation’. Whatever supposed efficiencies these measures produced, they failed to free up enough cash to adequately equip our overseas military campaigns. The British army was accused of running away from Basra and our troops in Helmund have been unable to dominate the ground for lack of manpower and resources. As I’ve said before, the fact that our forces have sustained themselves in Helmund for so long with insufficient numbers, equipment and without competent backing from their leaders at the top is testament to their incredible professionalism. Still, it boggles the mind that British soldiers have been sent to Afghanistan to survive by the skin of their teeth. When did our military chiefs become such underachievers?
The Chinooks which frankly, our troops needed yesterday, won’t be ready until 2012 at the earliest. Instead of chasing the error, the British government should acknowledge its policy mistakes, bring the troops home from Afghanistan and give serious thought to what role our military should adopt in order to guarantee our future security. In my view, that means prioritizing the defence of our own shores over fighting US-led wars thousands of miles away. We should be maintaining the Royal Navy and the RAF—not gutting them. We need to adequately fund our intelligence agencies to flush out threats from within our borders, where the vast majority of UK terrorist incidents over the past forty years have been hatched and executed.
Some would argue that our membership in NATO should guarantee our safety if attacked by a foreign air or sea power. Given the caveats on troop deployments and other disagreements which have characterized NATO’s performance in Afghanistan, I for one wouldn’t count on the alliance riding to our rescue. There’s no substitute for self-reliance.
Does a more inward looking military strategy risk making Britain less relevant on the world stage? Probably. But with global economic power shifting eastward, it’s inevitable that nations which do not share our political and social values will be calling more of the shots. The question is; if those shots are aimed at British shores, will our military be strong enough to defend them alone?