By Julian Thompson
Anyone who says they know what form the next war will take, and where it will be, is guilty of strategic hubris. There are two kinds of wars: wars of necessity and wars of choice. Wars of necessity arise when there is the threat of a direct attack on us or on a vital interest. The latter includes our lifeblood oil, gas, and seaborne trade; and British interests and dependencies worldwide, for example the Falkland Islands. Wars of choice include Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo. No national vital interests were at stake. Wars of choice are by definition conflicts that you can choose not to become involved in. With that in mind we can decide what we need for our defence.
The nuclear deterrent is a vital part of our defence against a direct attack; it should remain and be replaced eventually.
We will still need still need high quality Special Forces.
We need a strong and capable Navy to protect our vital interests, including the 98% of the commodities carried on ships that we need for our economic prosperity and indeed our survival. We require the carriers, because our strategic choices will include avoiding vulnerable ‘footprints’ — basing aircraft in someone else’s country. Therefore the aircraft carriers should be built. Because 80% of the cities in the world and 70% of the population are situated less than 100 miles from the sea, our Navy needs an amphibious capability. To quote General Sir David Richards, the present Chief of the General Staff, about to be the next Chief of Defence Staff: ‘You need green and brown water fleets . . . that allow you to reach into ungoverned space and make your presence felt’. The necessary shipping is already built and paid for and will last well beyond 2030.
The structure of the Army is a hangover from our continental involvement dating from the Cold War, with changes made to reflect operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is unlikely that any British government, if it has any sense, will allow itself to become embroiled in Afghanistan-type operations in the foreseeable future. ‘Nation-building’, ‘stabilization’ operations will be off the menu: they are not a vital interest. They are a legacy of the ‘feel good’ foreign policy that our late government was so fond of indulging. We need a light, deployable Army, with a strong TA capable of home defence. The Army should be structured for deployment in joint operations to deal with specific and defined terrorist threats from abroad, and threats to dependencies. Tanks and heavy artillery should be phased out.
The Royal Air Force should be abolished, and its aircraft divided between the Navy and the Army. All maritime assets would go to the Navy, including maritime patrol aircraft and search and rescue, and helicopters for amphibious force lift. The Navy would take over responsibility for the air defence of the UK employing the Joint Strike Fighter. The Army would take over all troop lift helicopters except those in the amphibious force, and all transport aircraft. Substantive savings would accrue from dispensing with the top structure of the Royal Air Force.
Decisions taken in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) will impinge on the UK’s defence for the next fifty years. Our commitment to Afghanistan will end. If in the meantime the armed forces have been tailored to fight a similar campaign, the Army will be ripe for further trimming, while what we actually need will no longer exist.
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