Like most world nations, faced with massive debt and unemployment, Great Britain is currently planning deep cuts in government expenditure to balance the budget. Not surprisingly, many of these will fall on the military, already greatly strained with replacing Cold War era weapons stocks, while at the same time fighting an ongoing counterinsurggency in Afghanistan. According to this report from Xinhua:
The Treasury, the Finance Ministry, revealed over the weekend that most departments should prepare for budget cuts of up to 40 percent. However defense was told to prepare for cuts of between 10 percent and 25 percent.
With cuts looming, and threats not going away, the nation is forced to decide between maintaining historical alliances, while at the same time assuring its sovereignty against foreign threats. The only program which seems safe are the most expensive, such as the Navy Trident submarine replacement and the two multibillion pound aircraft carriers, that will create a further burden on the already minuscule Royal Navy force structure.
Some good news, perhaps even a breeze of fresh hope to Defense is the appointment of General Sir David Richards as chief of the Defense Staff, the British version of the American Joint Chiefs. Richards’ mindset has been reborne in Britain’s new small wars, especially that of the battleground of Afghanistan. Often called the Graveyard of Empire for the tendency of superpowers to fail in conquest attempts, there we are also seeing a rebirth in tactics and a refashion of Western armed forces to face current era threats. These more often than not include hybrid armies — Third World powers equipped with First World weapons which have managed to hold there own against immaculately equipped Western armies with the world’s most expensive and powerful tanks, planes and aircraft.
In pointing this out, General Richards proved in a January speech before the IISS he has learned the lessons of his tenure in the Afghan:
In the globalized world I have described, Afghanistan is both a great opportunity and a great risk. It is a testing ground for us and our enemies: a signpost to our global futures.
In stark contrast, is Royal Navy Admiral Sir Jock Slater, who recently encouraged his country to “look beyond Afghanistan,” in the BBC:
It takes a long time to build a ship and to prepare the crew, so we really need to look beyond Afghanistan.
Afghanistan must be our top priority. It simply must be and we’ve got young servicemen, particularly in the Army and the Royal Marines, who are losing their lives.
We must concentrate on Afghanistan today but we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that beyond Afghanistan is the future, and the future is uncertain.
What Sir Jock, along with the current Navy Chief Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope is certain about is they intend to go full speed ahead on the world’s most powerful and costly warships, the Tridents and aircraft carriers. But at the same time he bemoans the shrinking fleet:
The carriers remain in the program and that is great… but tied to that were 12 air defense destroyers and there are now going to be just six new Type 45s.
I argued for 35 frigates and destroyers, George Robertson reduced it to 32, and it’s gone down to 22. That’s simply unsatisfactory.
Oddly the Admiral sees no contention between the Navy plans and ongoing Cold War era building practices. Again we recall the IISS speech of General Richards who seems more concerned over the Navy’s future than the admirals, whose procurement plans are forcing the fleet into irrelevance:
Operating among, understanding and effectively influencing people requires mass — numbers — whether this is “boots on the ground,” riverine and high speed littoral warships, or UAVs, transport aircraft and helicopters… This re-balancing could result in more ships, armoured vehicles and aircraft not less. But they will not necessarily be those we currently plan on.
Some in the Navy appreciate a fresh-thinker in charge at Defense, not hidebound by traditional thinking. Here is a recent quote from ex-Rear Admiral Chris Parry:
The Royal Navy won’t have anything to fear from Sir David. They should welcome him as he’s got good experience of joint operations, he supports the carriers and he’s very balanced. He’s a very out of the box thinker and he won’t worry about telling politicians the truth.
So while the old school is fighting for their last pound in the shrinking budget, hanging on to very costly platforms which are overkill and too few to manage today’s enemies, or even at risk from tomorrow’s foes, here is the new Chief of the Defense Staff calling for expansion, continued relevance, and a renewed sense of purpose from the Armed Forces. Comments such as these should give the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of Britain a renewed hope, they their labors to securing a free country have not been in vain, with lessons learned from one of the world’s backwater nations considered irrelevant until recent times:
Success in Afghanistan is necessary for our future. Not because of its position or resources, although our campaign there must be placed in a wider and longer term geostrategic context, but because of the global consequences of our success or failure.
This article originally appeared on New Wars, July 19, 2010.