Is this the future of America in the world — racing pell-mell after the UK using essentially the same strategy that the Brits say we condemn?
By Camilla Cavendish
London Sunday Times, June 16, 2013, Pg. 21
On Friday the sonorous boom of the military rang out, above the cacophony and jostling before the chancellor’s spending review. The government had been making increasingly frantic efforts to stop military leaders talking to journalists. But the generals broke ranks. And for a prime minister on a crusade to intervene in Syria, it proved impossible to ignore.
The head of the army, General Sir Peter Wall, told Sky News on Friday that any further cuts to the defence budget could prove “quite dangerous, quite soon” to Britain’s success on future battlefields. He got reinforcements from Lieutenant-General Nick Carter, Britain’s most senior officer in Afghanistan, who said that politicians should “look themselves in the mirror each morning and determine whether or not the risks are manageable”.
While it is predictable that soldiers defend their patch — there are many other worthy claimants in the queue for a reprieve — it seems that Britain is genuinely on the brink of irreversibly altering its military capability.
Heavy cuts were already written into the strategicdefence and security review before the Treasury started looking for more. Reducing numbers from 102,000 to 82,000 will mean that the nation’s regular troops can all be fitted into Wembley stadium for the first time since the Napoleonic wars.
This may not matter so much if we think the future is about drones and cyberwar. But any idea that future conflicts will be won with clever kit alone, not blood and brawn, has been undermined by the government’s desperate attempts to fill the gap partially by doubling the number of part-time reservists.
The defence review blueprint was harsh but carefully calibrated. The figure of 82,000 was not arrived at by accident: it is the magic number that military experts believe represents the minimum pool of talent from which to recruit the next generation of special forces.
The SAS and Special Boat Service are probably Britain’s single biggest strategic asset in the transatlantic alliance and a big reason why we punch above our weight in foreign conflicts. Some experts envisage a future of nimble covert operations. If we diminish our ability to manufacture these brilliant human machines, one of our unique invisible exports, we will be limping even slower in the global race the prime minister talks so much about.
On Friday evening, after the chief of the defence staff rode to the side of Sir Peter, the prime minister appeared to surrender. He announced that there would be no fresh cuts to military personnel. Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, will have breathed a sigh of relief: he has been fighting a proxy war with the Liberal Democrats for months over welfare, trying to stop Danny Alexander and Vince Cable lopping another billion pounds off defence because they refuse to cut welfare.
Mr Hammond, a dogged accountant, looks awkward in an army helmet. But he has pulled off a remarkable feat in squeezing efficiency savings out of the cumbersome MoD. He has used austerity to quell the old feuds between the services, and focused relentlessly on stopping big defence firms running rings around officials. As a result of radical reforms, Britain has been able to slash costs while maintaining a high proportion of its military capability. But there is little left to squeeze out that way.
David Cameron’s change of heart cannot be unconnected to his recent lobbying of the White House over Syria. Washington has been dismayed by the scale of the military cuts Britain is proposing, seeing us as one of its few truly reliable partners. And it has become crystal clear in recent weeks that Mr Cameron and William Hague are utterly unwilling to follow the logic of their own financial policies and accept a smaller role in the world. The Libyan campaign suffered from mission creep; so will that in Syria.
Friday’s announcement by a reluctant White House that it will give direct military support to Syria’s supreme military council was celebrated in Downing Street as a victory, after weeks of lobbying. But it could turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. Without troops on the ground inside Syria, it will be impossible to know where the arms are going. The jumble of rebel factions, and the escalating conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites, makes it increasingly hard to know who the “good guys” are. One faction in Aleppo, the main rebel stronghold, has reportedly executed a 14-year-old boy for insulting the prophet Muhammad.
It is a terrible sight: Britain crowing from the sidelines as America and Russia bung weapons into the tinderbox. The allies insist they want a diplomatic solution. But now that the US has moved from sending “non-lethal” aid to the rebels, such as medicine and radios, to “light weapons and ammunition”, Senator John McCain is already demanding “heavy weaponry” and a no-fly zone. This would have to be policed by western aircraft (which could be based in Jordan). Despite the insistence of the allies that they will not put troops on the ground, it is hard to see where else this can go.
President Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator running a loathsome regime. But he is far more deeply entrenched than the hapless Colonel Gadaffi. China and Russia have consistently vetoed UN demands for action against him. With the muscle of Hezbollah and weapons from Russia, he is less vulnerable than he was two years ago.
Nato is hoping that tough talk, matched by the latest tough action from the White House, will persuade Vladimir Putin to drop his support for the Assad regime. The flood of refugees is deeply worrying; and the involvement of Hezbollah could destabilise Lebanon. But the calculation is not straightforward. President Assad is Russia’s best guarantee of retaining Tartus, its Mediterranean naval base. Putin will not cave in to allied interests.
If Russia calls the West’s bluff, and sends in yet more weapons to level the killing field, the British government will be responsible for prolonging the slaughter in which more than 90,000 people have already died. If Russia changes course, Mr Hague will deserve some credit for rattling the sabre. Whatever the outcome, it is clearer than ever that effective diplomacy rests on the ability to make credible threats — either directly or through one’s allies. The more we cut away at our military capability, especially our special forces, the less our threats are credible.
Tony Blair wanted the luxury of following his moral imperative without paying for it. He notoriously campaigned on two fronts, despite letting Gordon Brown, as chancellor, prune the defence budget to its lowest levels since 1930. That is why the MoD was already in the red when the coalition came to power.
Mr Alexander appears to think such a strategy is fine. “In a department that has more horses than it has tanks,” he said acidly after the prime minister’s statement on Friday, “there are room for efficiencies without affecting our overall military output.” So Mr Alexander still wants the military to bear the cost of his refusal to cut only half a per cent of the welfare budget. The prime minister had better stop him.
Phi Beta Iota: Lacking in both the US and the UK is the ability to provide intelligence with integrity in support of strategy, policy, acquisition, and operations. NATO could in theory transform itself into a service of common concern, making the NATO Network-Enabled Capabilities (NNEC) approach one that serves at all four levels — strategic, operational, tactical, and technical. It is quite clear that neither the US nor UK intelligence endeavors are up to being useful; that open sources of information are the most useful to both NATO and the politicians trying to make war on the cheap while allowing their military to enjoy all possible corruptions in relation to vendors; and that the BRICS are going to hand NATO its ass unless NATO figures out, fairly soon, that it must join with the BRICS and find common ground in the truth at any cost lowering all other costs.