Rethinking defence in an era of intervention

Military intervention is now a key feature of the UK’s foreign policy decision making process, as demonstrated by the recent decision by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to pass a resolution authorizing a no-fly zone across Libya.

This decision raises serious questions about whether or not the defence cuts, as detailed in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) last autumn, are justified.
These questions were raised in an open letter (published in the _Independent on Sunday_ earlier this month) signed by 50 senior military figures, politicians and academics calling for the SDSR to be reopened in light of recent developments in North Africa and the Middle East. The letter voices concerns that the review “seems to be have been driven by financial rather than military considerations”.

Harold Wilson famously remarked that “a week was a long time in politics”. The security landscape has changed radically since the SDSR mapped out a grand plan of ‘Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty’ five months ago. In this ‘Age of Uncertainty’ few could have foreseen the revolution sparked by a fruit seller in Tunisia that would sweep throughout the Arab world.
There is an ideological choice to be made: the UK could take a back seat and sacrifice its role as a global leader following the fatally flawed (and illegal in Iraq’s case) interventionist policies over the past decade, or it could continue to take a more active role in foreign policy in the face of emerging humanitarian crises. Following David Cameron’s decisive push for intervention in Libya, it seems that the coalition – for the time being – has favoured the latter path, which appears increasingly at odds with the defence cuts.

Alongside the deep cuts in military equipment (the HMS Ark Royal and Harrier jets have controversially been scrapped) the main concern is that of military overstretch given that the UK already has 10,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan.

Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, has warned that in light of our ongoing commitment in Afghanistan, “The key issue is the enablers – the AWACs aircraft, refuelling aircraft, intelligence assets and Special Forces units acting as potential forward air controllers.

“These are the assets that are in short supply and any long-term commitment would have an impact on the availability of these in two theatres of operations simultaneously”.

Speaking to the BBC ahead of the UNSC’s decision, senior Conservative politician David Davis voiced his concerns about the SDSR saying that “it was time to go back and look at it again”.
This might be easier said than done given that Labour left a severe budget deficit of £36 billion in the MoD budget. Whilst this deficit must be dealt with, it is absolutely imperative that the government does not limit our military capabilities. It is immoral to send our soldiers off to fight wars without the resources they might need. One issue that both the previous and current government have failed to tackle seriously enough, and where huge savings could be made, is that of Trident.

Throughout the past few weeks, the world’s attention has been fixed upon Japan’s unfolding humanitarian disaster following the country’s devastating earthquake and tsunami and resulting nuclear fallout. The only country in the world to have experienced the sheer horror of nuclear weapons is unsurprisingly a vehement campaigner for nuclear disarmament; a lesson from which UK governments will hopefully start to listen to one day.

Whether one takes a pro or anti-nuclear weapon stance, it appears difficult to reconcile the costs of an outdated nuclear arsenal, at an estimated £100 billion over the next 20 years when put against the £36 billion shortfall in the defence budget. Described as “virtually irrelevant” two years ago by three retired military generals in a letter to _The Times_, it seems wasteful to pump so much of the taxpayers’ money into weapons of mass destruction that we would never even use in the first place.

The events in Libya and the wider Arab world have reignited the thorny issue of humanitarian military intervention in an age where our defence capabilities are being stretched to their limits. It is evident in the 21st century age of Kofi Annan’s ‘responsibility to protect’ that the UK government must consider revising the SDSR sooner rather than later. If we fail to live up to this responsibility, we continue to allow the blood of Rwanda, Darfur and countless other atrocities to stain our collective human conscience.


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