The United Kingdom has a long and proud military history, but one trend that persists and presents a source of immense frustration to the student is that of the unpreparedness for war. From the Second World War to the Falklands, successive governments have found themselves surprised by the start of a conflict and have to scrabble together forces to act. In fairness to those leaders of the past, the British military has proven itself capable of facing the task in the end, but in this modern world we can no longer rely on the luxury of time to build up strength after the outbreak of war in order to assure eventual victory.
Military spending has been on a perpetual downturn since the end of the Second World War, and has only deteriorated further since the collapse of the Soviet Union . Recent government efforts to maintain and expand upon the 2% standard do show willing, but the creative accounting that has been used in order to merely reach the minimum requirement for NATO membership should be a cause for some discomfort for those leading a nation with such a legacy of military success.
The glaring deficiencies in our defence infrastructure, from the lack of maritime patrol aircraft to dangerous manpower shortages, leave the nation extremely vulnerable. In an age that is becoming increasingly uncertain, in which Britain’s very position in the world is in flux, it would be irresponsible not to leave the nation better protected. The lack of ships available to provide escort duties during the recent Russian movements past our shores provide one example of this, and arguments have been put forwards to support a greater expansion of Royal Navy hulls than has been outlined in the National Shipbuilding Strategy. One such argument suggests a means by which fleet numbers can be boosted simply by retaining rather than scrapping perfectly serviceable vessels, a measure that would seem extremely prudent in the current climate.
Lest it be thought that this is mere doom-saying; a recent report by the National Audit Office has suggested that the MoD’s plans for modernising its equipment may face a crippling financial shortfall, with dangerous consequences both for the nation, and the unfortunate service personnel who may have to face combat situations with outdated equipment.
There are some who would argue that in the face of these deficiencies it might be prudent to simply withdraw, abandon our global commitments, and resort to a more isolationist stance. Indeed, in the aftermath of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the failed intervention in Libya there can be seen the appearance of Britain’s own ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, in which any suggestion of the deployment of force is met with horror, but this approach wrongly correlates all military intervention with the disastrous consequences of a lack of planning.
Britain, has often proven remarkably able to intervene successfully to prevent the most awful of atrocities and provide aid where it is most desperately needed. The interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone both saved countless lives to the credit of the intervening forces; the establishment of clear missions and objectives were vital to meeting this end.
There is a certain responsibility that falls upon the shoulders of powerful nations to use their ability to act to do good; numerous examples may be found of where a failure or unwillingness to act has led to appalling consequences. The U.S. And U.N. failure to act effectively in Somalia presents one example – the international forces initially attempted to curtail the atrocious suffering of the people, but restrictive rules of engagement and a lack of general support saw the U.S. withdraw their forces after deciding that the conflict was no longer worth the loss of any American lives. As a consequence, the war is still ongoing after over a decade. The more recent heel-dragging over whether the West should re-commit forces to oppose the rise of Islamic State in nations that had been so disastrously torn up by earlier Western meddling also allowed for the meteoric rise of that most dangerous of groups, with consequences that are now all too clear.
The past few years have seen perceptions of military action change drastically, but the focus on the consequences of failure has seen the possibility for good be largely forgotten. The lack of support for military action has likewise seen radical cuts to defence expenditure go largely unchallenged. The efficacy of defence should not be defined by expenditure alone, but it should noted that for all the current rhetoric of maintaining NATO standards, expenditure under the current government as a percentage of GDP is still lower than under New Labour.
The current budget is allowing for modest expansions and a restoration of lost abilities, but there must be foresight in expenditure so that our ability to act may be maximised. The first priority must be self-defence, as this represents the primary responsibility of every government, but planning must be proactive to allow for the creation of a military that may be effectively deployed anywhere in the world to counter a developing crisis with speed. Furthermore, and of greater difficulty to secure, there must be the will to act at every level – interventions, even successful ones, will be expensive in terms of capital and lives, but the shame of a failure to act will run far deeper and the political consequences will be far heavier.
With all the turmoil in the Middle East, declining European influence and willingness to support their military assets, and a United States now threatening a new era of isolationism, Britain has an even greater responsibility to lead the way in terms of maintaining global stability. Military force is by no means the only way to do so, and indeed its deployment should be a last resort, but we have a duty to ensure that the means remain available should they be required. Let us not return to the days of an early unpreparedness for war, instead we should advocate peace at every turn, but be resolute and prepared to use the tools that our fortunate position in the world have granted us to ensure the safety of others.
For further reading on this topic I would recommend anyone to read this paper by the murdered MP Jo Cox, who recognised the need and duty of our nation to act in the face of atrocity.