The Perils of Peace

The end of the Cold War in the late 20th Century brought with it a supposed ‘peace dividend’; without the omnipresent threat of atomic annihilation or a Soviet annexation of Western Europe it was supposed that NATO countries could relax and demobilise many of the forces that had been deployed to counter the Eastern menace.

A steady decline in defence spending across the Western world followed for the subsequent two and a half decades, with budgets being repeatedly slashed to allow for greater domestic expenditure and short-term savings, but the cost of such narrow-sighted outlooks on national defence is far greater than many appreciate.

The Cold War necessitated a degree of military understanding within national government; with nuclear war only a few misjudged comments or provocations away one needed to appreciate the awesome power available to modern states, but this perspective has declined as the threat retreated.

Within Britain, there is a disappointing trend of immediate demobilisation and expectation of lasting peace at the end of a conflict; from the Nine Year’s War to the Great War peace has been met by an immediate reduction in military forces with little regard for the future. The Cold War, coming as it did as an evolution of the Second World War, in fact presents the only instance I can think of of British military expenditure continuing apace to maintain the peace that stemmed from the last conflict.

This perpetual habit of expecting peace to last has been proven time and again to be fallacious, and is a consequence of political attitudes towards the military being based upon profound misconceptions – the most strident being that assumption that capability cuts will be easy to replace.

The 2010 SDSR is perhaps one of the greatest calamities faced by the British military; in which vital capabilities such as fixed-wing carrier aviation and maritime patrol aircraft were removed with no replacement in the immediate future, and is emblematic of the lack of understanding that has accompanied defence policy so profoundly in the post-Cold War world.

When Nimrod and the Harrier fleet were withdrawn from service, some noises were made that replacements would be found when money could be scraped together to pay for them, but little appreciation was shown for how much more such a move would cost. When a capability is removed from the military, and its personnel removed, far more than the mere vehicle is lost. Without continuous training and practice, the service itself will lose the ability to fulfill that role, and will have to train again from scratch. For example, British personnel have been fortunate enough to be able to train for carrier operations embedded within allied fleets, but even with such invaluable experience the relatively few positions available for such training means that when the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers take to the sea there will be far fewer crews with carrier experience available than we could otherwise have enjoyed.

The immediate loss in skill that accompanies short-sighted removals of capability are also accompanied by a less tangible but more far-reaching loss; that of tradition. Britain was the first nation to operate a dedicated aircraft carrier – and carrier operations continued uninterrupted in the Royal Navy until 2010, when all fixed-wing operations were ceased. In the 7 years since, the Royal Navy has been stripped of a tradition that dated almost a century. The disbandment of proud Army regiments carries an equal and powerful emotive loss, and whilst units and abilities may be restored, their removal from duty still presents a void that cannot quite be filled.

A reliance on reserves has accompanied efforts to ‘streamline’ (read: ‘downsize’) the British military, replacing many full-time personnel with part-time volunteers. Whilst the reserves do enjoy extensive training and are required to meet the same stringent standards as regular personnel, a part-time serviceman can never be expected to bring the same level of expertise as a regular, nor replace the experience lost by the removal of a professional. Reserves also take far longer to mobilise – being drawn in from Civvie Street and trained up for the mission at hand takes time, and reserves will not be immediately available in the face of a crisis. The cost benefit of a larger reserve force is obvious, but in times of a crisis frontline regiments will be left with personnel shortfalls as the reserves that have been promised to fill gaps in their formations are still being amassed and trained.

A failure to invest in new equipment will also be accompanied by a collapse in the defence industry in the nation; without large orders the ability to domestically produce such complex machines as warships, tanks, or heavy artillery will be lost. Without the industry to support them, the ability to produce spare parts for those vehicles already in service will likewise be lost, leaving the military in an even greater logistical bind. As the defence industry of a country stagnates, skilled workers will be left without work and may also migrate – further compounding the skill loss and exponentially increasing the difficulty of reversing the trend when the need arises. By failing to invest in defence, governments run the real risk of fundamentally undermining the ability of their nation to not only defend itself actively, but also to retain the capacity to defend itself in the future.

The costs of the ‘Peace Dividend’ that appeared at the end of the Cold War were extensive, particularly as it appears that the world has become less stable. Military forces are in fact seeing at least as much active duty as they were when they were sustained to face the threat of the USSR, but are being expected to do so with a fraction of the economic, political, or public support. Without the danger of an existential threat, there is little public conception of the need for defence, and successive round of cuts have been passed with little to no opposition nor appreciation of the immediate and future dangers that can accompany it.

Even as the British military budget has been promised to be increased, the true cost of the spectre of peace is still not fully appreciated. The Royal Navy has resorted to appealing to sailors dismissed in 2010 to return to the colours to make up for a crippling lack of experienced personnel, whilst the Army faces further cuts in manpower. By failing to take into account the loss of experience and ability that accompanied every cut, the government of today is being forced to reap what those at the end of the Cold War had sown. Two decades of peace were accompanied by an assumption that the military of the future would have little role to play, and it is only now that the true magnitude of the hole such thinking ripped in our ability to defend ourselves that the fallacy of planning for peace is becoming apparent.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/27/forces-braced-cuts-defence-cash-squeeze/

http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/766183/Royal-Navy-plug-staff-shortage-urgent-plea-ex-sailors

The Responsibility to act

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.

http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/the-case-for-a-21st-century-royal-navy-home-fleet/

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.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4165930/MoD-needs-extra-5-6billion-warns-spending-watchdog.html#ixzz4X24r2QeF

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.

https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Intervention-01-17_v8.pdf