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When Nimrod and the Harrier fleet were withdrawn from service, some noises were made that replacements would be found when money could be scraped together to pay for them, but little appreciation was shown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.