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David Cameron is not as keen on fighting wars as Tony Blair. His hesitancy is born out of respect for the military. The last decade saw the British government fight five wars on a peacetime budget, thereby stretching the military to (and often beyond) breaking point. The cost of this was avoidable deaths and inevitable defeats. A few hundred troops on patrol in Basra were never going to pacify a city of three million. Without a surge in Sangin, the troops were left to be picked off. The defence review, due in October, comes at a crucial juncture for Britain as we decide our place in the world.
Around that time, Sir David Richards is expected to take up his post as chief of the defence staff, succeeding the inadequate Jock Stirrup. It would be, for Mr Cameron, a brave appointment. After being made head of the army, Sir David went on record saying that he envisages staying in Afghanistan for 40 years, and that the country ‘has entered my bloodstream’. Mr Cameron made it clear that he wants it out of his bloodstream before the next election. So why choose someone with clout and eloquence who may be political trouble? For a simple reason: this Prime Minister, unlike his predecessor, values ability before obeisance.
Sir David will take no pleasure in the biggest part of his job: wielding an axe over the military. Like Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, he believes that perceived defeat in Afghanistan will be calamitous for Britain’s status as a world power, badly damaging our ability to speak softly while carrying a big stick. If we have to hand over to an American military with greater equipment and resolve, our enemies will be emboldened. The world would become more dangerous.
In this era of austerity, there is a possibility that the Ministry of Defence will suffer the 25 per cent cuts that George Osborne warned about in the Budget. But it is The Spectator’s understanding that Danny Alexander, who is becoming increasingly impressive in his role as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is working on a plan to freeze the defence budget at its current £33 billion for five years. The budget would not rise with inflation, implying an 11 per cent real-terms cut. But this is the best possible outcome, given that David Cameron has (unwisely) promised to protect the NHS budget, where most of the waste lies.
A cash freeze, while harsh, would demonstrate a commitment to retaining Britain’s role in the world — while emphasising the need for cuts. This brings us to two questions: where should the axe fall? And what should be the shape of the British military for the next decade? Candidates for cuts are all too obvious. Take, for example, the Eurofighters intended for Soviet-era dogfighting — contracts, of course, with break clauses so expensive that it seems pointless to walk away. But factor in the £70,000-anhour cost of flying these aircraft, and the cost of training a generation of pilots for battles that will never be fought, and the proposition becomes unsustainable.
Then there is the multi-billion pound project to build two more aircraft carriers. There is an obvious strategic risk in having such glitteringly expensive assets: aircraft carriers can be destroyed by £100,000 worth of ballistic missiles. Or, as USS Cole was ten years ago, attacked by a few determined suicide bombers. A study of Britain’s recent combat history shows that the shortage which most hinders our military is a lack of kit — helicopters, armoured vehicles, and so on — and too few boots on the ground.
The Ministry of Defence has grown into a vast bureaucracy. Its procurement practices are a national scandal. Its mismanagement has become a national security risk in itself. While China and Russia are fighting 21stcentury warfare — Russia’s last offensive against Estonia was to close down its internet system — too many in London are preparing for an era of conventional war that we are unlikely to see. The threat of a nuclear strike remains the greatest single risk facing Britain, so keeping our own deterrent is the greatest protection against it. But the actual wars are fought in many more, lowerkey ways.
The battles of the next decade will be fought not for military supremacy, but for influence. That is why Hezbollah’s leaders have become world experts on post-conflict reconstruction, realising that every conflict is now a battle for hearts and minds. Even Iran knows that the old slogan ‘they’ll like us when we win’ does not apply. From Iraq to Afghanistan, everyone is now fighting for the same objective: popular control. It is more about people than battlefield supremacy.
The war in Afghanistan is being fought not in the deserts of Helmand, but in the pubs and drawing rooms of Britain. Afghanistan may be, in all too many ways, a 13th-century country — but the Taleban is fighting a 21st-century war to great effect. They aim to inflict maximum casualties, using methods that generate the most headlines. This undermines popular support for the war, and will eventually lead politicians to withdraw troops before elections. The Taleban’s greatest asset is the short political attention span of the West.
Sir David knows all this better than almost anyone else in the military. He shares with Liam Fox a determination that Britain should retain a war-fighting military, rather than a European-style peacekeeping military. A cash freeze on the defence budget, while painful, will demonstrate that David Cameron shares this vision, too.
THE SPECTATOR 17 July 2010 3