So action finally replaced inertia, the White House’s dithering gave way to resolve, and the warplanes and cruise missiles are flying over Libya just in time. It has all provided a useful reminder of how dangerous the world can be and how quickly and unexpectedly a crisis can evolve into combat. Cold war can always turn lethally hot, and rhetoric can always erupt into conflict.
Over the past thirty years, not a single military scenario in which Britain has become involved—the Falklands, the Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq and occupation of Afghanistan, the rescue of hostages in Sierra Leone, and now Libya—was actually predicted or planned for by the politicians and war-gamers. Events have a nasty habit of taking us by surprise.
Our security depends not only on diplomacy, dialogue, and understanding, but on the means to project force when all else fails. In a fragmented world order, threats can develop anywhere. Try and gaze into the future: an unstable Middle East, a nuclear-armed and terrorism-exporting Iran, a bolshy Russia and bullying China, conflicts over oil and water and other scarce resources, tsunamis and earthquakes, and myriad natural disasters. All manner of dangers exist and we may be forced to respond.
We need British armed forces with reach and flexibility and a serious punch. Our Tornado aircraft fly 3,000-mile round trips to fire their Storm Shadow missiles. A Trafalgar-class nuclear submarine joins its American cousins in launching Tomahawk cruise missiles. But look again at our overall posture and contribution to Libya and what is planned for the long term. The frigate HMS Cumberland—currently supporting operations off Libya and critical in removing British refugees—is to be scrapped; the Tornado force is to lose two squadrons (including one at RAF Marham, from which the long-range air strikes were launched); and two RAF Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft, temporarily reprieved for the Libyan operation, are soon to be retired with no replacements ordered.
We only notice critical shortcomings in defense when there is a crisis. There are definite problems and greater ones to come. So often the politicians get it badly wrong. Dennis Healey canceled England’s aircraft carriers in the late 1960s in a decision that later proved to be myopic and absurd. As Defence Secretary, John Nott planned to scrap almost the entire Royal Navy surface fleet until the Falklands War showed up his inanity. Now it is the coalition government that cuts defense and speaks euphemistically of a “capability holiday.” What it means in practice is a stripping of military assets in the short term with the promise of new systems in the never-never. Note how David Cameron speaks of the “swing-role” Typhoon jet being upgraded to assume the air-to-ground attack role once performed by the recently retired Harrier and severely diminished Tornado force. The Typhoon will not be fully up to that task until 2018. That’s a very long “capability holiday.”
Britain is a maritime nation with strategic global interests. There are drug smugglers and pirates to fight, potentially hostile states with anti-ship missiles, and chokepoints through which our oil and commerce must flow. Two-thirds of the planet is covered by ocean, and almost all of our trade travels by sea. Yet we have a situation in which our air-warfare destroyers are tasked with anti-narcotic duties in the Caribbean and our amphibious-warfare ships are patrolling the Gulf simply because there are too few frigates on which to call. Frigate numbers continue to decline. Then there are the new aircraft carriers—HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales—two vast floating airbases that would permit Britain to respond to emergencies almost anywhere in the world. They would allow us to enforce no-fly zones, support ground operations, and deliver crisis relief at a moment’s notice. David Cameron is tepidly committed to commission only one carrier, and it remains to be seen whether it will ever be properly equipped and functioning. Equally as worrying is the retirement of the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, for it means we will not have a single aircraft capable of patrolling our far-flung sea lanes. Even India is ordering a new generation of patrol aircraft, but we somehow believe we can do without. The Russians, who are once more sending their Akula nuclear subs into the Atlantic and North Sea, must be laughing.
Perhaps David Cameron has learned something in the past weeks. But if he wishes to safeguard our security and prepare for the unforeseen, he must understand that our armed forces require nurturing and expenditure. A few minor U-turns would prove that this government appreciates what we’re facing: Reprieve the two Tornado squadrons due to be cut; maintain the Sentinel R1 ground-reconnaissance aircraft in service; and ring-fence both funding for and commitment to two fully operational aircraft carriers. Otherwise, this “capability holiday” will be seen as a flight from common sense and a journey into a potential nightmare.
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