Magazine article The Spectator

War Games

Magazine article The Spectator

War Games

Article excerpt

THE unfolding mess in Afghanistan, a faraway country of which we wished we knew even less, poses a fundamental question: what in the year 2001 are the British armed forces for? Do they have any role in directly promoting either the security or the prosperity of the British people? Or do they now exist primarily to enable the Reverend President Blair to posture as a world leader, especially in Washington?

From 1934 (when the double threat from Germany and Japan was first formally identified by Whitehall) until 1991 (when the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War) Britain faced clear military menaces from other states. The primary role of the British armed forces during that 57-year period was therefore plain enough: to preserve the independence of the United Kingdom in the face of such menaces; and to do so in collaboration with allies.

Throughout this period the strategic key to Britain's own security lay in Western Europe. The loss of that key in June 1940 with the collapse of the Western Front exposed Britain to mortal danger, narrowly averted by the victory of Fighter Command over the Luftwaffe. Only with the victorious advance of Anglo-American armies in 1944-45 from Normandy to the Elbe was the key regained.

When relations between Stalin's Soviet Union and the West deteriorated into 'Cold War', the strategic focus of the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 and then of Nato in 1950 also lay in Western Europe. The security of the United Kingdom was henceforth melded into Nato's collective defence structure, the Schwerpunkt of common effort being to prepare to resist a possible grand offensive across the Iron Curtain by Soviet forces in Eastern Germany.

Over nearly six decades, then, the primary role of the British armed forces was clear: to secure the United Kingdom and its outer bailey, Western Europe, against attack by a contiguous state.

This role disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since that time there has been no direct threat to the territory or independence of either the United Kingdom or Western Europe as a whole from any outside state. As for terrorism, the only direct threat to the United Kingdom has come from the IRA, the attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September being clearly targeted at the USA.

What, then, is, or should be, the role of the British armed forces today?

It is hard at the present time to envisage any future menace from another state comparable to that from Germany and Japan before the second world war or from Soviet Russia after it. Nevertheless, such a menace might still materialise out of a clear sky, just as between 1929 and 1933 Germany mutated from a peaceful democracy into an expansionist Nazi dictatorship. It must therefore always remain the chief task of the British armed forces to collaborate with other members of Nato in guarding the security of the North Atlantic Treaty area -- and by war if need be. This role requires land, sea and air forces trained, organised and equipped to conduct a hi-tech conflict against a first-class enemy. A mere gendarmerie good at 'peace-keeping' and dispersed in penny packets will not do.

Yet here is the core of the British politico-strategic problem today - just as in the imperial past. Before 1914, and again before 1939, the British army was indeed an imperial gendarmerie, scattered in garrisons across the Middle East, Africa, India and the Far East. In both world wars Britain therefore faced the gigantic task of creating from scratch an army for Europe comparable in scale and firepower to the Continental armies. In the second world war the task comprised the creation from scratch of strategic and tactical air forces as well.

Yet, despite these harsh lessons, British grand strategy after the second world war continued to be pulled in opposite directions by the Continental commitment (now through Nato) and the worldwide politicomilitary involvements bequeathed by the imperial past. …

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