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Defence review must have global vision

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 26 May 2010

The UK's defence strategy is stuck in the Cold War, unsuited to the challenges of today's global insecurity, Professor Paul Rogers writes for Channel 4 News. Will the coalition's defence review go far enough?

The coalition government's strategic review will consider commitments such as the Trident nuclear programme (Images: Getty)

The new British Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, has now announced the beginning of the long-awaited strategic defence review and the indications are that the process will be completed before the end of 2010.

The incoming coalition government believes that such a review is urgently required for a number of reasons, including -

The new government has also set up a cross-departmental National Security Council that will further develop the trend to a national security strategy established by the Labour government.

While this is a welcome move, it comes in the context of recent programme decisions made ahead of the review that, if not reversed, will direct the defence posture in such a narrow manner that a wider and much-needed reappraisal of Britain’s security will prove impossible.

Instead, questions need to be asked about what is needed to limit conflict and create a more peaceful environment in an era of new global security challenges.

The two most significant programmes are:

These are very substantial in terms of costs, but their greater importance is in the manner in which they will dictate a particular role for the UK defence posture - a role which is out of date and more related to the cold war, bearing little relation to the issues of global insecurity and conflict, which will be dominant in the next two to three decades.

New security thinking
In the last two years some interesting attempts have been made to inject some new thinking into UK defence policy. The first was the National Security Strategy of March 2008, and more recently there was a defence green paper published earlier this year.

Following the green paper, the Conservative party, then in opposition, published its own national security green paper, A Resilient Nation. While the National Security Strategy of 2008 was published in an environment in which the war on terror, Iraq and Afghanistan were hugely prominent, it did seek to look well beyond the immediate circumstances.

"The Cold War threat has been replaced by a diverse but interconnected set of threats and risks, which affect the United Kingdom directly and also have the potential to undermine wider international stability. They include international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, conflicts and failed states, pandemics and transnational crime.

"These and other threats and risks are driven by a diverse and interconnected set of underlying factors, including climate change, competition for energy, poverty and poor governance, demographic change and globalisation."

This wider approach, with its recognition of the underlying trends of climate change, marginalisation and energy insecurity, also comes through to a more limited extent in the recent green papers, albeit with more of an emphasis on national security in the Conservative contribution.

It goes some way towards the analysis of global challenges, developed in recent years by Oxford Research Group and other organisations that see the need for a radical rethinking of the approaches of countries such as Britain to international security.

Groups like ORG place less emphasis on traditional defence and much more on long-term conflict prevention. They argue that the main problems that will be faced in the coming decades stem from a dangerous combination of severe environmental constraints, especially climate change and energy shortages, and an increasingly divided world community in which the benefits of globalised economic growth have been excessively concentrated in about one-fifth of the global population.

In such circumstances there is the very strong risk of societal breakdown, as well as desperate responses from within the majority of the world’s people who are marginalised and will be under increasing environmental constraints.

There is the further risk that the main emphasis for security policies will be on suppressing such actions and maintaining the status quo, rather than responding to the underlying drivers of insecurity.

A much more appropriate response is to embark on a transition to low-carbon economies to combat the fundamental problem of climate change, while developing a socio-economic system that acts to reverse the dangerous trend towards the marginalisation of the majority of the world’s people. It also argues the need to shift resources to the development of conflict resolution techniques to deal with radical disagreement.

What is significant about some of the thinking in the national security strategy and the two green papers is that the analysis of future dangers, implicit in an environmentally constrained and economically divided world, is present and the risks are acknowledged.

What is not done, however, is to follow this through in terms of what it means for an integrated strategy, involving major aspects of economic and environmental policy. Moreover, the timing of two major military projects that are in the early yet crucial stages of their development means that unless decisions are reversed, the possibility of entering into a genuinely far-sighted strategic security review is greatly diminished, if not rendered impossible.

The first project is the planned replacement of the Trident nuclear force with a broadly similar system at a life-time cost of close to £100bn and much of the cost front-loaded over the next 10 years.

The second is the building of two very large new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers deployed with a maritime variant of the US-produced F-35 strike aircraft. These will be the largest warships ever to see service with the Royal Navy and will give the UK a global strike capability that it has not had for close to 40 years. The cost will be enormous - 130 planes will be purchased for the Navy and the RAF at a cost of over £90m each.

The cost of constructing and deploying such systems will be so high, especially at a time of financial stringency, that there will be relatively little left for other programmes. What is more, the whole tenor of the defence posture will be one of maintaining control in a fragile and uncertain world, rather than addressing the underlying trends likely to result in that fragility and uncertainty - a matter of keeping the lid on problems, or "liddism" as it has been termed.

What should be done?
On the  nuclear issue, given the commitment of significant world political figures, including President Obama, to the idea of moving towards a nuclear-free world, there are major steps that the British government could take to further progress in that direction. They include -

Such moves do not in themselves involve the UK giving up its nuclear forces in the short term but they would signal a strong commitment to substantially lower nuclear forces while also leaving open the possibility of going further, should the international and domestic political environments allow. They would save money but, more significantly, they would also make it easier to have a comprehensive security review which would not be possible if the nuclear question is excluded.

The planned British purchase of F-35 strike aircraft in combination with the carrier programme will be more of an imperial throwback than a real contribution to Britain’s security. The whole carrier/F-35 programme should be cancelled. Replacements might include two much smaller sea control ships utilising the rapidly developing UCAV (drone) technologies, with a much scaled-down purchase of one of the F-35 alternatives currently available.

The real problem here is that a serious review of Britain's security cannot be done if the future defence posture is already dictated by Trident replacement and the carrier/F-35 programme. The right option therefore is to scale down the existing Trident force, review its replacement and cancel the carrier/F-35 programme before much more money is wasted.

Britain is beginning to embrace the idea of looking at international security in a manner that goes beyond a traditional defence review, with the national security strategy, the green papers and the new national security council being evidence of this.

In the face of current financial constraints and the carrier/Trident issue, though, there is every sign that the forthcoming defence review will be very limited in its remit, and therefore fundamentally inadequate.

Instead -

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