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SPLENDID ISOLATION
- Britain’s defence cuts and remembering the Great War

Our government’s unending cost cuts have affected the British armed forces adversely for several years and through several rounds of defence reviews; we are now reaching rock bottom and it seems that the government, faced with necessary economies, may not have thought things out as well as they should. A year ago, Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, was arguing against further cuts in his department in favour of more in social-service areas; now the boot is on the other foot. Defence cuts continue, but, as they have always been impelled by the requirement to reduce our overall fiscal deficit and not by joined-up thinking in their own department — the same applies, of course, for just about every other department of government — there is no proper blueprint of ways, means, order and good sense, let alone what we actually need going into the future.

When we were all busy banning the bomb not so very many years ago, wars, ho ho ho, or at least those that would touch home shores, were behind us and there were more important things to worry about — those social-service budgets, education and health, of course — the zeitgeist feeling was to cut defence costs. Now, some of us might still feel in our heart of hearts that we only need a very small standing military for our own purposes. Ireland, our major at-home defence problem, has been dealt with up to a point, and not much else threatens us beyond worldwide terrorism. If we have a decent police force — and, boy oh boy, that is a question on its own — why do we need a strong military force?

Well, I fear we do, for all sorts of reasons, and the ongoing cuts are going to make it hellishly hard to build up again what we are losing if those needs become imperative beyond the damage being done to our international standing more than it has been already. I was anti our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan — much too 19th century, thank you very much — but, on the other hand, it appears that, in a smaller way, we are better at all that stuff than the Americans, better at hearts and minds, more likely to remember the past history of some of the places and find them on the map because they are part, like it or not, of our past history too.

If our military treads softer than some others, it is possible that it may be of value in peace-keeping operations that, however difficult and often botched, may make the lives of civilians in warring regions slightly easier and the numbers of those regions and countries are hardly shrinking.

Reducing our military, whatever role it plays, fits very well with our present attempts at splendid isolation, of course, but we want that every which way that suits us. Stay in Europe just as much as we want, regardless of everyone else, best buds with the United States of America without bringing much more than additional talking shop to the party — oh, and of course, expecting them to bail us out if we do hit a spot of bother with as little reciprocation as possible.

On the home front, we scrapped our last aircraft carrier in 2012, prematurely, since it was still fully operational. Now we are building 2 new aircraft carriers, the costs of which are soaring over original estimates. They will not, in any case, be operational for several more years, until 2016 and 2018 on current estimates — the new F35 fighter jets, ordered to replace earlier jump jets that have been sold off, will not be ready for deployment on the new carriers until 2020 — good planning again. Part of the requirement for further cuts to army and navy personnel is the payment for these aircraft carriers. By the time they are actually launched, we may have barely enough sailors to man them and they will be wholly inexperienced in the operation of such vessels, and the new trident nuclear submarine fleet, which has a delivery date considerably further into the future. This is, in any case, threatened by the possibility of Scottish Independence, given that the submarines’ base is on the west coast of Scotland.

The senior service, the navy, is going to get a lot of new hardware, whether or not it can use it, while the army is shortly to rely on reservists for the main weight of its personnel. This is unlikely to go well. Recruiting for the much reduced regular army is right down. Why would a young person enter a hazardous occupation, whether as officer or private, that no longer offers any security of tenure? Training, followed by the potential for a short foreign posting to be shot at, then redundancy long before there has been sufficient time for the sort of vocational training and experience that was valued in ex-army personnel going into civilian work. As for the reservists, that’s another triumph of hope over reality. Very few bosses these days are able to employ staff who might be called up to play soldiers somewhere in the world at the drop of a hat, and very few employees are prepared to risk further destabilizing careers in which there is also rarely security of tenure these days, especially among the young. ‘First in, first out’ in most jobs where cuts are needed, and if you are fighting for your country, or someone else’s in some far flung field of operation when the cuts come along, you can’t be fighting to keep your job at home.

We are heading towards a relatively well-armed navy, albeit looking well into the future, an army starved of boots on the ground, and what of the royal air force? We forget that the RAF is responsible for flying in supplies to everyone else, just for a start, and may have begun, instead, to imagine that all it needs is a good selection of drones and a dozen teenagers who are good at fighting-games on the computer for it to work. As it is, the RAF is suffering cuts that will affect the force’s ability to support the other two services, let alone what it does on its own account ex the dreaded drones.

RAF chiefs suggest that the anticipated ‘deletion’ of most of our fighter-jet fleet from the latest budgets will mean that we are unable to defend ourselves in our own air space should the need arise, let alone what we can’t any longer do further afield. Many formerly uniformed roles are to be outsourced to civilians — given recent issues over outsourcing of other operations previously undertaken by the police or the prison service; I expect that will go swimmingly.

It would be a dream come true if we really could believe, in the 21st century, that we could afford to have almost no defence forces at all and pump all that money into much needed service improvements, aside from health and education most particularly into better training for young people and more apprenticeships that would lead to employment — some of the things the military has successfully offered until recently on top of their main job. Unfortunately, it is not the case, and the muddled thinking and ensuing chaos in ongoing strategy are pretty much a nightmare, succeeding in no area beyond possibly — and this is debatable, given rising hardware costs — balancing the books a bit better, short term.

There is much argument in Parliament over the suitable commemoration of World War I over the next four years, including whether or not we are any longer to believe that eyewitness accounts of that chaos were correct at all in their summation of the bad planning and leadership that made the war worse by far than it should have been. I suppose that those in glass houses can’t afford to permit the throwing of even historical stones.