Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beyond SDSR the 2015 choice

While the scale of the cuts made to the armed forces were not as severe as the may have been they were still pretty grim. The UK defence budget and strategy has been put entirely into the fight for Afghanistan. Indeed Afghanistan is the only strategy now for defence. Win Afghanistan at all costs is the new slogan. What the salami slicing has achieved is to cut many capabilities but leave the core of the services intact. What it has not done is come up with any grand strategy for the future. The Navy has lost some frigates but kept it's sub's and the new carriers. The Air Force has lost the harrier and MRA4 but kept the bulk of it's fast jet fleet. The Army has lost some of it's armour as well as forces stationed in Germany but much remains intact.

Essentially the SDSR has sought to postpone any strategic thinking until after Afghanistan. Given the mess we are in and the tough fight ahead it seems there was little else they could do. However one result of SDSR 2010 is to draw the battle lines for the future. SDSR 2015 will likely be the place where the UK's real strategic future is decided. One thing is clear. In apsense of a real threat to the homeland or western Europe we can not expect to go on the way we have in the past. A military that ticks all the boxes as we have expected to do in the past will cost more than the country is willing to pay. When the choice is aircraft carriers or hospitals the later is likley to win every time.

It's right that the government offers up the defence budget in the near term to try and win Afghanistan. Pulling out now would do two things. It would ruin our standing with our key allie the USA. It would also tarnish our reputation. Don't forget the fear our armed forces generate in others is largely based on their track record. After the USA pulled out of Vietnam many doubted America's resolve. The Russians invaded Afghanistan. The Iraq's invaded Kuwait largely on the belief that America was unwilling or unable to to respond and in a battle would not suffer the required level of casualties to win. However after the 1991 Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq 2003 I doubt if any one in the world doubts America and Britain's resolve or ability to respond. Leaving Afghanistan with out some form of victory in what ever shape that may take will tarnish this reputation and it may take a generation or two to get it back if ever.

However win loose or draw we will be out of Afghanistan by 2015. We simply cannot afford to stay any longer. Nor can our allies the USA and NATO. With this deadline in mind it will be necessary to spend the next few years taking a serious look at what challenges we will face in the future, what military we will need to respond to them and most importantly what kind of military can we afford. The level of 2% of GDP will likley be the floor and ceiling for military spending for the next generation. The key debate for 2015 and beyond will be Land or Sea. An Army doctrine of large land forces able to participate in American operations (global guardian) or a maritime doctrine centred on the Navy and Marines (strategic raiding). In the past we have attempted to do both relativley well. However in the future only one will be affordable. We can either have a kick as Navy or a kick ass Army. One will have to be subservient to the other.

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