Britain cannot afford to abandon Trident

Louis Reynolds

Danny Alexander, discussing his recent policy review of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, sought to highlight the need to ‘move on from the Cold War postures of the past’; unfortunately, it seems that the senior Liberal Democrat apparatchik is forgetting the lessons of history. Mr. Alexander’s recent foray into the perennial nuclear weapons debate suggests that his party’s proposals can only be the product either of ignorance or, as Liam Fox alleges, politicking of the worst sort; that which compromises the long-term interests of the state. Certainly, they are not based on a holistic, historically-minded or even realistic assessment.

The nature of state on state conflict is that it is often unpredictable. Major wars can and have in the past come about due to, in various assortments and to varying degrees, diplomatic misunderstanding, mismanaged gun-boat diplomacy, foolish posturing, poor leadership, and a myriad of other factors. As the International Relations scholar Christopher Coker recently pointed out in a sober lecture on the possibility of a major conflict involving China in the twenty-first century, previous conflicts have come about with very little warning. Even the argument commonly made today, that our intermeshed global economic system would prevent state conflict from taking place, has historical precedence. The same arguments were made concerning the supposed peace-keeping effect of the gold standard and the international credit system in 1913.

When one makes the judgement, as Mr. Alexander has done, that Britain must reduce its nuclear deterrent’s effectiveness in order to save a few million pounds over a decade - 0.17% of the overall budget to be precise - one puts a low price on national defence indeed.

Simultaneously, one puts a huge amount of faith into the ability of politicians to make accurate, long-term calculations regarding future needs. Danny Alexander’s vision of Britain’s nuclear deterrent is fundamentally based, and can only be based, on his long-term vision of a world in which inter-state conflict will not take place. To confidently assert that major interstate conflict - of the kind relatively historically common up to this point - is no longer a threat, one must not merely be assured of the inherent goodness of modern states and the unprofitable nature of modern war. One must also be assured that states always make the most logical decision, always act in the most intelligent manner and always function as a comprehensible, cohesive whole. This is folly.

The Liberal Democrat’s half-baked idea that there should be a ‘surge’ capacity betrays their awareness of their own dangerous optimism and highlights their lack of serious strategic consideration. A ‘surge capacity’ – as if such a thing were possible in the context of nuclear weapons – is exposed as lunacy given a moment’s thought. What might be the effect, I wonder, on an already tense international political landscape, if the United Kingdom were to decide things had become dire enough to initiate a nuclear weapons surge? I would argue that attaching such a function to our nuclear weapons policy might be more than counterproductive.

The Liberal Democrats’ apparent awareness of the limitations of their proposals, combined with the utterly trivial amounts of money that could be saved by a reduction in the Vanguard fleet or a conversion to cruise-missile deployed weapons has lead some observers, including former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, to suggest that the their stance on this issue has more to do with internal politics than national defence. Whether or not this is the case, these musings on nuclear deterrence represent a familiar beast; the reasonably unrealistic and realistically unrealisable Liberal Democrat pet policy. Thankfully, such policies are generally harmless, though there is the potential that similar views, if they became Labour policy, might be very damaging to the United Kingdom’s interests indeed.

Britain isn’t engaged in the Cold War, a major world conflict is not imminent, and defence policies should not be maintained solely on the basis of possibilities; what really matters in international defence are probabilities. Yet it is not ahistorical to suggest that today’s political landscape is particularly uncertain, and as such inevitably to a degree unstable. Furthermore, the Trident programme is already the perfect size for the United Kingdom. A four submarine fleet allows for a constant deterrent, with sufficient training, refitting and rest capabilities, at the lowest possible cost. The UK Trident programme is powerful and limited in scope, it is effective and it represents ultimate security at low cost in an uncertain world; one that is not disarming, in nuclear or even general terms. The Liberal Democrats think that their nuclear policy would represent a step forwards for Britain; in reality, it would represent a foolish and unnecessary leap.


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Defence cuts must lead to a limited world role for Britain

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Louis Reynolds

George Osborne has opted to reduce the MOD’s civilian headcount as part of the latest £11.5 billion savings drive implemented across Whitehall departments. While this cutback will certainly be noticed even within the supposedly wasteful MOD, it is an excellent alternative to further cutting H.M. Armed Forces proper.

Cutting the Forces to some degree is also seemingly the only option the Chancellor can decide upon in his mission to further slim down the British state. With Education and the NHS – which will by 2014-2015 account for 43% of spending – totally ‘ring-fenced’, the other departments must inevitably undergo more substantial butchery than would otherwise be the case, especially given Liberal Democrat misgivings about further cuts to Welfare.

The Armed Forces is also an easy target. Despite occasional and brief protests from the Chief of the General Staff Peter Wall or retired senior officers, the military is often the subject of significant cuts because it is in the culture of Britain’s services to make do. Furthermore, since the end of the Cold War the continuing theme underlining British defence policy has been near constant downsizing. Finally defence cuts, while unpopular and often unwise, are felt less directly by the general public than other spending reductions.

The unequivocal necessity of government spending reductions combined with the political inability of the coalition to meaningfully confront the departments with the most substantial budgets has resulted in a 20,000 soldier reduction of British Army strength, around a fifth of its personnel, over the Coalition’s period in government.

Despite this significant reduction, the Strategic Defence and Security Review failed to properly engage with the changes the government has made to the British Armed forces, merely offering a miniaturised version of Britain’s Cold War capability and a more cautious application of force than that used in the Blair government’s unpopular operations.

The British Army was chronically undermanned and under resourced in its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during the early part of the Global War on Terror. The British Army’s failure in Basra and its severely limited utility in Helmand was the direct result (to a considerable extent) of a chronic lack of resources and manpower as well as a commitment which overreached its capability. Britain’s struggle to amply fulfil her supporting role in both of the major conflicts of the early twenty-first century damaged her reputation and risked significant military embarrassment.

Since the withdrawal from Iraq and the declaration of imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan, the British Army has undergone quickly implemented and very deep cuts. The increase to defence spending that would be required to enable the British Army to successfully enter into two such medium scale military commitments today is, in the intermediate term, unforeseeable. Minor mercies such as today’s announcement make little realistic difference to that uncomfortable and poorly addressed fact.

Where does this leave Britain? Despite Ed Miliband’s recent and uncharacteristic outbreak of pragmatism, the Conservative party is respected as a realistic and frank broker. Sensibly reviewing British defence policy in a manner that the public could understand would lay much needed foundations for British strategy, as well as helping to prevent our ‘can do’ military being overcommitted in future operations. It is in the country’s interest, and the Coalition could do so without alienating core voters; moreover, once a realistic vision of Britain’s hard power capabilities has been established, a less nebulous and myopic foreign and security policy could be shaped.

The Coalition cannot take the easy route and conform to the pattern set by the Blair and Brown governments; continual minimisation of an outmoded and unappreciated fighting force. If we cannot afford to substantially augment H.M. Armed Forces, we must think much harder about what role it must play.

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No permanent threats, only permanent interests

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Aaron Ellis

A conceptual problem with Britain’s defence policy is that it is too focussed on preventing threats, not safeguarding our interests.

The problem is a consequence of the way that our politicians and commentators have understood, and talked about national security since the end of the Cold War: policies and procurement choices are only valid if they deter great, existential threats. In the weeks before the last Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), the Prime Minister was the most senior advocate of this kind of thinking in the British government. David Cameron told Andrew Marr…

“What you have to do is look at the threats we face today…We’ve inherited a situation where we’ve got a lot of battle tanks ready to roll into Russia. That’s not what you need today. We’ve got fighter jets that are ready to go into dogfights with the Soviet Union air force. That’s not right.”

He repeated the point when justifying cuts in the defence budget to MPs: “We’ve got to get away from Cold War tactics.”

By prioritising threats, however, the current government, and successive ones, risk taking British defence and foreign policy on a wild goose chase. The late, great Sir Michael Quinlan best expressed the danger of this path:

“[Threats] we expect we plan and provide for. What we plan and provide for, we therefore deter. What we deter doesn’t happen. What does happen is what we did not deter because we did not plan and provide for it because we did not expect it.”

Safeguarding interests is a better guiding principle than simply deterring threats as it is conceptually broader, and it will also bring a measure of stability: to echo Lord Palmerston, the United Kingdom has no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. If policy and procurement were aligned to the latter, then we would avoid the kind of situation that the Prime Minister thinks we are in with regard to “irrelevant” Cold War equipment.

Obviously it is in our interests not to have our Tube stations blown up by militant Islamists, but counterterrorism should not be the ultimate objective towards which all of our defence and foreign policies unstoppably flow. As we enter another round of defence cuts and the lead-up to the next SDSR, ministers should try to think more broadly about British interests in the world and the kind of military we need to safeguard them.

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Arab politicians continue to use distant British history as an excuse for their own mistakes

Aaron Ellis 2.31pm

For many in the Arab world, the Sykes-Picot Agreement is what the Yalta conference was for many conservatives in the United States during the Cold War. It is a betrayal of people seeking freedom; a damning indictment of Great Power politics; and the source of all problems in the Middle East.

As with Yalta, all kinds of things are attributed to Sykes-Picot years after the event. For instance, the veteran Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt has said the Syria crisis is “unravelling” a deal that created the countries of the region. This lazy understanding was reinforced by the Guardian’s Martin Chulov writing that the Agreement was adopted by Britain and France in 1919, not 1916

The Sykes-Picot Agreement divided up the Middle East between the two Great Powers and the Arabs; it did not create the nation states we know today.

France got modern Lebanon and southern Turkey, as well as a sphere of influence over an Arab kingdom in Syria. Britain acquired most of Mesopotamia and exercised influence over a Y-shaped Arab kingdom that stretched from the Egyptian border to northern Iraq and down into the Arabian Peninsula. Though the post-war carve-up vaguely resembled the deal, it actually began to unravel almost as soon as it had been negotiated by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot.

British officials in Cairo hated the Agreement and worked to undermine it: they wanted Syria to be part of a Greater Egyptian viceroyalty that would rival the Indian Raj.

"I am afraid that swine Monsieur P[icot] has let M. S. badly down," wrote the Tory politician and diplomat Aubrey Herbert, an intelligence officer in Cairo. “This is what comes of disregarding the ABC of Diplomacy and letting Amateurs have a shy at delicate and important negotiations.”

In 1917, the deal unravelled further when the Bolsheviks leaked its details to embarrass the Allies, prompting a fierce reaction to what was viewed as outdated imperialist thinking, especially in the United States. The Russian Revolution had also removed Britain’s geopolitical reasoning for giving the French such a huge chunk of the Middle East: creating a buffer zone between them and the Russian Empire, which had been promised land in Turkey. Sykes wrote that the sooner the Agreement was scrapped the better, as the world had “marched so far” since it had been negotiated a year before and it could “now only be considered as a reactionary measure”.

His about-turn coincided with one higher up in government when David Lloyd George became Prime Minister in December 1917. Lloyd George wanted to increase Britain’s sphere of influence beyond that which Sykes had negotiated just a few years before. In his book A Line in the Sand, James Baar reports a conversation between Lloyd George and French premiere Georges Clemenceau in which the latter conceded to British demands. “Tell me what you want,” Clemenceau is supposed to have asked him.

“I want Mosul.”

“You shall have it. Anything else?”

“Yes, I want Jerusalem too.”

“You shall have it,” said Clemenceau. These concessions were recognised in the many peace conferences after the First World War, thus by 1922 the Sykes-Picot Agreement had completely unravelled.

The Middle Eastern order that people like Mr Jumblatt fear is disintegrating was created long after this much-maligned deal was a dead letter, and centuries-old problems in the region cannot be blamed on what was even then considered to be old-fashioned thinking about Great Power politics.

Britain can be rightly blamed for many things, but too often Arab politicians use our decades-old faults as an excuse for their own mistakes.

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The West’s half-hearted efforts will not end Syria’s civil war

Dan Trombly 10.23am

The pressure has increased for more forceful intervention in Syria. Despite the presence of international observers, the Assad regime refuses to adhere to a ceasefire demanded by the UN.

Whether it involves arming the rebels or a repeat of the NATO intervention in Bosnia in 1995, the ongoing strife in the country calls for further action, and US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry recently urged consideration of both options. Yet despite the frustration of diplomatic efforts, military options seem bleak.

Those who argue that past success in Bosnia could be replicated in Syria both ignore the history of the Bosnian war and its differences with the current conflict. The UN’s attempts to create “safe zones” resulted in the horrific massacres of Srebrenica and elsewhere. The Bosnian war was ultimately won when the numerically superior combined force of Croatian and Bosnian troops launched ground offensives, not when NATO began air strikes.

Similar attempts to implement “safe zones” in Iraq following the first Gulf War required the threat of ground assault in the south of the country, and the tactic failed frequently in the north, such as at Irbil in 1996. Even after the Desert Fox bombing campaign, forces withdrew once a Baghdad supporting faction secured that area. Notably, Saddam Hussein’s rule was not ended until troops fought their way to the capital in 2003, despite “safe zones” having been declared alongside frequent US air patrols and strikes.

In Syria, as in Bosnia and Iraq, neither protection of civilians nor regime change can be assured without superiority on the ground. Even air strikes would require a bombing campaign larger than in Iraq in 2003.

And enormous obstacles stand in the way of arming the Syrian rebels. In Bosnia, for instance, it was Croatia’s invasion that brought about a Serb defeat, not Bosnian forces. In Syria, without a ground invasion of tens (or hundreds) of thousands of troops - from Turkey, the Arab states, or the West - Syria’s rebels will remain woefully outmatched in conventional capabilities. Indeed, Turkey rarely conducts cross-border raids against PKK terrorists without several thousand soldiers.

The Syrian rebels need artillery batteries, armour and air support, not just man-portable anti-tank or anti-aircraft weaponry.

Even with Western air support, the rebels would likely continue to use the guerilla tactics befitting the outmatched force that they are, avoiding pitched battles and ceding territory to draw out hostile forces. While these might be effective tactics in a long-term insurgency, they are unlikely to result in regime change or effective protection of civilians in the short-term. Even the maintenance of a safe haven for rebel forces would need to be done outside Syrian territory, rather than in “safe zones”.

Simply arming rebel forces is more likely to cause a protracted civil war than a quick victory. The United States and others learned this is Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan during the Cold War. But in those cases, there was thought to be some value in attrition, and supporters of proxy groups were relatively indifferent to civilian casualties and the collateral damage of prolonged conflict. In Syria, such outcomes are unjustifiable on humanitarian grounds, nor on strategic aims (seeing Assad depart quickly).

Moreover, an influx of arms leaves lasting consequences. The behaviour of Libyan militias is a case in point.

An authoritarian regime such as Assad’s can hold on until hostile armoured columns roll on Damascus. Therefore the only strategically feasible option for a quick victory in Syria is a full-scale invasion. Yet no Western state is willing to undertake such a mission and a Turkish or Arab effort seems very unlikely.

Ultimately, Syria’s civil war will drag on. In the meantime, Western powers must work with Syria’s neighbours to prevent WMDs and other arms from leaving the country; they must provide aid to refugees that manage to escape Syria; and continue to exercise diplomatic options to the best of their ability.

Unless Western policymakers can convince their own populations and their Middle Eastern allies that an invasion is justifiable, providing military aid or half-hearted intervention can only worsen the consequences of Syria’s conflict - for both that country’s neighbours, and the interests of the West.

Dan Trombly is a student of International Affairs at George Washington University. He blogs at Slouching Towards Columbia.

Iran might be many things, but it is not the Soviet Union

Aaron Ellis 9.30am

Some of the worst decisions in history have been influenced by bad historical analogies. In an essay on the part played by such analogies in American foreign policy, Robert Dallek dubbed their malign influence “the tyranny of metaphor”.

“For all their pretensions to shaping history, U.S. presidents are more often its prisoners.”

The tyranny of metaphor is especially strong in this perennial debate over the Iran Problem. Those who want to attack the country often justify their position by comparing its regime to the Nazis.

One commentator noted recently:

“No other historical episode gets mentioned as often by pundits and policy makers in arguing that some menace or supposed menace needs to be confronted firmly. What is drawn from the Nazi analogy is an adage that a threat must be stopped forcefully now to avoid a bigger and costlier fight later.”

The comparison is ridiculous for any number of reasons, but it serves an important purpose: it is an easy-to-grasp analogy that helps coax those unsure about the use of force.

Yesterday in the House of Commons, in an urgent question to William Hague (video), Robert Halfon boldly described Iran as “the new Soviet Union of the Middle East”. Though his subsequent description of Iranian behaviour did not explain the comparison, there are two ways one can interpret it.

A generous interpretation would be that Mr Halfon believes the regime in Tehran is so crooked, contradictory, and such an aberration of Persian history that its eventual collapse is inevitable. It was this prophetic insight about Communism that led to George F Kennan devising the idea of containment, which won the Cold War. If we just applied continuous but restrained pressure, the Soviet regime would either yield to the West or be overthrown by the Russians and other subjected populations themselves. Going to war with the Soviet Union would not only be disastrous, but also unnecessary.

The more likely interpretation is that Mr Halfon genuinely believes that Iran poses the same degree of threat as the Soviet Union did, which is as absurd as thinking it poses the same threat as Nazi Germany.

Both Israel and the United States dwarf Iran militarily, whereas the Soviet Union’s conventional forces dwarfed those of the West years before the Russians successfully tested an atomic bomb in 1949.

Iran has only one friend in the Middle East - Syria - and it is unlikely that friendship will continue if the Assad regime falls. Until the final years of the Cold War, Moscow had almost all of Eastern Europe under its thumb and, until the 1960s, the important support of Mao’s China.

If Iran is like the Soviet Union in any way, it is the Soviet Union of 1991, a basket case. The influential commentator Fareed Zakaria wrote earlier this month:

“The real story on the ground is that Iran is weak and getting weaker. Sanctions have pushed the economy into a nose-dive. The political system is fractured and fragmenting.”

I wrote yesterday that the only way we can come to an informed decision about Iran is by raising the standard of the debate. Nik also wrote that a debate of such direct import must take place in the House of Commons before any substantive military move. Thankfully, Parliament was granted a preliminary murmur later yesterday afternoon.

Those who claim to have a solution to the problems posed by Tehran and its nuclear programme should furnish us with a coherent strategy, as well as explaining how to offset the trade-offs and indirect consequences of their preferred policies.

And yesterday highlighted another problem, which perhaps we shall never escape: the use and abuse of history.

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