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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