Drones are lethal on the battlefield and gentle on the wallet

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Crispin Burke

In March of this year, Wired Magazine revealed that an armed drone from the Royal Air Force - controlled from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire - fired ordnance at enemy forces in Helmand, Afghanistan, in support of British troops. It was the first drone strike controlled from British territory, and represents the latest success in the Britain’s ever-emerging Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program.

The successful use of armed drones by British forces is a positive development for the UK for three reasons. First, armed drones are an emerging technology which will play a vital role on the 21st Century battlefield. Second, Britain’s ability to employ armed drones reduces its dependency on the United States to provide the same capability. Third, and most importantly, in an era of dwindling defense spending, drones are an inexpensive - and proven - alternative to manned aircraft and aircraft carriers.   

The United States has long been the global leader in armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. UAVs quickly proved their worth in Iraq and Afghanistan, where their sensors, endurance, and laser-guided missiles gave American forces an edge previously unimaginable. America’s drone capabilities have only continued to improve, both in terms of the quantity and quality of the machines themselves, as well as the people who operate them. 

Today, nearly one-third of all US military aircraft are unmanned, with aircraft ranging from the hand-held Raven, to the Global Hawk, whose wingspan rivals that of a C-130 Hercules. The United States even has a handful of drones with stealth capabilities, such as the RQ-170 Sentinel, one of which crashed in Iran. Still, according to recent reports, the accident rates for drones such as the Predator are roughly compatible with those of general aviation aircraft. Perhaps most striking is the US Air Force’s investment in the people who operate these vehicles: in 2011, the US Air Force trained more UAV operators than fighter pilots and bomber pilots combined. 

America’s superiority in unmanned flight—especially with armed, Medium-Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) platforms—has greatly benefitted NATO. So much so, unfortunately, that NATO has become overly reliant on American drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. 

In the aftermath of the bombing campaign in Libya, US officials - including NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral James Stavridis and former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates - chided NATO for their inability to collect intelligence, and process it into targeting data - a capability provided almost wholly by US forces. This sense of frustration over Europe’s inability to field sufficient UAVs has been echoed throughout the ranks within the US military. In a memorandum sent to the Secretary of the US Army, one brigade commander in Afghanistan expressed frustration when British forces were given priority of support from American-owned and -operated UAVs. Britain could indeed rectify this imbalance by acquiring armed drones and training sufficient operators.

Additionally, though America’s commitment to Britain is strong - both through NATO and the so-called “special relationship” - it has, regrettably, not been the most reliable partner.  In such instances, British forces may have to call upon the unique capabilities provided by drones, operated by their own forces.

In order to do so, the UK must invest not only in the machines themselves, but also the facilities to operate them, as well as the personnel to maintain them, fly them, and process information into targetable intelligence. Like the US military, Britain must continue to assess its policies regarding training, manning, promotion policies, and even organizational culture for those who work with UAVs.

Most importantly, however, is that armed drones perform many of the same functions as fixed-wing fighter-bombers at a fraction of the cost. For instance, though Britain’s planned F-35 fighter is a stealthy, capable dogfighter, most of the combat British forces have seen in the past decade has taken place in uncontested airspace, rendering these features superfluous—calling into question the F-35’s £124 million price tag. Not to mention, the F-35B has been plagued with design problems, and will not enter service until at least 2019, according to some estimates.

General Atomics’ combat-proven MQ-9 Reaper drone, on the other hand, is a proven design, which can carry over 1700 kg of munitions and loiter for up to 14 hours while fully loaded. For less than £35 million, Britain can acquire four Reapers, plus the ground control stations and satellite links to operate them. Furthermore, forward-deployed drones require a much smaller logistical footprint than their manned counterparts. Indeed, fiscal realities make armed drones an attractive military option, considering the cost of manned aircraft and aircraft carriers.

Drones are not a silver-bullet weapon. The Ministry of Defence has noted that UAVs have critical weaknesses. Drones are vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles and are easy targets for enemy fighter aircraft; the data links which control them are susceptible to jamming, hacking, and viruses. Yet, despite these weaknesses, drones have been a game-changing weapon for NATO. A continued investment in armed UAVs and operators will help keep Britain’s Armed Forces relevant on the 21st Century battlefield, allow them to contribute to multinational operations more effectively, and provide many of the same capabilities as manned aircraft at a fraction of the cost.

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator and Iraq War veteran, who has served in the 82nd Airborne Division and the 10th Mountain Division.  His views are his own, and do not reflect those of the US Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter.

Lynton Crosby is not the electoral White Knight many Tories believe him to be

Giles Marshall 12.48pm

The Tories have had a dreadful week, and on some of the thinnest stories, that the search for who to blame and, more importantly, who their white knight in shining armour might be, are on apace.

Don’t imagine that this is a search among elected representatives. They are now so poorly perceived that they are but mere stooges. The search is about rooting out those favourite villains of the political piece across the ages - the advisers!  And that just happens to be where the white knight lies too.

The history of punishing the adviser for doing the will of the master has had some prominent victims over the years.

Thomas Cromwell was Henry VIII’s most effective minister, enforcing his master’s will and authority with talent and success. Yet he made enemies, and went to the block in 1540 while the bloated king carried on with his capricious reign.

No-one is suggesting current villainous advisers will head to the block, but they are certainly the recipients of similar invectives as dogged the late Thomas Cromwell.  The Sun has helpfully identified the masters of menace behind the Tories’ succession of disasters as communication strategists Craig Oliver and Andrew Cooper, with a particularly sinister walk-on part for Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who received more than just a mention in a recent piece for the Telegraph by James Kirkup that sported the headline, “The evil counsel of Sir Jeremy Heywood”.

And where is this White Knight? He emerges in the shape of the man many Tories are begging to run the next election campaign: feisty Australian Lynton Crosby.  The Spectator's James Forsyth is his principal cheerleader, but there are plenty who agree that in Mr Crosby lies electoral salvation.

Why? Because he was Boris Johnson’s mayoral campaign manager and used to do pretty well for the Australian Liberal Party (don’t worry - they’re the rightists Down Under).

Mr Crosby’s services apparently come at a hefty price - would he really be worth it? Almost certainly not. He was fine marketing an amusing political buffoon against a tired, disliked old has-been. However, his record in getting Tories returned to government in the UK is rather less secure.

He was, after all, the man who famously made Michael Howard’s campaign one of the nastiest in recent memory, but signally failed to get Howard himself anywhere near Number 10. One of his pitches was: “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration”. Perhaps not for some, but when the BNP use the issue to whip up support it pretty well as good as is.  All this in an election year that was Tony Blair’s weakest, following the disaster of the Iraq war.

Many Tories like Mr Crosby because he plays as negative as you want, and he swings heftily rightwards. He’d certainly bring focus to any election campaign, but whether it is the right sort of focus, and whether it leads to any sort of national electoral success - those are two serious questions that his career leaves hanging.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilsemarshall

The UK could learn from Turkey

Alexander Pannett 10.40am

As the chaos of Europe continues unabated and dangerous economic winds lap at Britain’s shores, I recently decided to escape all the incessant doom and gloom and head to Istanbul for a delightful city break. 

Rich with history and a modern dynamic energy that draws comparisons with London, the Queen of Cities is a magnificent testimony to the plurality of dreams that humans can envisage. 

Situated on the Bosphorus, Istanbul is the only city in the world that bestrides two continents.  It is also the only city to have been the capital of two distinct, successive empires, Byzantine and Ottomon, that both dominated their respective faiths of Christianity and Islam. 

Modern trams intersperse ancient buildings as this teeming city of 15 million continues to attract merchants and talents from throughout Asia and Europe, much as it did a thousand years ago when it was known as Constantinople. 

Turkey is similar to the UK in many ways. Situated on the periphery of Europe, it acts as a conduit for trade, energy, migration and ideas into Europe from other major economies.  It is a multi-ethnic country with an imperial past containing Turks, Greeks, Armenians and Kurds. It sees itself as a staunch ally of the US and a leading member of NATO. It is also outside the Eurozone. 

Unlike the UK, the Turkish economy is in rude health. Figures released on 2 April  showed that Turkey’s GDP rose by 8.5% in 2011 after a 9% increase in 2010. According to a survey by Forbes magazine, Istanbul, Turkey’s financial capital, had a total of 28 billionaires as of March 2010 (down from 34 in 2008), ranking 4th in the world behind New York City (60 billionaires), Moscow (50 billionaires), and London (32 billionaires). 

Whilst the global financial crisis has affected Turkey, with its current account deficit averaging 10% of GDP last year and inflation at 10.4% in March, it has responded to the downturn much better than most across the world. It was one of a few countries that actually saw its credit rating upgraded during the crisis. 

The Economist has commented: 

Turkey has weathered the credit crunch better than other emerging economies. Partly thanks to tough regulation, not a single Turkish bank has gone under. That is also because, unlike many Western banks, they have few toxic assets and limited mortgage exposure. So the government has not had to divert public money into rescuing banks. 

For these reasons Turkey can offer some important lessons to the UK in how to take advantage of its geostrategic position between Europe and Asia, just as London lies between the US and Europe geographically, and between Asia and the US temporally.

Turkey has looked to Europe for much of its economic trade, in 2005 59% of exports and 51% of imports were with the European Union. But it has also diversified, looking at economies from wider afield, especially Russia and Japan but also emerging markets in central and eastern Asia. Considering that by 2015, 90% of the world’s trade will be generated outside Europe, this diversification seems eminently sensible. 

Turkey has also not been a poodle to US foreign policy. It refused to allow its territory to be used as a staging post for the Iraq invasion and has pursued a doggedly independent approach to its Kurdish insurgency and relations with the wider Middle East. 

Whilst there are still some worrying problems in Turkey, with reported human rights abuses, an overly political military and susceptibility to erratic international capital flow, to name but a few, the future looks much brighter in Anatolia than it does in other peripheral European nations. 

The UK should learn from Turkey’s courting of both Europe and emerging markets to boost its growing economy. It should take heart from what can be achieved economically by staying outside of the Eurozone and that it pays to take a more independent approach to foreign policy that is in line with core strategic interests. 

Both countries have a long history behind them and both will need to look away from Europe and towards the wider world to ensure a prosperous future lies ahead.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

We cannot intervene in Syria

Giles Marshall 9.16am

I hate to say it, but Vladimir Putin has something of a point about Syria. We could do worse than simply wring our hands and leave things to the once and future Russian President.

Our problem is our outraged liberal values. Yet if we were able to take a step back from moral emotionalism, we would also have to acknowledge that not a single western intervention in the Middle East has resulted in a safer and more stable regime. Usually the reverse - utter chaos, anarchy and extremism, where innocents still die in large numbers.

Peter Oborne has a revealing account from ‘free’ Libya in this week’s Spectator (not yet online). In it he offers a vision of street fighting as a spectator sport, the kidnapping of hotel managers, and the descent of society into a murderous, corrupt abyss. There may not have been sweetness nor light under Colonel Gadaffi, no more than Iraq was a blissful democracy under Saddam Hussein, but what the West has orchestrated in its place is arguably much worse.

There are few things more damaging to a society, or more inimical to the pursuit of worldly peace, than countries without functioning governments. We might rail in our foolishness against governments and politicians here in the liberal West, but that is because we have them.

Governments are absolute prerequisites for stable, functioning and prosperous societies. That is why in 1787 the American Founding Fathers decided it was so important to have strong central government rather than merely a loose confederation of states. And that is why western nations today should err on the side of caution before conniving to overthrow yet another ghastly regime.

It could be that President Assad will fall in time as a result of internal revolt. On the other hand, it could be that we have greatly underestimated the support he still receives in much of Syria, and the fear that Syrians have of being overrun by Islamic militia of the type now ruling the roost in Iraq and Libya.

Whatever the true state of affairs, it would be madness now to propose action on the basis of emotional news reportage, regardless of how imperative and moral such an intervention might seem to us.

In this instance, it is the morally neutral President Putin who could in fact understand the value of realpolitik more than we do. We do not have to like Putin or the Syrian regime to realise that there is far more to Syria than we could ever hope to comprehend. That of course was the case in both Iraq and Libya, but this time, perhaps, we should resist the temptations of our better nature in favour of realism, however unpleasant it may seem to us. It is profoundly conservative, and reflects that clear understanding of man’s flawed nature.

It is not heroic, but international affairs rarely are.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

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.

Iraq was a failure of the neo-conservative world view

Aaron Ellis 9.17am

Iraq is the centre of the world and crucial to the United States’ wider foreign policy. President Obama is a failure and President Bush is as wise and as farsighted a statesman as General Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan.

This is the context in which we must understand the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, says Tim Montgomerie.

Last week, Mr Montgomerie attacked President Obama’s withdrawal from the country. He contrasts it with President Bush’s decision in 2007 to ‘surge’ American troops in order to regain momentum against the insurgency. Typically, Mr Montgomerie presents the reader with black-or-white choices: Bush is good, Obama is bad; and if you support the withdrawal, you “hate freedom”.

Neo-conservatives possess a dated worldview – and it shows. They are stuck in the early 2000s and the language of the War on Terror. They show no appreciation of grand strategy in his article or the coming of the ‘Pacific Century’. This is in stark contrast to President Obama, which is why Iraq should be added to the list of foreign policy failures by neo-conservatives and not the President’s.

The two decisions of Presidents Bush and Obama that we should contrast are the former’s decision to invade Iraq and the latter’s announcement last month of a new American military base in Australia.

For no good reason at all, President Bush burdened the United States with a disastrous war in a country of only marginal importance; he handed “a massive gift” to Tehran as a result, and distracted Washington from a real challenge to its power: China.

With his own announcement, however, President Obama sent a signal to Beijing that the U.S. was no longer distracted. The new base, the President said, was “a deliberate and strategic decision – as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping the region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with allies and friends.”

The great scholar Walter Russell Mead has described President Obama’s announcement, and other diplomatic coups the U.S. achieved in Asia last month, as the “coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be.”

If we understand the Iraq withdrawal in this context then it is obvious which of the two presidents can claim to be a wise and farsighted statesman. “Regardless of whether the twenty-first century will be another ‘American century’, it is certain that it will be an Asian and Pacific century”, Richard Haass, President of the Council of Foreign Relations, has written. “It is both natural and sensible that the US be central to whatever evolves from that fact.”

This undermines many of the neo-conservatives’ other beliefs. Tim Montgomerie is disappointed that the U.S. will not have a “foothold” in Iraq but he does not explain why such a foothold is important to the U.S. He has tweeted praise for a Mitt Romney line about whether a government scheme is so crucial that it is worth borrowing money from China to pay for it, but he hasn’t yet answered whether the same test can be applied to Iraq.

The fact that the interests of the United States are in Asia-Pacific also undermines the examples of post-war Germany and Japan as templates for American policy vis-à-vis Iraq. Those two countries mattered to U.S. security after 1945, justifying the time and money spent on developing them. You cannot make the same argument with regard to Iraq.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis

The Iraq war may have ended but its disastrous legacy lives on

Alexander Pannett 8.00am

Yesterday, President Obama marked the final end of the Iraq war.  It has been nearly nine years since the US and its allies, including the UK, invaded the Middle Eastern nation on the pretence of removing Saddam Hussein and ending his perceived involvement in Islamist terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

While the war was trumpeted a success by President Obama - the man who once opposed it as “dumb” - its legacy has been one of instability and continued conflict across the strategically important region.

Over one trillion dollars have been spent by Amercian taxpayers and 4,500 American soldiers have lost their lives.  This is paltry compared with the alleged hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died due to the invasion and ensuing bloody insurgency.  In its wake Iraq simmers with sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias.  Terrorism has increased and the government of Iraq clings on to power through backroom deal making and shaky coalitions with pro-Iranian factions.

The untamed use of American hard power may have eventually pacified Iraq but if its objective was to wrest the Middle East away from extremism towards a democratic future based on enlightened Western thinking then the invasion of Iraq must count as an unmitigated disaster.

Further evidence of the decline of American hard power as an effective foreign policy tool is the gradual withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan, having failed to pacify the Taliban, and the increasing friction between the US and their most dangerous ally, Pakistan.

Pakistan’s support has soured due to the repeated incursions into Pakistani sovereign territory by US military forces, most prominently the death of Osama Bin Laden. The Americans, for their part, are furious that Bin Laden was being sheltered in Pakistan and they hold deep suspicions that the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence organisation, is providing significant military and logistical assistance to the Taliban.

On Tuesday, the US Congress unveiled plans to cut $700 million of aid to Pakistan and yesterday, Pakistan responded with plans to tax Nato supply trucks that pass through Pakistani territory on their way to Afghanistan.

The armoured fist of American military might has exacerbated sectarian tensions in the Middle East and has increased the standing of Iran by making it the natural pole for anti-Western forces to align themselves with.  Iran’s rise has opened a Sunni-Shia fault line in Iraq and within neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, causing further instability as Shia minorities have looked to Iran for support and leadership.

American disregard for the UN prior to the invasion of Iraq has also undermined the ability of international organisations to quell Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which will further destabilise the region as other countries seek a nuclear deterrent of their own.

The most dramatic expansion of democracy and removal of autocratic power in the Middle East has not come from America’s use of hard power in Iraq and Afghanistan but from the burgeoning Arab Spring movement whose source of momentum has come from the repressed democratic ambitions of the ‘Arab street’.  It is telling that in Egypt, where the second round of parliamentary elections were held today, the parties predicted to win are not those with Western secular values but Islamic ideals.

President Obama may echo George W Bush by publicly claiming the invasion of Iraq was a success but the legacy of Iraq is far from secure and the disastrous consequences for the West’s standing in the region and the concomitant rise of Iran expose the invasion as one of the worst US strategic errors since Vietnam.

Only the most determined of Manichean acolytes would see the removal of one dictator in a largely contained country as worth all the blood and treasure that Iraq has drained.  As the drumbeats for war with Iran are starting to sound, Western policy makers should take Iraq as an example of how poorly deployed hard power can exacerbate tensions and end in tragedy rather than the lofty and enlightened goals Western policy makers had sought to achieve.

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British foreign policy must be relevant and useful

Aaron Ellis 6.03am

Conservative thinking on foreign policy is a contradiction in terms. The time and energy spent on a distinctly Conservative world outlook is tiny compared to the thinking on the economy or welfare reform, for instance.

There are two reasons for this: first, there are few votes in foreign policy and second, there is scant funding for foreign policy think tanks. Many British politicians and pundits take their ideas from America.

The worldview of many Conservatives is infected by a ‘hidden Blairism’, from the Prime Minister downwards. Although Mr Cameron has often dismissed the moral certainties of Tony Blair, he buys into the ‘internationalisation’ of the national interest, which was a hallmark of Blairite foreign policy. In short, it is the belief that the world is so globalised and interconnected that every massacre or famine or failed state is a direct threat to our national security and it is vital that we get involved to sort it out. Libya is the most recent case in point.

In an attempt to fix the Conservatives’ deficiency in foreign policy, Dominic Raab MP recently wrote an op-ed in the Telegraph outlining how he thought his party should approach world affairs. Alex Massie criticised the piece for the Spectator, but I would like to explain my own concerns and offer a new foreign policy for the 'post-coalitionists'.

On top of those detailed by Massie, there are two problems with Dominic Raab’s article: one is conceptual, the other is policy related.

Mr Raab argues that British foreign policy needs to be focused on ‘the national interest’, yet he too buys into its ‘internationalisation’, thus undermining any attempt for that foreign policy to be focused. It is in our interests, he believes, to resolve conflicts and rebuild failed states, but he fails to say which of these problems and where is specifically a national interest to sort out. By linking failed states to terrorism - a link that I criticised recently - shows that Mr Raab’s foreign policy is as much subconsciously Blairite as David Cameron’s and the coalition’s, despite claiming to be an alternative.

His policy recommendations are also similar to those favoured by the coalition government and like them, they leave you asking some basic strategic questions.

Mr Raab suggests that the UK should loosen ties with the United States and strengthen them with emerging powers. We should rehabilitate the Commonwealth. But what exactly does the UK gain from balancing power in the Far East? And with regard to the loosening of ties with the US, we need an explanation of how this radical shift would impact on the Trident nuclear deterrent and close intelligence relationship we enjoy.

The watchwords for British foreign policy in the twenty-first century must be relevance and usefulness.

Lee Kuan Yew, the great Singaporean statesman, has said that the only way his small country can exercise influence in a world dominated by geographical giants is by being relevant to them. One key feature of this policy is acquiring expertise in niche technologies. It would be obtuse to say we should become a ‘mega-Singapore’ but a policy of relevance is appropriate to Tory ideas on the economy, education and welfare reform.

Britain also needs to be useful, mostly to the United States. Prof Christopher Coker, a sharp observer of world affairs, has noted that being useful to the Americans is not in itself an objective but “a tactical instrument to follow a larger strategy - that of the national interest”. The hope is that our usefulness will be repaid in influence on US policy, as well as justifying the benefits we already enjoy. Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that this hope was misguided then, but the benefits of the Special Relationship continue to be important. Fifty per cent of intelligence processed by the Join Intelligence Committee (JIC) comes from American sources. This is a privilege we should not relinquish.

If we are to be successful then it is essential to impose restraints. Britain needs to determine our areas of expertise that make us relevant and which areas of the world we are useful to. These decisions require leadership. In my opinion, we are still waiting.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis