This Sunday, David Cameron will lay a wreath at the Cenotaph to commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice during two ruinous world wars. People will say ‘Never Again’ and Cameron will agree. But then, thanks to the drastic cuts he has made to the strength of our armed forces, the Prime Minister need not worry himself unduly about Britain’s involvements in any future conflicts. He need not gnash his teeth too much about MPs’ reluctance to back military intervention in Syria because, as matters stand, Britain would be unable to fight a major war even if it wanted to.
This would perhaps make sense in a time of great peace, but the world is not short on existential threats. Syria’s brutal civil war isn’t just a conflict between fanatical Sunni and Shia Muslim militias — the exponential growth of extreme Islamist groups such as Islamic State poses as much of a threat to the security of the West as it does to that of the Arab world. As Andrew Parker, MI5’s director-general, recently warned, Isis terrorists based in Syria — many of whom have UK passports — are actively planning mass-casualty attacks on the streets of Britain.
Then there is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which is trying to flex its muscles on behalf of the beleaguered Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s intervention has confirmed what many of us have been saying for a year or more: you will not defeat Isis by air power alone.
Nor, during a scan for possible global threats, can we ignore George Osborne’s new Chinese chums in the People’s Liberation Army. Beijing’s apparent obsession with dominating the South China Sea has put it on a collision course with both Japan and the US. Washington has finally found the courage to confront China about this — but if China really is angling for a confrontation, which side will Mr Osborne choose? Our long-standing post-war allies, or his favoured nuclear energy providers?
These are just a few of the more visible threats we may face in the years ahead (and that’s without mentioning the Falklands), and yet Britain cannot right now respond in any meaningful military way. Our armed forces are so feeble as to be almost -irrelevant.
What did we do when Russia annexed Crimea? Downing Street dispatched 100 or so military advisers to Kiev to help train government forces. What did we do when Libya plunged, post-Gaddafi, into chaos? We deployed 300 non-combatant military personnel to South Sudan and Somalia.
It is a measure of just how far the stature of our armed forces has fallen in the past five years of cuts that our allies no longer talk of Britain deploying ‘boots on the ground’. They joke about us putting a few ‘sandals in the sand’.
We find ourselves in this parlous position largely because of the conclusions reached five years ago by the last government’s disastrous Strategic Defence and Security Review. The review was conducted on the naive assumption, presented in the government’s equally egregious National Security Strategy, that we faced no apparent threats to our security or national interests. It allowed the Tory/Lib Dem coalition to make the most drastic cuts to our defence budget for a generation.
The military has endured drastic cuts before. At the end of the Cold War, significant cuts were possible without losing fundamental military capabilities. But the problem with the 2010 review was that it prescribed significant cuts to military spending at a time when the defence budget was already under severe pressure as a consequence of New Labour’s ineptitude.
Tony Blair’s evangelical enthusiasm for military interventions was not matched by much extra money to pay for them. The real scandal of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts was the crippling equipment shortages that resulted in higher British fatality and casualty rates. The MoD’s efforts to plug these gaps by relocating funds from other programmes contributed to the infamous £37 billion black hole in defence spending that the Tories inherited when they came to power.
If balancing the books was, understandably, the previous government’s first priority on defence, the undisguised relish with which some ministers set about degrading Britain’s ability both to defend its interests and project power has had truly catastrophic consequences for our military capabilities.
The scrapping of the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft programme without any proper consideration of its likely replacement means that now, when Russian submarines try to monitor the activities of the Trident fleet in the North Sea, we have to beg the French to loan us one of their planes to patrol our territorial waters. Manning levels in the Royal Navy have reached the point where serious questions are being asked about its ability to crew both of the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, while cutting the number of soldiers by one fifth means the Army would struggle to replicate the division-strength deployments it managed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The general consensus in the military is that Britain has cut the strength of its armed forces by one third since the last strategic review. Officers talk about the military being ‘hollowed out’, so that while it still looks as though we have sufficient kit, our lack of personnel, lack of training and lack of readily available supplies mean our position is deceptive. If we ever needed the military to deploy in strength, the deployment would be unsustainable.
The question now is whether the new defence review — due later this month — will change anything. The Downing Street line is that now that the Tories enjoy an overall majority, Mr Cameron is personally invested in rebuilding Britain’s military standing. This is supposed to have been reflected in George Osborne’s announcement in his July budget that Britain would honour its Nato commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. That would be nice, but what will this 2 per cent figure amount to once Whitehall has undertaken its customary accounting skulduggery?
Oliver Letwin, for example, who is regarded as the ideological driving force behind the last parliament’s assault on our military infrastructure, is said to favour relocating a significant chunk of ‘defence spend’ to counter-terrorism operations — normally paid for by the combined budgets of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ. It’s whispered that military pensions, a significant cost that is usually separate from defence expenditure, could also now be included in it. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, insists that Nato, not the UK government, will decide whether these clever accounting tricks meet alliance requirements.
The best indication of whether the Prime Minister actually plans to restore the fortunes of our armed forces is whether it looks as if he would actually deploy the armed forces in any meaningful fashion — and here things look less promising again, and not just because his MPs would rebel.
Mr Cameron provided a telling insight into how he sees the future of Britain’s involvement in overseas operations when he declared a preference for the extra funds to be spent on special forces and drones. It’s an alluring prospect — no squaddies in body bags; death delivered at a distance, risk-free. But as recent events in Syria and Iraq have shown, waging war by remote control only delivers marginal results. A year into the military campaign against Isis, in which the West has relied heavily on drones and special forces, Islamic State occupies more territory and boasts more followers than it did this time last year.
Relying on drones without useful intelligence on the ground can be highly counter-productive. In Afghanistan last month, a US drone hit what was supposed to be a Taleban stronghold in Kunduz, but turned out to be a hospital. Twenty-two innocent civilians were reported to have been killed and many more injured. This one drone disaster has been invaluable to Islamist groups across the world. Look what America does, they say — it kills the innocent and sick. Technology that was supposed to save innocent lives has ended up endangering far more.
We’re all wary of boots on the ground — but the truth is that sometimes the alternative is worse. Look at Libya, where Islamist militants have prospered as a direct result of the government’s refusal to deploy ground forces during the military campaign to overthrow Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Although Mr Cameron was one of the cheerleaders for military intervention, he now behaves as though he would rather everyone forgot about his contribution to the creation of this lawless calamity.
It has fallen to Mr Putin to demonstrate that, while the West seems obsessed with waging war by remote control, there is no substitute for drawing on raw military power to achieve your goals. Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea and perhaps even Damascus demonstrate what can be achieved through the application of force.
No one is suggesting Britain and its allies should embark on a campaign of conquest in central Europe and the Middle East. But if we are to prevent others from so doing, then we will need more than a few drones and special forces to protect our interests.