Over the week-end, it happened again: Sky News obtained a paper, which will form the basis of the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review. I have not seen the paper, but judging from the Sky reports there is not much to get excited about. Everyone accepts that the nature of warfare is changing, that traditional battle-lines are being re-drawn and that a new form of warrior will be required for future conflicts. The 64-thousand dollar question is what kind of warfare will dominate, how extensive the reforms will be, what sacrifices will be made and which service stand to gain. The paper does not, indeed cannot, answer this, particularly in the run-up to an election.
These larger questions are what the First Sea Lord Admiral Stanhope and Army chief General Richards have been fighting over recently. General Richards thinks Britain needs to invest in fewer big-ticket weapons systems and prepare for war “amongst the peoples”; his Navy counterpart believes Britain must remain on, if no longer rule, the waves, to secure her commercial and security interests. Next week their RAF colleague, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton will join the fray with a speech at IISS.
In the US, Robert Gates has tried to answer these questions with Solomonic justice, invoking the word “balance” when discussing future US military capabilities. In his view, a “balanced” force operates effectively across the entire spectrum of conflict. In a leaked copy (what is it with these military types?) of the QDR – America’s equivalent of the Strategic Defense Review – the US will continue to prepare for two simultaneous major wars, but adds that all forces must be prepared for a much wider set of threats and missions.
Britain is unlikely to be able to afford such “balance.” But as a story in The Times shows, the government has yet to grasp the consequences of this. For obvious political reasons, Gordon Brown seems willing to pile on additional MoD expenditures – including going ahead with two 65,000-tonne aircraft carriers at a cost of £5 billion; maintaining troop numbers in the Army at more than 100,000; committing a future government to the Joint Strike Fighter, costing £10 billion, and completing the £20 billion Typhoon programme. But the government is yet to make any of the tough strategic and spending decisions required to afford these items. Let us hope the Tories are ready with a few answers.