When asked by a journalist what was the most difficult challenge he faced as prime minister, Harold Macmillan is reported to have wearily replied: “Events, dear boy, events.” Events are certainly the biggest challenge to the development of a viable and affordable defence policy, as Britain has frequently discovered.
Britain emerged victorious from the Second World War with a battered economy, unprecedentedly large armed forces, and military deployments and commitments all over the world. The Labour government which took power in 1945 reduced some of these commitments by granting independence to India and passing Palestine over to the United Nations and responsibility for Greece to the Americans. But it also undertook new ones: the development of an independent nuclear deterrent and the establishment of two military alliances—the Western European Union and Nato, obliging Britain to station on the mainland of Europe a field army and a tactical air force. This was the first time the United Kingdom had ever undertaken a permanent European commitment of this kind.
British defence policy through the 1950s became increasingly Eurocentric. This was confirmed by the decision in 1968, by another Labour government, to close down virtually all of Britain’s military commitments east of Suez. The review which prompted this decision was undertaken by the defence secretary Denis Healey, probably the only holder of that office ever to have had a true intellectual grasp of strategy. But events intervened. The oil price shock of 1973 and the Iranian revolution of 1979 focussed attention on the vulnerability of oil supplies from the Gulf; and Britain was obliged to redefine the concept of east of Suez. Britain has had a permanent naval presence of some kind or another in or around the Gulf ever since.
There was, however, one thing which British defence planners were confident about throughout the 1970s: the UK would never have to fight a war on its own. Again, events—in the shape of General Galtieri’s invasion of the Falkland Islands—dispelled that illusion. The Falklands campaign was a success, but only just. If the Argentinians had waited another decade or so, the UK would probably not have had an aircraft carrier to retake the islands.
Another tenet of British defence thinking up until the end of the 1980s was that the UK’s armoured warfare capability was embedded in Nato and would only ever be needed in the European theatre. Events dispelled this illusion too. In 1990, Britain had to deploy an armoured division to take part in the first Gulf War. It was only able to do so by relying heavily on American logistical and other support. Being a useful ally to the United States around the world, and not just in Nato, became a key strategic priority for Britain.
Pure defence reviews were replaced in the 21st century by ones that sought to define Britain’s strategic interests more broadly, taking account of a wider range of potential threats. Terrorism, cyber warfare and pandemics all found their place in the risk-assessment lexicon. But when it came to the military dimension, the emphasis moved gradually to the Indo-Pacific and the need, in conjunction with regional allies and partners, to contain China. Cynics noted that the analysis seemed conveniently to validate procurement decisions which had already been made, in particular the commissioning of two new aircraft carriers.
So will the war in Ukraine prompt another shift in Britain’s defence policy? Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has argued that it should mean an increase in the defence budget, with the figure of 3 per cent of GDP cited by others. There is no sign so far, however, that this will be the view in No 10. The war has shown that Putin is willing to use military force in a brutal way to pursue Russia’s national interests; but also that Russia’s armed forces are not as competent as previously thought. Changes in Nato’s operational deployments will be required—for example a more frequent, perhaps permanent, deployment of other allies’ forces in the Baltic states—and Britain will be expected to be a part of this. But this would be the enhancement of a trend already under way, rather than a radically new departure.
There will also be questions about the purpose of the two aircraft carriers and their battle groups. Are they now needed more in the South China Sea, the North Atlantic or the Baltic? Countering potential Chinese adventurism is still a strategic challenge. But as Ukraine has reminded us, the Russian threat is nearer home.
Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn by British defence planners from the war in Ukraine is that resilience matters. This means having supplies of materiel and ammunition large enough to fight a long war. The British army, as opposed to the navy and air force, has felt underfunded in recent years, but the British equipment supplied to Ukraine—particularly its anti-tank missiles—has proved to be of high quality. If Ukraine can hold back a Russian invasion, Nato ought to be able to defeat one. Maybe we are a little safer in Europe than we thought.
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