Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 02:18 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 02:18 | SYDNEY

Defending the Realm: From whom, and with what?

22 October 2010 10:40

Matt Hill is a Lowy Institute intern in the Global Issues Program. A New Zealand Freyberg Scholar, he recently completed a Master's in Strategic Studies at the ANU.

Justin Jones is spot-on in arguing that the UK's recently announced military spending cuts necessitate a reassessment of London's global commitments. Future British governments will find their freedom to respond to international developments significantly restrained. The key question, however, is whether this will threaten the UK's ability to defend and advance its interests.

Fortunately, they probably will not. While it may be difficult for many in Whitehall to accept, Britain's actual strategic requirements, and the efficacy of its international military influence, are far more limited than the lingering appetite for prestige and global relevance.

During the second half of the twentieth century, British grand strategic interests were defined by  fading imperial commitments and the threat of Soviet aggression towards Western Europe. The UK's force structure became one part a hangover of colonial expeditionary requirements and one part a commitment to conventional armoured warfare across the north German plain.

Yet by the 1990s, these strategic imperatives had largely run their course. Holding together the UK's capability eclecticism was a combination of American expectations of the 'Special Relationship', former PM Tony Blair's commitment to interventionism as a moral imperative, and the sizeable political pull of the UK defence industry. These forces were abetted by benign economic conditions and an absence of existential security challenges that stymied public or intellectual pressure to recalibrate ends and means. While the scale of the military was rationalised, its structure was not.

Today, the confluence of economic and military burdens has forced Britain to a strategic disjunction. The financial downturn represented more than a body blow to the country's fortunes; rather it penetrated to the heart of the UK's commercial self-image and confidence. At the same time, involvement in protracted, bloody and expensive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have stirred societal discomfort with the political objectives the British military is expected to meet. Whitehall is waking up to the reality that its post-imperial expeditionary ventures lack a truly satisfying ideological or commercial underpinning.

In being forced to make decisions on the basis of its means, London is reluctantly facing its true status as a regional, rather than a great, power. Despite global commitments to maritime security, Britain's trading interests have largely retreated to Europe and the US eastern seaboard. While Britannia may no longer rule these waves, the demise of Russian maritime power has rendered the Atlantic a friendly, American lake. The conventional rationale for a strong army has reached an equally low ebb. With continued evolution of the European Union, the continent enjoys the strongest prospects for sustained peace since the Pax Romana.

What is left, then, to threaten the security of the realm' A flurry of rapidly drafted strategic statements out of London highlight terrorism, cyber attacks, and natural disasters as the likely threats of the future. Regardless of the potential severity of these challenges, it is difficult to see any clear mission for conventional military assets such as Harrier fighters or Challenger tanks. Indeed, these threats call into question the very relevance of regular military might.

While the severe pruning that the Exchequer has inflicted upon the armed forces may be brutal for the institutions and individuals involved, there is little indication that it will reduce the security of Britain's core interests.

Photo by Flick user Defence Images, used under a Creative Commons license.