The current rushed strategic review is being "money-driven rather than driven by the threats to our country," accuses James Arbuthnot of the Defence Select Committee. Well, come off it. When has Britain's defence ever been other than "money-driven"? The only countries driven by military needs are those which have planned aggression. The rest, even one with as global an imperial past as the UK, have muddled along with budgetary constraints reinforced by public indifference until the threats become real and actual war takes over.
The trouble with defining your military expenditure by your perception of threats is that threats are almost infinite and your money is finite. At this particular moment in time you can variously describe the dangers facing the nation as coming from rogue states, extremist groups getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction, cyber war, piracy, global fights or control of resources, from food and water to fuel and civil unrest at home.
Depending on which is the most likely, you can argue either that the country requires a full panoply of nuclear weapons and expanded Army, Royal Navy and RAF, or that it needs virtually no defence forces at all, putting all its money instead into intelligence and policing. Every service has its view and every service can back that up with a logical analysis.
Which is where the Defence Select Committee, and the military, are right to worry that the new strategic review, promised within six months, is being taken at far too frantic a pace to allow proper analysis and public discussion of the options. But that debate has to take place against the reality that a medium-sized country trying to clamber out of recession cannot afford everything. It has to look at alternatives, not simply swivel across the broad horizon.
The last review, published in 1998, took 18 months and was in many ways a model of clarity and sense, arguing that the world had altered with the end of the Cold War, that the country had to re-order its priorities in terms of equipment as well as forces, and that the future would inevitably lie in greater co-operation with our allies, in Europe as much as across the Atlantic.
Many of those arguments apply as much today as then, only the 1998 review was then promptly overturned by Tony Blair's vision of moral foreign ventures, demanding a return to close co-operation with the US and to a requirement for boots on the ground rather than strike aircraft and battleships. The result was not a redirection of defence policy but general confusion as new needs were added to old commitments.
Any strategic review now is going to have to consider certain fundamental questions. One is whether the country does envisage an attack from another state and thus how far it should spend its money on extensive and hi-tech air defence. A second is whether, if the main threat is from terrorism and/or cyber wars, the country should spend its money on technology and civilian services rather than the military at all. A third is how far the country should develop and renew its nuclear capability, in particular a replacement for Trident.
Last but not least is the question of whether, after the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain should stop the whole approach of out-of-theatre operations for our forces other than in alliance with others.
It's not the "money-driven" approach that is at fault in the new review. You could argue the opposite. There is nothing like cash limits to clarify the mind and force hard decisions, as every private company knows. The problem, rather, is the politics. If haste is of the essence, then the government will avoid harsh options and try to balance as best it can the claims of competing interests. The Defence Select Committee wants more time because, a creature of the defence establishment, it believes that the public will oppose cuts given the chorus of fear aroused by the voices of the military. That would be disastrous. We need more time for debate so that clamour about the multitude of "threats" can be stilled, the pathetic outbreak of inter-service bad-mouthing can be ended, and a fundamental review really can take place.
The lessons of the Pope for our own dear Queen
If the Pope's visit to Britain is arousing near universal regret that it was ever planned, maybe we should be reconsidering the Queen's mooted trip to the Irish Republic next year. The passions fired by a German Pope in a secular UK are bad enough, but one can see just as much anger, and equally as much need for security, for an even more politically contentious descent by the Queen on a country most of whose inhabitants have been brought up to resent if not positively hate the English establishment (although not the people) and all it stands for.
You can understand the thinking behind it. Like her predecessor Victoria, the Queen has now reached an age when her own personality is no longer an issue. Northern Ireland has ceased to be a major point of contention between the two countries. As with the Pope, a state visit by the British monarch could be seen as an emblematic act of reconciliation between communities, a closing of a difficult historical chapter.
Yet, just as has become apparent with Benedict XVI, by making it a political gesture you leave it hostage to aggressive counter-causes. I have no doubt of the warmth of welcome which may be given to the Queen by the Irish themselves. But I can see all the high security and tension we are now witnessing with the Pontiff's arrival. A royal visit to Eire is a nice idea, an overdue one even, but best leave it in the pending file.
For further reading
'Strategic Defence Review, 1998' ( www.mod.uk)Reuse content