Christopher Bellamy: Slimmed and sophisticated new Army will make UK the alpha male of Europe

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The Independent Online

Yesterday's eagerly ­ for some, anxiously ­ awaited Defence White Paper, Delivering Security in a Changing World , reflected all the complex paradoxes of defence and security in the 21st century. In broad terms, its conclusions about that changing world, and the military's role in it, are undeniably correct, but the remarkably slim document is enigmatic about how the technology that is a "key driver for change'' will be paid for. And, as a Defence White Paper, it is only a part of the overall security picture.

It is clear that the Government's defence policy is to be able to accompany US forces into wars anywhere on the planet in just enough strength to count for political influence and at a level of technological competence to be compatible with US forces. The UK is probably the only other global military player with any hope of doing this, assisted by the special relationship that the Prime Minister has done his best to sustain and develop.

A corollary of this is that, in the European context, the UK will be far and away the most potent military power, and that if the European Union, with its new Common European Security and Defence Policy, becomes engaged in a complex emergency, crisis or conflict, the UK will be unquestionably the European alpha male.

There had been fears in the Army that there would be further cuts to the number of infantry battalions, which would have been justified, no doubt, in terms of a "peace dividend'' from Northern Ireland where "normalisation'' is well under way. MPs' concerns about the future of local regiments were unassuaged, because Geoff Hoon said his department had not yet got down to that level of detail. In fact, the number of armoured (that is, tank-heavy) brigades (5,000 to 8,000 troops each) will be reduced from three to two, one being replaced by a "light brigade''. In the light of the need to move forces very quickly to respond to, or, even better, pre-empt or prevent conflict, this makes sense. Seventy-ton tanks can be moved only by sea.

Mr Hoon said the idea was to meet "a much wider range of expeditionary tasks at a greater range from the UK and at an ever-increasing tempo''. He said the UK armed forces needed to deal with "multiple, concurrent small to medium-sized'' missions. This was a reference to operations such as Sierra Leone, a strategic raid by a single country, and to the UK's role in Afghanistan.

The White Paper responds to the continuing transformation in military affairs, recognising that the future in war-fighting, and in aspects of peace enforcement, peace-keeping and conflict prevention lies with precision-guided munitions targeted by superb intelligence. The lessons of this year's war with Iraq clearly underline this conclusion as far as war-fighting is concerned. But, although the hi-tech, precision technology worked well in that phase in Iraq, when war-fighting changed to peace-building, there were not enough troops on the ground.

Home security is less and less dependent on the armed forces. It depends on the police, customs, airlines, immigration services, intelligence services, even banks. The White Paper acknowledges that "a direct, conventional strategic threat to the UK'' no longer exists and is unlikely to re-emerge without good warning.

Ironically, we dismantled a very sophisticated network designed to mitigate the effects of nuclear, chemical and biological attack. Now we are having to rebuild it.

Christopher Bellamy is professor of military science and doctrine at Cranfield University

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