Leading Article: Defence is still ripe for rethink

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THERE were two berets lying on top of Corporal Philip Bottomley's coffin as it was carried to an aircraft yesterday for transportation home from Bosnia. One was regulation Army issue, the other was the blue beret of the United Nations. At the same time, other British soldiers were preparing to depart for Rwanda on a mission to bring help to that shattered country. These two events on a summer weekend symbolise why politicians need to think beyond the next defence review and to assess the new role our armed forces face in the world.

For the first time in a generation British forces are once again thinly spread across global trouble spots. While 3,000 soldiers are in Bosnia, the Royal Air Force helps to patrol the skies over Iraqi Kurdistan and the Royal Navy mounts watch in the Adriatic and in the Gulf. The remarkable difference is not just that the Cold War is over. It is that most of these operations command widespread support across the political spectrum in Britain. Liberals and left-wingers have shown themselves among the most ardent promoters of intervention in the former Yugoslavia, while Conservatives remain keen on Douglas Hurd's dictum that Britain should 'punch above its weight' in international affairs. Public opinion is steadier towards losses than it is

in America, perhaps hardened by casualties over the years in Northern Ireland.

The period between now and the next election is therefore a time for the Labour Party to think very carefully about its policy on defence spending and about the ambiguous attitude some of its members harbour towards the armed forces. The Tories, too, should consider their own peculiar mixture of sentimental patriotism and free-market ideology, a combination that permits the party to wave the Union Flag at election time and then to privatise the maintenance of fighting aircraft with unfortunate effect.

The most striking need is to take the debate beyond mere tactics or cost. It should examine the political choices facing any government charged with deployment of British forces towards the end of the century. Should Britain formally embrace a doctrine of projecting military might beyond Europe, as did the latest French defence 'White Book'? What would be the benefits of a settlement in Northern Ireland permitting a reduction in troop levels? Will our economic position allow both the maintenance of a serious rapid deployment force and a full-scale nuclear deterrent?

The last defence review, which bore the title 'Front Line First', went some way to addressing the issues. It cut support jobs and used the savings to increase operational training, to acquire new equipment and to bring Harrier aircraft and two vessels back into the front line. But it was not enough. France and the US have both conducted a fundamental re-examination of their military to take account of global changes since 1989: equally profound thinking is needed here.