Real defence options caught in the crossfire

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The Independent Online
THE SCRAP over the defence budget which has hit the headlines in the last few days is depressingly typical of the way serious issues are discussed by the British political establishment.

In one corner we have the Secretary of State for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind, who says that any further cuts on top of those currently envisaged would risk leaving us with 'paper tiger' armed forces. If force levels are to be reduced, then our commitments will have to be scaled down accordingly. Mr Rifkind is explicitly threatening his cabinet colleagues with the political embarrassment of a full-blown defence review only three years after the publication of Options for Change, which was supposed to settle the structure of the armed forces for the rest of the decade.

In the other corner we have the Treasury, looking to cut pounds 1bn from next year's pounds 23.7bn military budget. When the Treasury looks balefully across Whitehall it sees not so much a sitting duck as a corn- guzzling Strasbourg goose. The Treasury is disgusted that, despite the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the emergence of 'a friendly and democratic Russia', the Ministry of Defence is still absorbing 4 per cent of GDP. It also regards the MoD as virtually synonymous with waste and poor management.

Whatever the strength of the opposing arguments, I would bet that as long as Mr Rifkind heaves out a few of the middle managers whose numbers have remained at a steady 10,000 over the past 15 years, despite a 40 per cent decline in uniformed personnel, he will emerge relatively unscathed. There is strong opposition on the Tory back benches to any further 'Treasury-led' defence cuts, and a defence review in this Parliament is thought to be more trouble than it is worth.

Those hoping for a proper debate about Britain's role in the world and the kind of armed forces that may be required to sustain it are going to be disappointed. And that is a pity.

Options for Change, the official response on the consequences for the armed forces arising from the end of the Cold War, was disappointing for its limited scope and exclusion of anything smacking of imagination or radicalism. It is also dated, having been written while Mikhail Gorbachev was still in office and before the break-up of Yugoslavia had begun to challenge our comfortable assumptions about security in Europe.

Although Options for Change was presented as a prudently worked out alternative to the 'salami slicing' which nobody advocates, it is difficult to see it as being much more than that. Apart from the restructuring of our forces in Germany, with the eventual reduction of army manpower there to 23,000, its main impact has been to spread a little pain fairly equally. While the Soviet threat is deemed to have diminished considerably, the actual commitments that smaller forces have to meet have not significantly altered. In this sense, Mr Rifkind and his supporters are right to say that the armed forces have already been cut to the bone.

Given the inadequacies of Options for Change and the speed at which events have moved since its publication, the case for a defence review is strong, but whether it would justify a reduction in expenditure is more arguable. Two questions have to be answered before anything can be decided. The first is whether we are more or less threatened than we were three years ago. The second is what role it is appropriate and in our interests to play in a much more fluid and uncertain world.

The evaluation of threat has become increasingly complicated and open to interpretation. But not many people would claim that the world has become a much safer place in the past three years.

The overwhelming fact is that the former Soviet Union is in dangerous turmoil. In Russia itself it is far from certain that the 'westernisers' who want Russia to become a modern, liberal, democratic state will prevail. Although Boris Yeltsin smashed through one obstacle to reform when he sent his tanks against the Communists in the Russian parliament, there are still powerful and implacable forces ranged against him. The army is also using its new leverage over Mr Yeltsin to intensify its involvement in the war- torn Caucasus, from where fighting will be difficult to prevent spreading to the western regions.

It is perfectly possible either that Mr Yeltsin's supporters will lose the forthcoming parliamentary elections or that continuing economic failure will topple him in the next presidential ballot. Is it really so unlikely that the belligerent nationalists who believe Russia has been stabbed in the back and sold into Western bondage will gain power?

If we cannot be confident that Russia will continue to be friendly and co-operative, can we at least assure ourselves that it has lost the ability to pose a military threat to Europe? Absolutely not.

The nightmare of a surprise blitzkrieg across the central German plain has disappeared, but Russia will remain the continent's only military superpower. Although its armed forces are in the process of reorganisation and the army is suffering manpower problems, equipment - including nuclear-powered submarines and combat aircraft - is being upgraded. The nuclear strike forces, although reduced under the terms of Start 2, will still be massive.

Russia apart, there is also the indirect threat of numerous small wars of self-determination, fuelled by historic hatreds. As Jonathan Eyal wrote yesterday, while none of these local wars threatens Western security as such, their cumulative impact could dissolve the whole fabric of current security arrangements. That is why intervening early and hard in the former Yugoslavia was necessary for more than the obvious moral reasons. If we have neither the will nor the ability to make such interventions in the future, there is little chance that a stable international order will assert itself.

There is not much that Britain can do on its own. But if Britain, with its powerful interest in a stable Europe and a functioning international order, decides that it no longer wishes to make its traditional contribution, it will be that much less likely that anyone else will. The United States, for better of worse, will no longer act without partners. France is no more capable than Britain of unilateral action (other than in its former colonies). Germany will continue to be preoccupied with the strains of unification for the rest of this decade.

A defence review is needed all right - one that overturns the bureaucratic complacency and bland conservatism of Options for Change.

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