Why plan if we don't know where to aim?

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The Independent Online
WE WILL be surprised. That is the only sensible prediction to make about the next military threat to British interests, which may be a long way off. It will come at the wrong time, from the wrong direction. It usually does. Hardly anyone predicted the invasion of the Falklands - and that includes the Foreign Office. Who thought, during the Iran- Iraq war, that British soldiers would soon be fighting the same Baghdad regime with which British companies were then trading?

And, for that matter, who would have predicted that the main threat to the reliability of British nuclear weapons would come not from a disarming Labour government but from the White House? Who predicted, earlier still, that the Warsaw Pact would turn so quickly from awesome super-enemy to rubble? All defence reviews should start from an awed, amused awareness of human error.

We were spared those nuclear-tipped tank battles in Germany that fed the nightmares and fantasies of a generation. Instead, an unpredicted, barbaric slaughter took place in areas of the Balkans that Europeans had learned to see as a haven from grim Northern realities, one long ersatz Greek beach, with attendant architectural curiosities and jolly peasants. (Plus ca change: a few days ago, our own front page promised a travel article on 'Turkish delight . . . the intoxicating power of southern Turkey' less than a foot away from the headline 'Bloodbath looms in Turkey'.)

Past surprises, it seems safe to assume, will be followed by future surprises, making the confident world view of defence reviews sound like yesterday's pretty good nonsense. Defence reviewers, after all, were the people who sent the cavalry regiments to Flanders, who distributed gas-masks on the Home Front and who pointed Singapore's guns the wrong way. They were probably behaving rationally according to their lights. But events move faster. The best guide to future conflicts may be to take the MoD's map of where British forces are now deployed (Belgium . . . Belize . . . Norway) and think about the places farthest away from them.

Nor should we assume that we will be able to pick and choose between low-level threats. China may well be the next superpower to become active on the world stage, building on her awesome economic growth. Already, as China turns into a net importer of energy and sells arms to the Middle East to pay for this, she is becoming a player in the world's least-stable region. Might a Gulf crisis 15 years hence involve a Chinese expeditionary force, a Chinese aircraft carrier in the Red Sea?

I'm probably wrong, but that's just the point: all such predictions are a chancy game. Wars to come will be fought, we are told, over dwindling water supplies, mass migrations, the narcotics trade, even nuclear proliferation. How will this affect Britain, if at all? No one can possibly know. The Ministry of Defence can draw up neat lists of future military threats, tasks, allies, 'force elements' and so on. But it will probably be caught flat-footed, as it has been before, hurriedly searching for maps of unknown places, phoning up obscure academics, ordering battledress in an unexpected colour.

We cannot take anything for granted, from our diplomatic alliances to the efficiency of our weapons. Britain is an enthusiastic joiner of international clubs of all kinds - EC, CSCE, Nato, WEU. (Did you know, for instance, that we are, through the North Atlantic Co-operation Council, loosely allied with Kirghizia, not to mention Turkmenistan?) But club members can fall out. The serious threat of the world trading system degenerating into hostile blocs reminds us that no order is immutable.

As for our weapons . . . well, there is a national tradition involved. It is a fair guess that Britain will not be wholly effectively armed for whatever threat comes next. Why? Because however many defence reviews there are, Britain never is. 'The sand of the desert is sodden red . . . The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead . . .' (Sir Henry Newbolt, 1910). '(It) did not cope well with the sand. Infantrymen faced the enemy in close combat unsure whether their weapons would fire or stop.' (MoD report on the Gulf war use of the new SA80 rifle, 1993).

Where does it leave us, this vain attempt to impose military planning on an unpredictable future? We could have decided to rethink our national obligations, above all our United Nations role, but have not done so. That being so, this review should be seen coldly and clearly for what it is - a means of saving taxpayers' money, nothing more. And while no obvious threat looms, the cutting will carry on, and understandably so.

At the moment, after all, Britain possesses awesomely destructive nuclear weapons technology bought from the United States. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is pretty incredible to think of us actually using it.

But unless and until test bans render it ineffectual, Trident offers many British voters the illusion of total security. Under its shadow, defence reviews will cut deeper into conventional forces because there is little obvious reason not to. Many people will ask the simple question: if our soldiers and tanks are not going to fight the Warsaw Pact, and they were not appropriate for stopping the ethnic-cleansers in Bosnia, just what are they for? While the politicians have no answer, they will merge regiments, cancel aircraft and mothball missiles. That's democracy. By the time an answer arrives, baring its teeth, we will have to start from the wrong place, and improvise. That's history.