Why we still need strong armed forces

The British people reject isolationism and are committed to our global role, says George Robertson
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The Independent Online
Three weeks ago in Prijedor British troops apprehended two Bosnian Serbs indicted for war crimes, and the nation cheered. It was a sentiment echoed in the House of Commons; MPs of all parties felt that it was right that these men should be brought to justice, and were proud that it was British troops who had done the job.

Yet while the force involved that day was small, it has taken a massive amount of military might to quell the fighting in Bosnia and halt the horrors of ethnic cleansing and civilian massacres. Nato nations had to use heavy air bombardment to force the warring parties to the peace table in Dayton, and many countries have had to put tanks, artillery, aircraft, ships and thousands of troops into Bosnia to enforce that Dayton peace. Britain has been in the forefront of that effort.

In the Strategic Defence Review, we are going back to first principles to examine whether Britain should spend the money to have a substantial role in situations such as Bosnia or other international crises. With the end of the Cold War we have an opportunity to decide what kind of contribution we wish to make to international security. The choices we make will be important in shaping Britain's place in the world for the first part of the 21st century.

Polly Toynbee is a distinguished journalist who in the 1980s rejected the "minimal defence" policy advocated by Labour at the time. However, in this newspaper she has recently argued that at this juncture in our history we should abandon our traditional role as a nation deeply involved in international security, and slash defence spending. She argues that sums of pounds 5bn or even pounds 11bn should be cut from the Ministry of Defence's annual budget so that the money can be spent in other areas.

According to this argument, our armed forces are a redundant hangover from a Cold War long dead, forces which have no role in the modern world. I profoundly disagree with her, and so do the British people.

Bear in mind that the MoD's budget has already been cut dramatically since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Spending on defence has fallen by over 23 per cent in real terms in the 1990s, and the size of our army, for example, has been cut by a third. We are now spending only 2.7 per cent of our national income on defence, the lowest level since 1934, and down from a high of 5.3 per cent in the mid-1980s.

Ironically, at the same time the tasks we ask our armed forces to undertake have increased dramatically. In part that is because the end of the Cold War has not eliminated tensions. Far from it: submerged enmities and ambitions have bubbled to the surface since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Britain has been involved in two large conflicts in the 1990s, in Kuwait and Bosnia, and other sources of instability may well emerge in the years ahead. Today our troops are, for example, helping enforce no-fly zones in Iraq, protecting our dependent territories, as well as providing forces to Nato, and helping the RUC in Northern Ireland in large numbers. This heavy load of commitments with limited resources is causing unacceptably short intervals between tours of active duty for many of our troops.

Labour promised, and is delivering, a Strategic Defence Review, matching our international commitments to our resources. At its heart, the defence review is about whether Britain wants to be internationalist, involved in problems like Bosnia, a force for good in the world; or if we step away from such concerns, and leave the problems to others. Slashing our defence spending, which looks so easy to Polly Toynbee, would in my view completely remove our capacity to mount operations such as those in Bosnia. Is there genuinely a consensus for a new isolationism for Britain?

I bear the political scars to prove that the British people have already rejected that option. Labour paid a heavy electoral price in the past for ignoring the wish of the British people to have strong armed forces. In truth, the British people are simply not prepared to stand by and watch ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, nor were they prepared to allow the ambitious aggression of Saddam Hussein go unchecked. They want Britain to play a substantial role in Nato, and to play a wider role in international affairs.

The early thinking of our defence review chimes with that view: that Britain has a leading role in Nato, and that this is a national asset, but that we also have a part to play beyond that, as our permanent place on the UN Security Council suggests. In this post-Cold War world, we also face challenges such as the scourge of drugs, which may originate far away, but reach in and touch the children on the streets of our cities. In these areas, and in dealing with organised crime and terrorism, our armed forces have their part to play.

In the next phase of our review, we must decide exactly how we should organise our armed forces to meet these challenges and responsibilities. It may mean change, perhaps discomforting those who yearn for the cosy status quo, but I am determined that we should have the flexible, mobile, hi-tech armed forces we will need to face the 21st century.

There is another imperative: we must also ensure that we get value for money from every pound spent on defence. It is only right that if we are asking the British taxpayer to support our armed forces, that those forces make the best possible use of those funds. I have therefore ordered a review of every area of spending with the intention of eliminating waste. To take just one example, we spend pounds 9bn a year on procuring equipment, yet many of the weapons we have procured in the past have been late and over-budget. I am determined to change that.

I believe that modern, efficient armed forces are what the people of this country want; and they reject isolationism. In Prijedor our troops made their small contribution to making the world a better place, and we are right to be proud of that skill. We should also retain it.

The writer is Secretary of State for Defence.