By Alex Marsh
The government has recently re-evaluated its approach to foreign and defence policy, publishing two new security reviews. The lifting of the cap on UK nuclear warheads from 180 to 260 was the most eye-catching policy in the Integrated Review, whilst the Defence Review set out the government’s plans to reduce their target for British army personnel numbers from 82,000 to 72,500 by 2025. Both decisions are part of a broader ‘strategy’ to modernise the UK’s approach to defence, concentrating investment in nuclear and other hi-tech weaponry, instead of more traditional capabilities.
The wisdom of the decision to reduce the size of the British army has been widely criticised across the political spectrum. Responding to the Defence Review, John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, struck a surprisingly jingoistic tone, claiming that ‘further army cuts could seriously limit our forces’ capacity to deploy overseas, support allies and maintain strong national defences and resilience’. Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP and chair of the House of Commons defence committee, echoed these sentiments, warning that the decision amounted to an erosion of the UK’s ‘full-spectrum defence capabilities’.
But these criticisms aside, what appears to unite the government, its backbench critics and the Labour leadership is an inability to seriously reconsider how Britain should be using its military power across the globe.
There is little doubt that the UK’s nuclear arsenal, whether it stands at 180 or 260 warheads, will fail to act as a credible deterrent. Russia, cited as the principal threat driving the UK’s nuclear expansion, is estimated to possess 6,372 nuclear warheads. It only takes a rudimentary knowledge of mathematics to understand that Vladimir Putin spends little time worrying about the UK’s nuclear capability. What the government’s decision does do however is expend further cash on a nuclear weapons system that does nothing to keep the country safer, and only threatens to cause a devasting, and unnecessary loss of life if it were ever to be used. It is regrettable that in this country a commitment never to use weapons that have the potential to kill millions is a stance still considered to be disqualifying for high political office. Rather than tinkering with the small number of nuclear warheads in its possession, Britain should be leading the way on nuclear disarmament, making the moral argument against such brutal weapons.
In terms of the reduction in army personnel numbers, the government’s decision has undoubtedly been driven more by necessity than desire. A failure in terms of recruitment and retention has made the existing target of 82,000 unachievable, and the government has admitted that, due to natural wastage, it believes its new target can be met without redundancies. Given this reality, it is curious that critics of the Defence Review have focused their ire on the reduction in the numerical strength of the army, rather than on the role it plays across the globe. Surely, instead of debating the specifics of personnel numbers, it would be more useful to have an open discussion about the impact the British army has on the international stage, and whether it is acting as a force for positive change in the places it is deployed.
Britain is no longer the military superpower it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But with change comes great opportunity. Britain should seek to forge a new path on the world stage, re-directing its focus away from military interventions and provocations, costly both in money and in lives, and towards humanitarian and development efforts across the globe.
Image: Defence Images via Creative Commons