COMMENTARY SPECIAL

DEAR DAVE & GEORGE

An Open Letter from Odin to the Prime Minister and Chancellor

The strike carrier HMS Ark Royal, alongside at Portsmouth April 2010

The country now knows the nature of the so-called Strategic Defence and Security Review, though most of us do not believe that many security considerations were taken into account, not that there was much (global) strategy either in what has been decided. The British people fully comprehend the dire financial straits in which the previous administration of Blair and Brown left their country, and that you have perforce been impelled to conduct a financial review of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The wrongheaded procurement delaying tactics of your predecessors and their advisers left the Defence budget over committed by the equivalent of one year’s worth of expenditure, or £38 billion. Rectifying this required the equivalent of a 10 per cent cut in Defence programmes, and you wished on top of this to find at least another 10 per cent of cuts. However, the whole process - reviewing the Defence budget in a few short months - has inevitably been so rushed that you have been prevented from taking a long-term (strategic) review of Britain’s security needs. You chose instead to conduct a review of MoD spending under a lame-duck Chief of the Defence Staff and less than effective Permanent Under Secretary, both of whose retirements had been announced. In addition your decisions were cramped by the legacy of one of Blair’s Wars, the campaign in southern Afghanistan. You were right to preserve, for the time being, the Army’s numbers and to give priority to our brave men and women who are on the Afghan front line. And of course you realise that support for our troops as individuals is not the same as support for a war, which was not of your making. Nonetheless you are right to set a deadline for getting out of the Afghan mess. Beware the siren voices, which tell you that leaving Afghanistan would be a defeat, and who would urge you to press for victory at any price.

There are British generals who will tell you that there is a connection between the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and terrorism and drugs on the streets of Britain. Yet there is no evidence that there are fewer drugs on the streets of Britain because of any successes in Afghanistan. Quite the contrary - under the Taliban prior to 9-11 the 95 per cent of the world heroin supply emanating from Afghanistan had been successfully suppressed. Nor has the war there been effective in stopping other terrorist campaigns and plots against targets in Britain. Indeed there is the equally good argument that it is the perception of British war on Islam, in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan, which has antagonised Muslims in Britain and abroad, thus creating the conditions in which young and unrepresentative hotheads are recruited to a nihilist cause and in which plots are hatched in the Yemen, Pakistan, and half a dozen other countries. Are we to go to war with all these places? Only this month (Oct) it was revealed that the leader of a proposed Al-Qaeda cell in Great Britain - who was reportedly preparing himself in Pakistan to bring terror to the UK and the rest of Europe - was killed by a Predator drone strike. Will a full-scale invasion of Pakistan now follow? Each campaigning season after campaigning season we have heard successive British generals tell us that some drive in some new area of Afghanistan will turn the tide against the enemy, and that the lives which have already been lost in Afghanistan should not be lost in vain.

Mr Cameron, you have said that we can’t be in Afghanistan for more than five years more, having been there for nine years already, and that you want all troops home by 2015, the year of the next General Election. I laud your ambition and this statement of policy. Meanwhile, you must both put in place a proper Defence review and I urge you to take time over this, and to consult widely. Politicians, naval and military officers, diplomats, academics, allies and many other constituencies have an interest in what will be decided by a measured review of Britain’s security and defence needs. It would be a great statesmanlike act if you were to announce that such a review would be conducted once in the lifetime of a parliament, so that like general elections there would be a review every five years. You have already indicated that you think that Britain through its Defence posture should maintain her world role. You will have two broad choices of strategy: Continental and maritime.

A continental strategy is exemplified by the war in Afghanistan. A continental strategy is what was fought on the Western Front in WW1. Continental wars are of long duration and characterised by invasions, the development of infrastructures on land, the positioning of large-scale logistics and a dependency on host-nation support, the semi-permanent deployment of land forces and they carry concomitant risk of attrition involving numerous casualties. You may care to note that the war in Afghanistan depends on fuel supplies being tankered along hundreds of miles of tortuous roads through inhospitable country, and they risk being held to ransom or attacked either by government forces of the country they transit or by guerrillas - as we saw in October with NATO fuel tankers being torched in the Khyber Pass.

On the other hand, you could opt for a maritime strategy. This is about deterrence, and its main effect can be psychological, but it is intrinsically flexible and responsive. A warship - principal manifestation of a maritime strategy - is capable of diplomacy, police action, and fighting wars at low and high levels of intensity. Maritime strategy does not leave forces tied down in one place. An aircraft carrier, for example, is capable of moving 600 miles in a day, dominating vast areas of the sea and land, yet depends upon no host nation for its support. Ships can also be used in disaster relief and in the delivery of humanitarian aid. And, unlike armies, fleets can sit over the horizon without providing an overt threat or leave an area of operations without the taint of defeat. These advantages are priceless to you in government.

Note too, gentlemen, the arms races in the Middle East and in South East Asia - the two largest regions of naval expenditure - and latest threats to our interests in the Falklands and potentially from Putin’s resurgent Russia. It would be foolish in the extreme to put all your eggs into one Afghan basket, or to assume that all future wars will be counter-insurgencies. Can you be sure that there will be no general war while you are in power? Britain is an island nation, dependent upon a lifeline of exports and imports that are carried 95 per cent by sea, four per cent through the Channel tunnel, and half a per cent by air. Do you remember what disruption the Icelandic ash cloud caused - imagine how it would be if our sea trade, which is 200 times greater than via air, were disrupted? Yet there is only five days storage of liquid natural gas in Britain. The bulk of Britain’s gas supply is at sea between Milford Haven - the sole British port of entry for gas - and the Mediterranean and the Middle East. One major menace to Britain’s energy security is piracy, which is resurgent in the Indian Ocean and the Bight of Benin, and it seems only a question of time before some step change in the pirates’ capability or a terrorist attack results in interrupting the flow of trade to British shores. Or a terrorist group could announce it had placed a mine off the entrance to Milford Haven. Another threat is the rogue state: Until recently the idea of a submarine sinking a ship in peacetime was regarded as far-fetched, but isn’t that just what North Korea did, without warning?

Navies have unique qualities and, besides war fighting, have a role in crisis prevention and in disaster relief, in deterrence and in confidence building. Ships can arrive quietly, with or without publicity. They require no permission to stay offshore in international waters, they present no threat, and they make no demand on local infrastructure or logistics. Ships and shipbuilding mean spending at home, jobs, and technology. Mr Osborne, you have stated that you wish to see the UK less dependent on the financial sector, on the industry and commerce concentrated in the South East of England. Why then do you pursue policies of savage cuts in the Navy - indeed why do you basically want to destroy Britain’s fleet - by slashing the defence budget such that the highly specialised, much prized shipbuilding and refitting skills that exist on the periphery of the UK at Devonport in Plymouth, at Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, and in Scotland on the Clyde and at Rosyth, will suffer? In cutting just one warship, in denying warship construction contracts to industry, you destroy whole communities, throwing tens of thousands of people on the dole (which will cost billions in itself), reduce Britain’s ability to defend itself and ensure the nation will rely even more on the financial sector that brought it to its knees.

Meanwhile, you allow the Overseas Aid budget of several billion pounds a year to go untouched, despite the fact that by proxy it enables some nations to pursue the very naval and military arms programmes that you claim the UK cannot afford. Why does the UK pour money into overseas communities while destroying the social and economic fabric of many equally needy towns, cities and villages at home? Verifiable worthy causes, in countries that are not cursed with corrupt government and are not pursuing the very sophisticated warships and submarines we need are all well and good. Your duty as the leaders of our country is to put the defence of realm first. To deter and to defeat direct threats to Britain’s security, you will need well-trained and confident sailors, naval aviators, Royal Marines, operating helicopters, frigates and minesweepers, submarines, aircraft and carriers. The Royal Navy had already been cut to the bone prior to the SDSR - the loss of a single ship or any more of its people plunges Britain into a sea of troubles without a lifebelt.

Yours sincerely Odin

The assault carrier HMS Ocean

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