Political Correspondent Francis Beaufort reports on a damning indictment of the UK Government’s defence incompetence.

THE lamentable state of Britain’s Armed Forces has been highlighted in a scathing article published in the house publication of a leading UK-based military think-tank. The article, in the journal of the Whitehall-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) for Defence and Security Studies, claimed that the Royal Navy in particular is in mortal danger of deteriorating beyond salvation.
Written by Professor Gwyn Prins of the London School of Economics and the Marquess of Salisbury, a Privy Counsellor, it states: ‘The Navy is set rapidly to shrink in size and in capability because of the failure to maintain construction and establishment during the last decade (we emphasise this point here not because there are not grave shortcomings throughout the services, but because naval force structure, once lost, is especially difficult to recover).’ The report points to the crucial and varied roles performed by the Navy in maintaining the nation’s security, both militarily and economically, while operating under ever-increasing operational commitments and budgetary restrictions. In an earlier passage the article, which is entitled ‘Risk, Threat and Security, The Case of the United Kingdom’ presents the enduring relevance of maintaining a strong navy. It explains: ‘There are unchanging geo-political factors of trade, distance, trade routes and choke points vital to the United Kingdom’s well-being. Yet while British reliance on sea traffic is increasing, our policy makers seem to suffer from ‘sea blindness’. They have not yet noticed, or if they have, have not reacted to the weakening of the Royal Navy.’ The article comments: ‘Both India and China are matching their dependence upon increasing volumes of sea trade with substantial programmes of naval construction.’ Similarly, Russian military power is also on the rise again. See our articles elsewhere in this edition. By contrast, the article observes: ‘Britain’s defence forces have been reduced during a decade of overuse, underfunding and general under-provision relative to that use. Our world has entered into a dangerous phase of uncertainty.’ Of course guiding the use of any military force is both a clear sense of purpose and the knowledge that public support is forthcoming, neither of which currently pertain in the UK. The RUSI article continues, delivering a devastating indictment of New Labour’s bankrupt treatment of the UK’s armed forces: ‘A more fundamental source of damage to the security of Britain has been flabby and bogus strategic thinking. History and experience have been neglected in favour of ‘group think’ and enthusiasm for ideological projects. Public expenditure has been directed in correspondingly perverse ways with clear consequences for our defence and security. All this has contributed to a more severe erosion of the links of confidence and support between the British people, their government and Britain’s security and defence forces, than for many years.’

Since 9-11 a dangerous blurring of the line between a state of war and of peace has come about, with British forces committed to two wars with only peacetime levels of funding. The RUSI article judges that the ‘piecemeal and erratic response to new threats has sapped the strengths we know we have.’

The authors warn that Britain has rendered itself vulnerable ideologically and militarily and the nation is beset by uncertainty and fears for the future. ‘Our uncertainty incubates the embryonic threats these risks represent. We look like a soft touch. We are indeed a soft touch from within and without. There is now such disjuncture between Britain’s enduring security interests and the manner in which the state’s moral and material defence of those interests has been pursued since the collapse of the Soviet Union (and especially during the last decade), that this disjuncture is like a breach made by the defenders themselves in the walls of their own city.’ And the Tories do not escape their share of the blame. The RUSI article points out: ‘Both political parties [Labour and Conservative] have been complicit, from the time of the Rifkind Defence Review under the Major administration to the agitated activity and many institutional disturbances of the Blair administrations. And now we have the failure of the Brown administration to provide the significant increases of core funding for defence.’ The RUSI article remarks on the unprecedented broadside of criticism unleashed during a defence debate in the House of Lords last year, in which Admiral Lord Boyce and four other former heads of the UK armed forces laid into the Government for failing to fund Defence properly. See WARSHIPS IFR Jan 2008.

The RUSI article says of this episode: ‘...the intervention of the Chiefs of the Defence Staff suggests an atmosphere of chronic disrepair.’

Most worrying of all is the RUSI article’s reflections on the lemming-like conduct of the Brown administration: Running towards the brink of a security threat abyss while utterly failing to take the steps that would provide a brake for Britain’s leap to disaster. The report says the sense of premonition in Britain bears ‘uneasy similarities with the years just before the First World War’. Aside from its emphasis on Britain’s eroded military power, the report points to divisions and uncertainties in society that together are sapping the country’s collective will. It describes ‘a loss in the United Kingdom of confidence in our own identity, values, constitution and institutions.’ The predilection of the current British government for making gestures with the UK armed forces while not fully committing to support the effort financially, or even direct it properly via the pursuit of national interest, is skewered by the RUSI article. It remarks: ‘...the electorate is disturbed by an undertow of doubt about the wider muddling of political responsibilities between Westminster and Brussels. Who actually holds, or will take, responsibility for our foreign relations, for our defence, and for our security? Who - for instance - should guarantee our borders? Such uncertainty should be of primary concern because it weakens the bond between government and the governed, which is precisely what terrorists seek to achieve and what other enemies of the United Kingdom will exploit.’ The RUSI article is the fruit of a seminar series held between May 2006 and January 2008. In addition to the authors, those participating included Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham and Field Marshal the Lord Inge. This is serious stuff from serious men. However, in a Government that is chronically ‘sea dumb’ as well as ‘sea blind’, it will no doubt be dismissed as the product of reactionary minds, as crusty old men railing against the former CND supporters and 1970s student lefties in power. But, in this post 9-11 world, who are the dinosaurs?  This correspondent believes the latter rather than the former.

  • To access the full article visit the web site www.rusi.org

The RN destroyer HMS Manchester on the front line.

Pictured: The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Manchester on front line operations this year as part of a US Navy Carrier Strike Group in the Gulf. Photo: US Navy