You are here:   Features > Great power politics means greater dangers

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has recently echoed Mattis’s concerns about Russia, while frantically attempting to secure his own eleventh-hour defence review. The return of great power competition highlights the significant danger which successive defence cuts have created and the urgent need to tackle the military ambiguity created by Brexit negotiations. General Sir Nick Carter, the professional head of the Army, issued grave warnings at the start of the year that the UK is trailing Russia in defence spending and capability, creating a particular vulnerability to the mix of threats faced. His warning echoed a starker assessment in 2016 by the outgoing commander of joint forces command, General Sir Richard Barrons. He wrote: “Counter-terrorism is the limit of up-to-date plans and preparations . . . there is no top-to-bottom command and control mechanism, preparation or training in place for the UK armed forces [to defend home territory] . . . let alone do so with Nato.”

It is hard to imagine a stronger warning that the UK is struggling to defend itself, its values and interests. The default assumption has been that Nato will provide the security blanket Britain needs and that we will more or less continue joint operations with our European neighbours under the auspices of Nato.

Since September 11, 2001 the UK’s two counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have disproportionately shaped today’s armed forces. As Barrons put it: “The current army has grown used to operating from safe bases . . . against opponents who do not manoeuvre at scale, have no protected mobility, no air defence, no substantial artillery, no electronic warfare capability.” This is particularly troubling because if Mattis’s assessment is correct the type of military now required is far closer to that of the Cold War.

Despite Williamson’s protestations to the contrary, it seems likely that this defence review will, like those of the preceding decade, be dictated by budgetary constraints rather than strategic imperatives. Most importantly, Britain is unlikely to be able to match her American partner’s strategic reorientation to great power conflict. Britain’s economic constraints have conspired with the political realities of European diplomacy post-Brexit to leave the UK particularly vulnerable.

Without a serious review of strategic priorities, the UK might find itself militarily misaligned with the US. Trump is unlikely to allow even as close an ally as the UK to outsource conventional military deterrence to Nato, while diverting her defence budget to counter-terrorism. It is simply incompatible with the logic he applies to international affairs.

When Americans talk about sharing the defence burden it appears they are no longer talking the same language as Europeans. Where the UK would once have bridged this divide we are too distracted by Brexit to address the increasingly precarious alliances that still just about protect us. American support and Nato unity should no longer be taken for granted as they were in previous decades. Equally, the EU may simply choose to march towards further military integration without formal UK decision-making. Either event would dramatically weaken the UK, but both together would be disastrous.
View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.