Defence spending, etc..

James Blitz, Alex Barker and Carola Hoyos ended their very interesting and substantial article about Defence spending, “Up in the air” [FT September 21st 2010] by quoting RUSI’s Malcolm Chalmers: “This change in Britain’s posture will be the most significant since the immediate aftermath of the cold war”.

I have just re-read the Ministry of Defence’s own document, “The Future Character of Conflict” (March 2010), which presumably describes the anticipated backgrounds of 2014 and 2029, against which spending proposals will be being judged.

Two problems with the document:

there is little change in the Britain that finds itself in a
rapidly changing world and several currently rather vigourous developments were scarcely discussed: the new arms races, the use of mercenaries, and the nature of cyber-war.

The new arms races are in Missile Defences – being strongly promoted by the United States and its defence industries; space weaponry; and unmanned aerial vehicles. All very expensive – and generally dubious.

(i) The MOD document recognises deterrence as fundamental to Britain’s military purposes. Yet Missile Defence Systems, as an “enabling” element in an Offensive Strategic posture, aim at minimising – or killing off – Deterrence. (The word “enabling” has been used by Israeli top brass about their IRON DOME system in connexion with their strategic weapons.) We of course already play an active part in the US Missile Defense System with Fylingdales and Menwith Hill.

(ii) The ever-increasing use of non-service personnel is – shall we say – problematic: it is part of the “shift[ing] towards the commercial sector which, typically, is more agile than the military” as the MOD text puts it. And less accountable.

And (iii) the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, controlled from several thousand miles away, are proving less than attractive to those whose hearts and minds are the prize.

As for Cyber War: there is no way of anticipating attacks, no way of estimating one’s own society’s vulnerability to them, no way of knowing if one’s weaponry has been pre-emptively hacked into. The implications are endless and alarming. As the MoD document puts it ‘Procurement programs that take decades may be obsolesced in an afternoon by new technological innovations’.

With the need to reduce expenditure, I find it surprising that the Government is not seeing the situation as one in which we might usefully, along with others in the same boat, agree on various money-saving agreements and arms controls. Space is filling up with garbage, and needs a proper system of law. So do the High Seas, and the Seabed. UAVs could be banned. Something like the ABM Treaty could be revived, limiting missile defences so they are not set up to damage deterrence. International rules-of-war for mercenaries are needed – not themselves money-saving but perhaps conflict-reducing. As for aircraft carriers, they mainly seem to be used for asking for trouble in distant waters. And History could be properly studied.

Nuclear weapons, central to deterrence, will not be disinvented, nor are they likely to be used: the are “self-deterrent”. So let us keep ours, ideally “made in England”. (Are any other countries in fact likely to get rid of theirs?) The US plan to secure a “nuclear-free world” would simply leave us with the grand conventional weapon systems that today are quite useless enough.

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