January 27, 2013 6:45 pm

Time to decide on UK defence policy

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Cameron must scale back either the rhetoric or the cuts

Britain is in the throes of an intense debate over the role it aspires to play on the international stage. In recent days, the focus has been on its relations with the EU. But Britain is increasingly confronted by another issue: the growing contradiction between its desire to be an assertive military player and its declining defence spending.

That tension has existed for some time. But a new spotlight was thrown on it last week. David Cameron gave a sweeping response to the recent crises in north Africa, declaring that Britain must take the lead in what he called a “generational” struggle to defeat jihadism. Yet within hours of this utterance, the Ministry of Defence unveiled another raft of cuts in the size of the regular army. The coincidence of these two events yet again revealed the government’s incoherence over the UK’s global ambitions.

This contradiction between ends and means in UK defence policy has largely arisen for one reason. Britain held a strategic defence review in October 2010 that came five months before the start of the Arab spring. As a result, the UK military was plunged into cuts that did not take account of the upheavals that were about to rock north Africa and the Middle East.

The cuts of 2010 also failed to predict another phenomenon: the extent to which the US now looks to Britain and France to take the lead in military challenges that it deems to be in Europe’s back yard. In both Libya in 2011 and in Mali today, the Pentagon’s retreat has exposed serious gaps in British and French military capability.

The government must now resolve this problem. In the next few months, George Osborne, the chancellor, will unveil a spending review. Mr Osborne must either halt planned new cuts in defence spending – and if possible reverse them – or he must be honest with the public about Britain’s role and accept that the ritual instinct to take the lead in political-military interventions cannot be maintained.

There are plenty of ways for the government to square this circle. One issue to be looked at is whether anything can be done to scale back the huge capital and running costs of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. As this newspaper has repeatedly argued, a full debate on Trident’s future is needed. But the critical point is that Mr Cameron must make a strategic decision. He must either drop the rhetoric on military intervention or the axe that cuts the defence budget. He cannot hang on to both.

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