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By Julian Thompson

The topics for discussion on the Strategic and Security Defence Review (SDSR) in much of the media seems to narrow down to two: Afghanistan and kit — sometimes a blend of both. It is easy to see why. Afghanistan is, quite rightly, front and centre in the public consciousness. Vehicles, helicopters, and ‘boots on the ground’, or rather lack of them, are matters easily grasped by the general public. Writing about troop levels, equipment deficiencies, and the technical shortcomings of hardware demands little original thought; the hackneyed phrases can be trotted out time and again.

A Review that calls itself Strategic should neither concern itself with a current operation, nor the equipment needed to fight it. The question that such a Review should address is: what are the UK’s armed forces for? The answer is to serve the Nation’s interests. This covers a range of eventualities.
1. At the bottom end of the scale the armed forces can be used to further Britain’s influence, where this is deemed to be important.
2. The conduct of operations at varying degrees of intensity in defence of the national interest.
3. Deterring attacks on the UK — an ongoing and inescapable commitment.
4. In the last resort the armed forces exist to defend these islands against attack in whatever form that manifests itself.

Most of the current argument about what kind of armed forces we need in the future relates to points 1 and 2 above. In arriving at a decision it is vital that two further questions are addressed. First, what are the UK’s interests? The answer can be provided only by those responsible for deciding the nation’s foreign policy. In this respect it would be helpful if the selection of these interests was based on a cold assessment of what is actually in the UK’s interest; discarding emotion that brings with it labels such as ‘ethical foreign policy’, and in the context of the armed services, being ‘a force for good’. Some interests should be self-evident such as: the need to maintain supplies of oil and gas, and the importance of the UK’s maritime trade; the lifeblood of our existence. Our almost total dependence on commodities carried in ships seems to be ignored by most of the inhabitants of these islands; including many in the Ministry of Defence who should know better. Although other national interests can be more difficult to define than the two above, the first question is still easier to answer than the second: what form will future wars take?

Many will tell you more of the same, i.e. Afghanistan style wars. This notion is partly based on an inability to think outside the Afghanistan ‘box’, reinforced by a belief that all future wars will be fought ‘among the people’; a circular form of reasoning that argues that the next war will be like the last one. Needless to say this idea is pushed strongly by the Army for the very good reason that it strengthens their hand in the struggle to obtain the lion’s share of defence funding; at the expense of the other two services. The ‘war among the people’ theme has been picked up and talked about by some in the media, as if it was a new idea, ignoring the fact that the British have fought dozens of campaigns ‘among the people’ over the last 110 years, starting with the Second Boer War. Over the same period there were several wars, conflicts, and near wars, that were very different, and there is no reason to suppose that we will not see more of these over the next fifty years. Decisions taken in the SSDR will impinge on our ability to fight wars for the next fifty years; not just for the next decade, as some commentators appear to believe. In reality no one knows what form the next war will take, and where it will take place; it may be ‘among the people’, it may not. Anyone who says they know is guilty of strategic hubris. The possibilities for future conflict are legion, here are just three.

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