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By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

04 Feb 14. In the latest of what appears to be the opening of a wider debate on UK defence Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond is reported to have said that Britain will need to promise quick conflicts in the future with stringent constraints if ministers are to receive the full backing of a ‘war weary’ public. Hammond’s remarks are a direct follow on from those he made back in November to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee when he said that “the public appetite for expeditionary warfare is pretty low and that based on the experience of ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan it would be realistic to say that I would not expect, except in the most extreme circumstances, a manifestation of great appetite for plunging [our military] into a prolonged period of expeditionary warfare any time soon”. On that occasion Mr. Hammond went on to say that “it would take several years before politicians and military leaders could start to rebuild public support for military operations abroad although he accepted that unexpected events can and do act to very quickly transform public opinion.

In the most recent addition to this particular debate as reported in the Daily Telegraph Mr. Hammond said that “there was a ‘climate of scepticism’ around interventions in dysfunctional countries after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the public no longer convinced the threat of terrorism bred by such states justifies intervention”. It is true that following the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan there has indeed been a greater degree of public concern expressed that military intervention has not necessarily achieved desirable results. But to suggest that terrorism bred in such states does not merit consideration of intervention is tantamount to suggesting that we should close our eyes and walk away from acts of terrorism on foreign shores. Of course the public hates war, thus was always the case and there can as we know to our considerable cost over the centuries be no guarantee that we always get conflict right. We all want conflict resolution when it is available but we do have a duty of care and as a member of the Security Council of the United Nation and of NATO to take a formative lead in how we react to acts of terrorism and aggression.

In an ideal world we would not of course need to fight in someone else’s war but we do have to secure the freedoms that we require. In part we do this to secure what we believe in and to prevent conflict conflagration. Should we really turn a blind eye to the acts of piracy in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere? No we should not. Should we turn a blind eye when a large nation attempts to inflict its will on a smaller one? No we should not. We may believe that conflict avoidance and conflict resolution is best practice but that does not mean that we should fail to ensure that we have adequate defence capability to assist a friendly nation or an ally in need. What is NATO for if not to ensure that we serve with our allies to protect ourselves and each other against the various threats that we might face. Was the ‘cold war’ really that long ago that we have forgotten the threat of fear?

Whilst I can understand in part the message in what the Secretary of State is saying I do not believe that we live in a world that is safe enough for us to say this. Some things are best not said. It is true that there is a degree of public ‘war weariness’ but that does not mean we should send a message to potential aggressors that we wish to have no part in another war. Yes, we have made past conflict mistakes but I doubt that any have been consciously made. We have made many mistakes in the past in regard of maintaining adequate defence capability too – think merely of the 1930’s and again in the 1950’s when a hapless Minister of Defence thought that the future of air power required

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