Friday, October 29, 2010

Ron Smith: Learning from History

It has been said that the only thing to be learned from History is that nobody ever learns anything from History. The hypothesis may be again under test in the United Kingdom with the recently-published (19 October) Strategic Defence and Security Review. Not surprisingly in view of the difficult financial situation faced by the new coalition government, there are substantial cuts to be made across all three services. To a degree, the Army is ‘ring-fenced’ because of its on-going commitment in Afghanistan but the cuts for the other two services are substantial and, as they come into effect, will have a major impact on the defence capabilities available to the British Government in the years ahead. This is particularly the case for the Royal Navy and this where the matter of learning from history comes acutely to the fore.

Under the provisions of the review, present British aircraft carrier capability (such as it is) will be scrapped ‘almost immediately’, together with the latest generation Harrier jets that might have been flown from it. To be sure the review envisages the completion of two ships in a new class of carrier (the Queen Elizabeth class), which, at 65,000 tons, is three times the size of the present flag-ship carrier, HMS Ark Royal. These new ships are now expected to be completed around 2016-2018 but one, or both, may then be sold, or ‘held in extended readiness’ (mothballed?). In any case, the aircraft which might have operated from these vessels (a modification of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter) will not be ready until around 2020. The consequence of these decisions is that Britain will have no air-power projection capability for at least ten years starting more or less now and it does raise for some the question, if they can do without such a capability for so long, why do they need it all?

What is deeply ironic about all this is that we have been here before. Almost exactly thirty years ago another British defence review, with similar economic drivers, decided that aircraft carriers were a capability that was not needed and decisions were taken to dispose of the two then in service. One was to be scrapped (HMS Hermes) and the other was to be sold to Australia (HMS Invincible). Then, in April 1982 Argentine forces occupied South Georgia and the Falkland Islands and the British government of the day decided to restore sovereignty by retaking the islands by force. At this point it was clear that the most important British military capability, without which the operation could not have been contemplated, was the carrier force (limited though it was). It is also noteworthy that the same 1981 review envisaged the scrapping of certain troop- landing support vessels which were also to be crucial. This is, again, paralleled in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security provisions, where a Bay class landing ship is to be decommissioned, as well as one of the helicopter carriers.

The commander of the 1982 operation (Admiral Woodward) has raised the obvious question: if Argentina again attempts to resolve the sovereignty dispute over the Falkland Islands by forcefully occupying them, what would Britain be able to do? It must be presumed that this question has been addressed and that it is thought that the present garrison and, particularly the modern fighter force on the islands is sufficient to deter such an enterprise or would be sufficient to deal with the attempt if it is made. In his intervention Admiral Woodward seems to cast doubt on this and it is certainly the case that if Argentina did manage to occupy the Falklands, again, there would be nothing that Britain could do about it (provided that Argentina waits a year for present decisions to take effect).

Perhaps, the British Government has thought this through, too, and has decided that, in such an event, despite the major expenditure on Falklands defence over the last thirty years and despite, the wishes of the Falkland community, and despite the possibility of a substantial oil find in the surrounding economic zone, it would let it go. I wonder if that would be a popular decision. Of course, if Argentina waits a year or two before acting, until the present British Coalition government has gone from office, its successor will be able to blame it for its inability to act. As in 1982 the United Nations will probably condemn Argentina, and, of course, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth in London.

Of course it is also possible that the democratic government of Argentina will continue to press its claim in a peaceful way and the contingency outlined above will not arise and that, more generally, British people will not regret the lack of aircraft carriers in their navy because no pressing need arises that cannot be satisfied by (say) American capability. That is the nature of insurance. It is just a question of assessing the risk and deciding on the premium.

One solution to the expensive capability problem, that has been suggested, is sharing. For similar reasons to Britain, France also now has just one carrier; the Charles de Gaulle. The idea is that Britain and France could agree to share a pool of two, so that one would always be available to which ever partner had the need. Could this possibly work? What are the chances that a vital interest for one party would be politically inconvenient for the other? How, indeed, would the French view the specific case discussed above? Finally, would Nelson turn in his grave?

1 comment:

Brian said...

Comment from Brian.

Dr Smith is right regarding History, ”that nobody learns from past mistakes.” Certainly this is true when one observes Politicians engaged in trying to rectify financial and economic problems; that the first “casualty” is the capability of our armed forces. It is an easy option, especially here in “God’s Own” tucked away by distance from the world’s ills- a truly “A benign environment”.

The example of our former Prime Minister in disbanding our first line of defense namely the Air Forces’s strike fighters has put our ground and naval forces at a complete disadvantage. Even worse making them virtual cannon fodder on a scale far worst than in World War 1.
(In a scale of her popularity it rated well; insofar that the money saved could be spent on an ever bludgeoning welfare system, not to mention her rating in securing one of the best paid world positions within the United Nations)

The scale of the defence cuts in Britain in comparison with what happened in the 1920/30’s, are far wider and far more severe, in a word crippling. That Britain is no longer a world power in the same terms as the USA, Russia or China does not mean that she is excused on the ground of economics from contributing to overall defence needs.

But what else can be cut, either here in New Zealand or Britain? Here as in Britain, the sacred cows of welfare dependency, so-called Maori Claims, excessive Government expenditure such as the recent “venture” into film making all come to mind. Would we here in New Zealand like the French, take to the streets if our sacred cows were slashed?

One can but wonder if Prime Minister Key in talks with the Australians has all but come to an agreement over possible boat people being “allowed” onto our shores? Can our “Navy” deal as effectively with an invasion similar to what is happening across the Tasman? Or indeed since this Government signed the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Rights would we be “allowed” to return illegal immigrants? Is this to be our “Falklands”?

Just how with our emaciated military forces can we deal with such a situation; even if we had Politicians with the intestinal fortitude to act?

Perhaps there is a similar case from history from which we all might learn. British Prime Minister William Pitt (the younger) on hearing of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz said “Tear up that map of Europe it will not be needed for twenty years”. Will we be tearing up the Pacific Map in a few years”?