TMT once again has, somewhat reluctantly, given in to the need to touch upon the recent events to do with Brexit, but only insofar as they might affect matters of defence.
Over the last few days and weeks, you might have noticed that there have been few references to the impact on defence of all the various options being thrown around by our political classes. One reason is of course that defence in the modern world plays a very second fiddle to questions of health, jobs and welfare. Another is that the confusion that surrounds the outcome of any hard, soft, or “Goldilocks” break from Europe, is multiplied many times over when it comes to defence.
Thank goodness, therefore, that the journalists covering this tangles topic of Brexit do at least have the humility to steer clear of the subject for the most part. TMT, on the other hand, is supposed to have something of a handle on such matters – so here goes!
As has been written in TMT on a previous occasion, the future defence of Europe is already a matter of record given the number of senior European bureaucrats who have declared their intent to forge a single defence-technology base which will effectively determine what sort of equipment is researched, produced and deployed by European national armies in the coming decades.
Related Article: The UK will not join a European Army
Straight away the observant will note a contradiction in terms here: “European national armies”. How is this possible? Well, the answer has to be that it is a trick of the tongue used by Federalists who, although dedicated to creating a single European state, realise that it is still too early to be openly implying that the various nations in the bloc are to be totally subsumed into a Greater Europe. This is understandable, given the desire by people everywhere to retain their sense of local cultures and freedoms, but it begs the question as to why this agenda is even on the table. And so we come back to military matters.
In the mid-1990s, in a large conference on defence and technology held in Belgium, a small group of senior defence executives, politicians and journalists were sitting at one of those dreadful round tables of eight which make it almost impossible to have a decent conversation. However, everyone waited to hear the answer to a question asked by the only Brit at the table:
“Do you really want to create a European state?”
“Yes”, was the reply from a Belgian professor of politics: “We do want that state because we are terrified that Germany, without such a system, will at some point go on the rampage again.”
The other people at the table, French, Dutch, Italian, Swedish etc., all agreed that a European state was the obvious answer to fears which they all professed to share.
And so back to today. With the withdrawal of the UK from Europe, we will almost certainly be stepping back from a major role in the overall defence infrastructure of Europe, regardless of whether we continue to be invited by countries such as Poland to contribute troops as “trip-wire” contingents on their eastern borders. Without the UK and its clear expertise in the areas of command and control, as well as its high-quality personnel etc, there is going to be a gap in the capabilities that a federal Europe can put in the shop window. The question follows, therefore, as to who – or what – is going to fill that gap?
Some talk about Germany stepping up to the mark, given the strength of its economy and the “shortfall” in its defence spending; their budget is, as reported in the TMT article, is currently some 1.3%, well below the 2% agreed at NATO’s Wales Conference. And yet, if a Germany, with a resurgent right-wing nationalist movement, were to do so, it would become the predominant military power in Europe. That shift in power would be particularly felt by the French, who have been the de-facto counterbalance to any would-be German military capability.
The question of Germany’s place in the military scheme of things is further complicated by the apparent withdrawal of the US from parts of the international stage. Trump has made it clear that he wants Europe to stand on its own military legs again after years of being supported by the US. It is a not-unreasonable request – but it has the potential to throw Europe into a state of unrest for all the reason given above. It also creates a real dilemma for the British who will be forced to make hard decisions about whether they nail their flag to the US or European masts.
Up to now, the obvious answer to the question of “Which mast?” has been solved by talking about NATO. But NATO is increasingly being faced with the realisation that its bluff is being called by a combination of Putin and Trump, but also by the smaller nations whose contributions to ”international peace” are being recognised for what they are: declarations of intent and token forces.
To complicate matters further, there is real confusion in Europe about what might be the major threat to its security. Is it an expansionist Putin eyeing up the Baltic States, or is it China’s empire-building in the seas off its (and other nations’) coasts. Or is it the current war in Syria as it creates a vacuum into which Iran and Russia move, with all the attendant threats to democracy in Turkey, a country supposedly aspiring to join the European Community.
Bringing things back down to the ground in terms of the British Forces, what contingencies are we supposed to plan for? Do we go over to light, a rapidly-deployable force able to act as a support to policing actions by NATO or the US? Or do we prepare quietly for a more conventional war in Eastern Europe as Putin reckons another land-grab will help his domestic poll-ratings?
In other words, do we buy more, or fewer tanks, SP artillery and heavy armoured vehicles? Or do we go light from now on, recognising that the first problem we have to cope with is the need to get people and equipment off this island and into the area of operations? And where on earth do those carriers fit into the equation – other than as a floating advert for the American F-35 fighter?
And then there is the small question of the nuclear deterrent. Some talk about it balancing the threat from putative “rogue states” such as North Korea or Iran, but is it really possible that it would be used against targets other than some major power such as Russia or China? It sits there, absorbing huge sums of money, and begging the question as to what we, the British, think our role is in a future world where NATO, Europe, and the US no longer have a clear target in mind.
Over the next few months, British defence planners will be working away in the background to try to make sense of what is going on. But they might have to wait a while longer before they can make any sort of decision if we decide to have another referendum. At which time it might be case of “all change”, not least because at that point someone is going to have to allow for the fact that a subsequent Scottish referendum might take it out of the Union – with all that that entails in terms of naval shipbuilding contracts north of the new international border – amongst other things.
Choppy waters ahead!