In recent weeks, various commentators, academics and analysts have been busily arguing for various things to be included in Britain’s upcoming strategic defence and security review. Some of these interventions have been interesting, focussed and well-reasoned. Both Chatham House and the Royal United Services Institute have been running a series of lectures and articles putting forward various options for the new coalition government to consider.
Other interventions have been decidedly less helpful. On Friday, Sir Max Hastings, author of several works on military history, called for the scrapping of both Britain’s aircraft carrier construction programme and its sea-based nuclear weapons system. Two new 65,000 tonne ‘pocket supercarriers’ are due to be brought into service in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Over three times the size of Britain’s current aircraft carriers, these vessels will be by far the most formidable warships ever put to sea by a European navy; their only competitors will be the American Nimitz supercarriers. Confirmed to be named HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, Britain’s two new behemoths will enable London to project overwhelming power into any region within range of their onboard air squadron, which will bring approximately seventy percent of the world’s population within reach. They will also improve Britain’s ability to engage in ‘coercive diplomacy’ (what was once known as ‘gunboat diplomacy’) and provide an integrated platform for overseas crisis and disaster response, if required.
But according to Sir Max, aircraft carriers and sea-based nuclear deterrents are unnecessary; Britain is unlikely to face any conventional – that is, State-based – enemy; and the armed forces should be radically re-calibrated to fight only Islamist terrorists and other non-State actors.
This view, not without its merits, has gained increasing traction in recent years, especially since the globalisation hysteria of the 1990s. The argument goes: war and conflict between the great powers is effectively over. Interdependence and democratisation have greatly increased the likely economic and political cost of war, which is further compounded by the fact that there is currently no country strong enough to directly challenge the military reach and wherewithal of North America and Western Europe (or, more precisely, the Americans, British and French). Anyone foolish enough to do so will be struck down fast. The evidence? Britain decisively crushed Argentina’s junta in 1982. Iraq’s Ba’athists were thoroughly quashed in 1991 and 2003 by two different Anglo-American led coalitions. Serbia was undone in 1999 when Slobodan Milosevic initiated genocidal policies in Kosovo. And the Ivory Coast lost its entire airforce in a few hours in November 2004 when its president challenged France.
Further, larger countries, such as China and Russia, while sometimes a nuisance, are still a long way from reaching parity, particularly with the United States. Insofar as they have harmed Europeans or Americans, they have done so using underhand methods, such as industrial espionage, cyber attacks and poisonings, which are better dealt with using effective intelligence agencies than expensive weapons programmes. Meanwhile, the threat from Islamist terrorism is still very real, and this too is increasingly more of an internal threat than an external challenge.
Yet there are several reasons to suggest that Britain still needs its behemoths:
- The argument that interdependence and democratisation have reduced the likelihood of great power conflict looks very different if we enlarge the context. The world has been getting more interconnected over the past five-hundred years, yet each century has been bloodier than the last. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assert that the peace between the great powers since 1945 has less to do with interdependence and democratisation, and more to do with the rise of American, British and French power – both spatial and temporal – on a planetary scale. More abstractly: order is not natural; it has to be imposed by a central authority and carefully backed up with an iron fist. The key question, then, is what will happen if European and American power wanes relative to countries like China, India and Brazil, as is currently projected? Given that aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons are a long term investment that cannot be rustled up overnight, and given that other countries are busily building them, surely it makes sense for a country like the United Kingdom, entirely dependent on the sea for its imports and exports, to have them?
- Sir Max states that it is ‘incredible’ that Britain would use its nuclear weapons to threaten (or deter) countries like Russia and China. Is it? What the world will look like in 2040 or 2050 is impossible to know. In 1900, when the British and French empires seemed almost eternal, few would have foreseen their collapse in less than fifty years. Equally, few people foresaw the demise of Soviet Russia in 1980, and fewer still the full consequences of 11th September 2001, even a year after the event itself. In short: the future is full of surprises and we should be careful not to replace careful calculation with hope. For it is surely the case that countries with international duties to uphold and obligations to discharge must retain the tools of power? Nuclear weapons are proven to deter and aircraft carriers are unlikely to be replaced by anything better – even a new generation of advanced unmanned combat aircraft will need versatile maritime platforms off which to operate.
- Economically, contrary to the claims of people like Sir Max, a country as wealthy as the United Kingdom can afford to build large aircraft carriers. First, there is little to be gained by cancelling the current vessels and building something smaller, except a whopping fine for breaking the contract with the coalition of shipbuilders constructing the vessels. After all, aircraft carriers become cheaper to operate the larger they get relative to the desired military and political impact they can be deployed to achieve. Second, the cost of these vessels, or the nuclear deterrent, is minimal, insofar as this should be the overriding factor. The cost of the two carriers, including their air squadrons, is around £15 billion (€17.8 billion), and they are projected to last for thirty or more years. Likewise, the nuclear deterrent is planned to cost approximately £20 billion (€23.8 billion) and will last for a similar period of time. Is £1.2 billion (€1.4 billion) per year so expensive for a country with an annual national income of £1.7 trillion (€2 trillion)? That is less than 0.05% per year of Britain’s gross domestic product! This debate therefore has little to do with cost, and everything to do with political priorities.
To scrap Britain’s behemoths – the aircraft carriers or its nuclear weapons system – would reduce both the country’s national power and its options during any potential future crises. As an island, the United Kingdom can be nothing other than a seapower: pruning it of its two greatest military assets would be tantamount to selling future generations down the river. What is more, these behemoths could form the centrepiece of a greatly enhanced Common Security and Defence Policy, which means that their cancellation could have far wider ramifications.
• Image: Royal Navy