Recent reports about British defense have an ominous, heading-for-a-cliff feel about them.
Many in the defense establishment and private think tanks were dismayed when the Cameron Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, despite international turbulence, cut Britain’s Army from 100,000 to 82,000, its smallest since before the Napoleonic wars.
The Falklands, which it cost hundreds of British lives and five front-line ships of the shrunken, bath-tub Royal Navy to recapture from Argentina in 1982, are defended by, apart from Rapier ground-to-air missiles, just four Typhoon fighters and 1,200 ground troops. A single warship makes visits. And forces must still be found for the Middle East and NATO. Not to mention calls to intervene against the massacres of Christians in Africa.
Now ex-Defense Minister Sir Nick Harvey, speaking in a House of Commons debate, has said the government is studying proposals to axe a further 22,000 troops. “There are already paper exercises going on looking at what an army of just 60,000 would look like because of the financial crunch that the department is going to be facing.” I think we can imagine only too well what it would look like, and so can the West’s enemies.
He claimed defense spending would drop to 1.5 percent or less of national income. The agreed minimum among NATO members is 2 percent.
“We do not hear from any of the political parties — not mine, nor anybody else’s — that defense is going to be insulated or protected from a tough comprehensive spending review later this year.”
Meanwhile an increasingly tough-talking Russia has agreed to supply Argentina with 12 high-performance Sukhoi Su-24 “Fencer” supersonic, all-weather attack aircraft. They have a range of about 3,500 kilometers and laser-guided missiles.
The aircraft, which Moscow will swap for beef and wheat, would easily be able to reach the Falklands. Argentina is not going to need them against its neighbors like Paraguay, Uruguay, or even Brazil. The only imaginable use Argentina has for them would be another attempt to seize the Falklands by military invasion.
President Putin’s visit to Argentina in July laid the groundwork for exchanging Russian military hardware for wheat, beef, and other goods which Moscow needs due to EU food embargoes.
Russia has been increasing its links with Argentina since 2010, when it provided Mi17 assault helicopters which are in service with the 7th Air Force Brigade.
British defense officials fear Buenos Aires would take delivery of the Russian planes well before the deployment in 2020 of the Navy’s 65,000-tonne, still fitting-out aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its F-35B fighters, leaving a “window of vulnerability.”
The nuclear deterrent would be useless: Britain is not going to nuke a country like Argentina, and in any case Argentina would presumably have prisoners from the Falklands as hostages.
Meanwhile Britain no longer has the Harrier jump-jets that gave a good account of themselves in 1982, and that might in a pinch be flown off small and improvised flight-decks, the long-range Vulcan bombers that cratered the Port Stanley runway and denied it to enemy forces, or the Nimrod long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft.
Once an Argentine invasion force were ashore it is very difficult to see how the 1,200-man British garrison and four typhoons (plus three other aircraft) could be relieved or reinforced. Putin could be expected to enjoy the defeat of a leading NATO member.
Nor is Obama’s America necessarily the reliable ally that Reagan’s was. Obama has made obvious his distaste for British colonialism and even for the Anglo-American “special relationship.” He might secretly relish Britain’s humiliation and impotence as much as Putin would.
Tensions over the islands resurfaced after exploratory seabed drilling revealed the promise of an oil bonanza.
Despite having no local enemies, Argentina has been making expensive efforts to upgrade its air force. Last October it announced it would buy 24 Saab Gripen fighters from Brazil, which has just purchased 36 of its own, but Britain was able to quash the deal as some of the jets’ parts are made in the UK.
Air Commodore Andrew Lambert, of the UK National Defense Association, said: “The Ministry of Defense should be worried. It always trots out the mantra of reviewing force levels but the only real solution is to deploy a sizeable force of Typhoons, at least a squadron, to buy us time to formulate a proper reinforcement package.”
A Ministry of Defense spokesman said: “We regularly review force levels around the world, though we wouldn’t comment on the detail of this for obvious reasons.”
Last August the former head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, said Britain has only half the number of combat-ready air squadrons as France and must increase defense spending “immediately” to send a clear signal to opponents.
It had only seven combat-capable squadrons, compared to France’s 15, and only 19 warships to France’s 24, despite the obvious fact that Britain is an island and France is not.
In a joint letter with leading historian Andrew Roberts, he called on Britain to take the lead in Europe and increase spending to “implement an updated strategy which takes full account of today’s changed reality.”
Sir Michael and Mr. Roberts said the country’s armed forces were “too small, too unbalanced, with many serious gaps.”
They called for an immediate stop to defense cuts and for Britain’s defense budget to be “ring-fenced” against any cuts (the foreign aid budget has been ring-fenced, though it is hard to see how it serves comparable national interests.)
“Not to do so would suggest that defense is not the first duty of government, but a lower priority than several ring-fenced social services,” they said. “Such a commitment would send a clear signal not only to Russia, but to the rest of NATO, and our opponents elsewhere. “
Sir Michael and Mr. Roberts added in the August letter: “Next month’s crucial NATO summit gives Britain’s Prime Minister the critical opportunity and responsibility to lead NATO back to the strength needed to respond to today’s serious crises. May he succeed for the sake of all of us.”
Instead, in the ensuing seven months, which have also seen a Conservative Party Conference, defense spending as a portion of GDP has continued to shrink.
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