The idea of Britain as an ancient and formidable military power pervades (British) nationalist rhetoric and mythology. It was a powerful trope of the Better Together campaign (‘Stronger Together’) during the referendum and acted as an anchor for many older voters, reminiscing about shared experience in the Second World War. For many the idea of Britain as a ‘world power’ is an active one – cemented by our place as one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council alongside China, France, Russia and the United States. But if, in a multi-polar world that role now looks shaky at best, and if the special relationship under a Trump presidency looks less special than ever, there are signs that a more fundamental crisis of British military identity may be being revealed.
If the announcement of mass closures of military bases and barracks in Scotland was another nail in the coffin of the Better Together case for the union, the wider debate about Trident and conventional forces has been brought to new levels as geopolitical instability unfolds.
Paul Mason has been following the RAND Corporation process of wargaming what would happen if Russia attacked the Baltic states, concluding:
“Without a significant increase in conventional forces stationed there, it concludes, NATO’s Eastern Flank would be over-run. Under all outcomes, NATO loses control of Riga and Tallinn 60 hours after the shooting starts. After that the West faces three options: a costly and massive Iraq-style counter-attack; nuclear retaliation or acceptance of the new facts on the ground.
RAND concludes that, if NATO deployed seven brigades to the Baltics — including three US tank brigades — it could make any attack so costly as to deter it (although not to hold the three states for any great length of time).”
As Brexit exposes British isolationism in military not just economic terms, and as Cold War detente fades and MAD is passed into the hands of Putin and Trump, conventional military weakness collides with right-wing populism, Mason again:
“For the entire period since 1989 NATO’s assumptions have rested on the idea that, politically, the East European peoples are so hostile to Russia, and so proud of their own new conservative nationalisms, that they would be prepared to turn their own cities into rubble to resist Russian aggression. Politically, those conditions are evaporating.”
Mason concludes that a) Britain should focus its defence thinking on Europe b) that the Baltics are the strategic defence interest and C) that we are completely ill-equipped to do this. Read the full article here ‘Britain should boost defence spending’.
It’s a compelling wake-up call that casts into light both our lack of control over Defence matters in Scotland and the long-term incompetence of British defence strategy. It’s a challenge to peaceniks and the left to think on our feet and adapt to rapidly changing global circumstances. If the Better Together arguments and propaganda has crumbled – so too must the case for an independent Scotland be updated and overhauled, and not just rest on the laurels of ‘Bairns not Bombs’.
At the same time this week Sam Lister writing in the Scotsman (‘Royal navy fleet numbers are woefully low’) reports on the findings of the Defence Select Committee.
He quotes Defence committee chairman Julian Lewis: “For decades, the numbers of Royal Navy escort vessels have been severely in decline.”
“The fleet is now way below the critical mass required for the many tasks which could confront it, if the international scene continues to deteriorate. What remains of our surface fleet now faces a prolonged period of uncertainty, as the frigate class is replaced in its entirety and all our destroyers undergo urgent, major remedial work on their unreliable engines.
“The national shipbuilding strategy offers the potential not just to manage this work efficiently and effectively, but also to reverse the trend of ever-decreasing numbers. To do this, however, it has to contain the degree of detail and scheduling for which we have asked. The Ministry of Defence must deliver this programme of modernisation on time. If it fails to do so, the Government will break its categorical pledge to maintain at least 19 frigates and destroyers – already a pathetically low total.”
MPs have also attacked the Ministry of Defence for the “extraordinary mistakes” in the design of Type 45 destroyers.
It appears due to the design of the engines they are unable to “operate continuously in warm waters”, thereby severely curtailing their operational use. Let’s hope we only have defence issues in the north in winter then.