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Saturday, 20 October, 2001, 10:44 GMT 11:44 UK
War View: 'Britain must re-think its defence plans'
After the fall of the USSR, Britain re-organised its military to fight wars away from home. But if terrorism is the new enemy, then another plan is needed, writes Nigel Vinson of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's immediate response to the bombings in America was to call for a new kind of war against international terrorism, fought on many fronts, including diplomatic, economic and humanitarian.

Militarily, however, the campaign thus far seems "more of the same"- aerial bombardment and cruise missiles, with the possibility of using ground forces if the Taleban does not hand over terrorist suspects and renounce its links with such groups.


The UK took the lead in reorganising its armed forces

Yet it is likely that the fight against international terrorism will be different. British military operations have already involved the use of cruise missile-firing submarines, as well as refuelling aircraft and reconnaissance assets, and it is strongly suspected that UK special forces are operating in tandem with their US colleagues on the ground.

This is much like the war in Kosovo in 1999 and the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, but with one crucial difference - the conflict has not been restricted to a defined piece of foreign soil, but is being fought on a global scale against a largely invisible enemy.

Post Cold War, many believed a new world order was being constructed. With the demise of the Soviet Union, it was felt armed forces would need to adapt - the threat now was not to the national security of nation-states but would involve operations in far-flung locations - the Balkans, Middle East and Asia.

The UK took the lead in reorganising its armed forces and to define this shift, the Labour government produced the Strategic Defence Review (SDR) in 1998.

A long way from home

The SDR outlined a strategy which hinged on the idea that the UK would be engaged far from home and which might involve the whole spectrum of conflict, from humanitarian and peace support operations to the full-scale war.


This new environment will require a stronger relationship between the military and the emergency and intelligence services

It meant more emphasis on transport aircraft and shipping to get forces into theatre as quickly as possible, and it signified a shift away from heavy tanks and vehicles towards lighter systems with rapid effect - the so-called light- and medium-weight forces.

It is widely expected that many of the recommendations of the SDR will still be put into effect.

However, it had always been assumed that these would be "wars of choice", fought largely at the British Government's choosing, with less emphasis on homeland defence. Consequently, there has been a scaling back in the number of reserve forces and a reduction in intelligence-gathering assets.

It is no exaggeration to say, therefore, that 11 September 2001 has changed such a comforting view that conflicts can be fought exclusively abroad and their effects divorced from wider national security concerns.

Lessons from the IRA

The Provisional IRA was at its most effective when it attacked British cities, and over many years the response to Irish terrorism was a shift away from conventional military forces patrolling the ground in Northern Ireland to the careful and painstaking work of intelligence assets - both within the security services as well as the armed forces.


We might need another formal review of defence

This new defence environment is likely to require a strengthening of the relationship between the armed forces and the emergency and intelligence services, who will undoubtedly be on the frontline responding to any large-scale domestic terrorist attack. This may well demand a fresh approach to reserve forces, who might best provide military support in civil emergencies.

More dramatically, the British government may well wish to reconsider the relationship between domestic and international conflict, and this might lead to another formal review of defence.

This could redefine the role of the armed forces in the 21st Century, but it is not entirely clear that additional resources would necessarily go to the Ministry of Defence - after all, domestic preparedness relies almost entirely on intelligence to thwart any potential terrorist attack.

Britain's armed forces may therefore play only a supporting role in this new war on international terrorism.


War Views is a series of personal opinions we are publishing to reflect on the issues raised by the war on terror. You can add your comments by using the form below.

Only constant vigilance by our intelligence services can thwart terror attacks. Conventional military forces cannot be used to fight an enemy which chooses to hide. However, expeditionary forces such as the Royal Marines Commandos are an excellent tool for attacking the hub of terrorist insurgent organisations. This concept has been proved throughout the 1950's, 60's and 70's in countries such as Aden, Borneo and Malaya.
Stuart Brown, England

With unsettled problems with internal terrorism, it seems a bit hypocritical that Mr Blair sought to resolve world terrorism. There is a Chinese saying "Sweep one's own porch before sweeping the countryside".
Peng, Brunei Darussalam

The strategic defence review is a very significant document that, after initial hesitation (certainly on my part), is clearly the way to go. We are not threatened any more by a major power and, even if we were, we could not defend ourselves alone. On the other hand, and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, we have certain responsibilities to world peace ... which are best carried out on the "exped basis" outlined in the SDR.
Mark M. Newdick, US/UK

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