Page last updated at 01:05 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Questions on the future of Britain's military

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News

Sir Jock Stirrup
Sir Jock said chiefs did not have time to get everything they wanted for Iraq

This week the Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, told the Iraq inquiry that the rush to war had left British troops without vital equipment.

The defence Green Paper being published on Wednesday is the first step towards trying to avoid such mistakes in the future.

It will set out the challenges facing Britain's armed services and the MoD. However, it will not provide all the answers.

The really difficult decisions, such as how much the UK should spend on defence and which services - Navy, Army or Royal Air Force - will be the winners or losers, are not going to be decided until after the general election in a strategic defence review.

The most important question raised by the Green Paper is: "What does Britain want to do in the world?"

What next?

Should it be focused on homeland defence or global expeditions? Should it aim to resolve or contain potential conflicts? What partnerships should the UK have with other countries? And how much of its wealth should Britain spend on defence?

In other words, it will frame the defence debate about Britain's place in the world - what Britain wants to do, what it can do, and what it cannot afford to do.

The Green Paper makes it clear that the status quo is unsustainable: "We cannot proceed with all the activity and preparation we currently aspire to, while simultaneously supplying our current operations and investing in the new capacity we need," it states.

Plans are nothing, planning is everything
General Dwight Eisenhower

It also acknowledges past mistakes and lessons learnt. The last strategic defence review - published in 1998 - envisaged that British forces could be used with speed: "Go first, go fast and go home".

It is an assessment that has proved false. Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that British forces are just as likely to get caught up in a long campaign.

The Green Paper says that in the future politicians and the military top brass must think very carefully before engaging in a military operation.

The trouble with the Green Paper is that it will seem - to many - like an academic exercise. It will not deal directly with the practical issues of how much Britain spends on the armed forces, or what kind of hardware the MOD should invest in.

For example, should Britain be spending more than £4bn on two new aircraft carriers? The document only raises the questions surrounding those very difficult decisions.

'Wide range of adversaries'

But the Green Paper is still important, given that it is now more than a decade since Britain properly reviewed its defence priorities.

The US carries out a defence review every four years. The Pentagon published its latest "Quadrennial Defense Review" just this week.

It shows Britain and America are reaching similar conclusions - that their military needs to be adaptable and agile; that there is no monolithic threat, and that they need to rebalance resources with risks.

Such debates are important. As General Eisenhower once said: "Plans are nothing, planning is everything."

The big difference, of course, is that Britain cannot afford to spend anywhere near what America spends on defence.

The Pentagon talks of the need for a "portfolio" of military capabilities against a "wide range" of adversaries.

Britain's MoD can only dream. The likelihood is that there will have to be cuts in the defence budget after the election.

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