Page last updated at 19:46 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Cash, cutbacks and Britain's place in the world

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News

RAF Chinook helicopter landing in Afghanistan
The paper did not rule out cutting the three services to two

The Defence Green Paper was meant to spark a debate about the future of Britain's armed services - and it has done just that.

It is long overdue - the last strategic defence review took place in 1998. That was before 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the debate may not have started out quite as the MoD or the Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth intended. Already they have faced questions over whether Britain can sustain three separate services - army, navy and air force.

Wishing to at least appear willing to engage in some blue-sky thinking, they have not ruled out cutting three services to two. Is that possible?

Well, some have argued the US Marine Corps operate a land, sea and air capability and that Britain could do the same. One armed service to take on all threats.

It would certainly cut out duplication and the fierce inter-service rivalry. But it would be a brave politician to argue for the scrapping of either the Army, the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force.

As the "junior" service the Royal Air Force would appear the most vulnerable. The Navy and Army already train their own pilots. But even losing one service seems highly unlikely.

Think of the fight every time an army regiment gets cut and then multiply it by 10. The military top brass also point out the three services already work together under a joint command.

Old enemies

The Green Paper's suggestion that Britain should "further integrate" its forces with its allies will be given more serious consideration.

Sandcastle with Union Jack flag on top
It is also having to ask the question of Britain's place and influence in the world

Co-operation already exists through organisations like Nato. Britain also relies on its allies on the battlefield in Afghanistan. But it is a big leap from co-operation to integration.

One suggestion is that Britain and France could share an aircraft carrier. France currently has one and needs another. A cash-strapped UK has ordered two - at a cost of £5bn.

But do these two old enemies really trust each other enough to share assets? Even in recent history there has been a stark difference over strategic aims - France was a fierce opponent of the Iraq war.

It is hard to see how such integration might work. Nevertheless, even the Conservatives - who have been sceptical about a European defence force - recognise there must be closer co-operation with EU allies as well as the United States.

Unpopular decisions

The Liberal Democrats argue Britain's nuclear deterrent should also be up for debate. But so far neither Labour nor the Conservatives have been willing to negotiate.

A replacement for the submarine fleet carrying Trident will be the most costly "big ticket" item and cancelling it would save huge sums.

But what would be the cost of British influence in the world? It is not an easy question to answer.

The Green Paper does provide plenty to debate - but it deliberately does not answer many questions. The difficult decisions will be left until after the general election.

That is an indication of the tough, unpopular choices ahead. The document is not just asking how much it should spend on its military, and which service should get the most.

It is also having to ask the question of Britain's place and influence in the world.



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