Page last updated at 01:21 GMT, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 02:21 UK

Rethink defence, 'declining' UK urged

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

HMS Vigilant, one of Royal Navy's Trident submarines
The report wants the Trident replacement plan to be reviewed

A report by defence experts for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has called for radical changes in British security and defence policy.

The think tank's report is basically a plea that Britain should stop punching "above its weight" and start punching at its proper, much lighter, weight.

The report should be seen as part of a sequence since World War Two in which Britain has had to adjust its defence policy to fit its diminishing place in the world, often against resistance from entrenched political, military and industrial interests.

The IPPR predicts that the US will soon no longer be the "single superpower" but will remain the one with the "greatest overall impact".

As for the Europeans, it says: "The individual countries of Europe, including the United Kingdom, are... continuing a long and gradual process of decline."

Direction downwards

Its stream of recommendations all point one way - downwards, away from a top-heavy military relying on the United States and towards a more flexible approach to international security, with closer links to Europe and a rethink on major items.

Quotes from its two co-chairs sum this up.

Former Labour defence minister and Nato secretary general Lord Robertson said: "In the post 9/11, post-financial crisis world, we must be smarter and more ruthless in targeting national resources at the real security risks. European co-operation is the only viable way forward in many areas."

Lord Ashdown, former Liberal Democrat leader and Bosnia high representative, said: "We cannot carry on as we are. The most important part of what we do today is what we do with others."

In a fundamental way the report departs from the British government's own National Security Strategy document, which was published in 2008 and updated last week with the addition of a section on cyber warfare.

The government tries to justify the need for both counter-terrorist measures (the new thinking since 9/11 in which it has invested heavily) and conventional armed forces that include the new version of Trident, two new aircraft carriers, and new destroyers and aircraft.

Decisive shift

This report, heavily influenced by the security threats exemplified by 9/11, moves more decisively away from traditional policies about fighting wars against conventional armed forces and towards a concentration on combating unconventional, terrorist and economic threats.

Among its military recommendations:

- Greater specialisation in the UK armed forces, investing in high quality personnel training, tactical ground-air support, and intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance assets. However, it does recommend an increase in the size of the British forces from 98,000 to 115-120,000.

- More special forces to deal with a Mumbai-type attack in the UK.

- Scaling back some conventional capability led by cutbacks in planned areas of defence spending costing £24bn - aircraft carriers, joint strike fighter, Type 45 destroyers and Astute class submarines "should all be in the frame".

- Review of Trident replacement to see if there are alternatives or if the system's life can be extended.

It also proposes:

- A National Security Council for the UK, to co-ordinate security policy currently divided up among government departments.

- An active British role in developing European defence co-operation, though not, it adds, a European army and not as a way to replace Nato. "UK reliance on the United States is complacent and it is delusional to believe the UK can go it alone. We need a major increase in European defence and security co-operation to strengthen Nato."

Domestic security

At the same time, as is to be expected from the IPPR, which calls itself a "progressive" think tank, it lays considerable emphasis on the need for strict compliance with human rights laws. It wants the use of criminal courts (with the use of intercept evidence) as opposed to measures such as control orders.

It also comes out against extradition to countries where torture might be used unless robust measures can be put in place to ensure this does not happen.

It questions whether ID cards are necessary.

This emphasis on civil liberties is part of a hearts and minds strategy designed to undermine extremists. "We need to make it clear to all that our own values and processes are the best weapon for addressing any grievance," it says.


The presence on this commission of Lord Guthrie, former chief of the defence staff, Sir David Omand, ex Home Office counter-terrorist strategist and Sir Jeremy Greenstock, ex Foreign Office and UN ambassador, give the report a realistic edge and an inside knowledge of government that others of its kind sometimes lack.

But will it be followed up? Its problem is that governments act only very slowly and are loath to change direction very quickly. Policy often lags behind events and economics. And decisions once taken are hard to change.

For example, the decision to replace Trident with new submarines and updated missiles has already been announced. The issue of an alternative (nuclear weapons launched from cruise missiles for one) was examined at the time and rejected.

European army

Two new aircraft carriers and the aircraft to go with them have an immense industrial attraction, which again will not be easy to abandon.

The significance of the document lies in its influence over longer-term thinking, though even here it seems at times to shy away from its own logic.

By recommending "permanent structured defence co-operation" (a phrase from the Lisbon treaty) within the European Union and specialisation by individual countries, it comes close to pointing the way forward to an European army one day.

Perhaps another such report down the road will recommend that.

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