During the campaign for the Scottish Independence referendum two years ago, one of the arguments used by opponents of independence was that Scotland would be ‘too small’ to defend itself against any aggressor intent on seizing its territory. The way it was presented, there were enemies out there (usually assumed to be Russia) who were just waiting for such a sign of weakness in order to invade. One of the problems with that argument is that almost exactly the same could be said for the UK.
As a retired general told us at the weekend, the UK’s armed forces “are ill-prepared to defend the UK against a serious military attack”. But if the test of any defence capability is the ability to withstand an all-out attack from Russia, then the chances of the UK ever being able to afford an adequate level of armed forces are close to, if not actually, zero. The logic of the general’s argument is surely that the countries of the EU would need to combine their armed forces in to a single organisation (as indeed, some in the EU seem to want). I somehow doubt, however, that that was what the general had in mind.
The underlying question is about how realistic it is to assume that there are enemies out there just waiting for an opportunity to invade and occupy the UK. It seems to be axiomatic for the military that such is the case, but is it really? The point is that any government has to decide on the probability of a particular scenario before deciding how much to invest in preparing for it.
The old saying that “Generals are always preparing to fight the last war” seems relevant here; although in this case, the general’s view seems to overlook the last half dozen or so military adventures which have been of an altogether different type. Perhaps they just don’t count as ‘real’ wars between proper armies, of the sort that the military mind can more easily comprehend. But it’s a strange world indeed where stating that “Counter-terrorism is the limit of up-to-date plans and preparations to secure our airspace, waters and territory" is seen as a criticism that the government is unprepared, when for most of us it might look as though there is actually a degree of refocussing on what are the greater current threats.
Insofar as there is a logic to the demand that we should always be prepared for another major European war, it is based on an assumption that some or all other states are inherently aggressive and seeking to expand their territories, and an assumption that the best way to avoid such a war is to be always prepared to fight it. That’s one reading of history; but there is an alternative reading which is that when enough states prepare for war against each other for long enough, such a war is ultimately more likely to happen.My bigger concern is not that the UK is not ready to engage in a defensive conventional war against largely imagined enemies; it is that the UK is far too ready to engage in offensive wars, and too unwilling to engage in sensible disarmament processes.