Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Fighting the last war?


Generals, so they say, are always preparing to refight the last war. It’s not entirely true, but there is an element of truth to the idea that military attitudes are always shaped to an extent by the last conflict in which they participated. One thing that does seem to hold true, however, is that they always believe that ‘the enemy’ is planning to attack and invade, a belief which justifies their persistent demands for more money and hardware. The current UK government is content to play along with this, at least partly in the mistaken belief that the Scots and the Welsh will understand that they can only be ‘protected’ by remaining part of a state which diverts huge sums into armaments, sums on a scale which Scotland or Wales could never afford.

The nature of this threat to UK territory is rarely elaborated, but generally attributed to Russia or China. Quite why Russia would want to invade the UK (even if the UK’s government wasn’t in the process of turning the country into a basket case) is never spelled out. Russia’s oligarchs find it easier and considerably cheaper to get what they want from the UK by bunging large sums of money at the Conservative Party, and China has no discernible interest in taking over a country more than 4,000 miles away. And if there’s no obvious reason or them to be interested in invading the UK, there is even less reason why they would somehow want to seize on the opportunity provided by independence to invade Scotland or Wales. It’s a form of madness to suggest that they would – and the madness of those in charge of the UK frightens me more than the fantasy of a Chinese invasion of Fishguard.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people (not necessarily states) in the world who want to harm the UK; it’s more about recognising that traditional warfare, whether by air, land or sea isn’t their chosen method, which means that tanks, guns and aircraft won’t help. The ‘inexhaustible’ energy beams which the PM was promoting last week won’t help either (although if they’ve really found an inexhaustible energy supply to power them, there are much better peaceful uses waiting, not to mention a Nobel prize or two and the complete rewriting of physics). Cyber security is more important for our future security than warships or planes, although why we need the predominately offensive capability proposed rather than a merely defensive one is another unanswered question.

But the real question which an increase in military spending doesn’t even attempt to answer is why there are people who want to destroy our society, and whether there are other things that we could do to make ourselves more secure. Not attacking other countries, and not building up an offensive capability to attack other countries might be a good place to start. A rules-based international order in which states agree rules and stick to them is another. Increasing rather than cutting economic aid to poorer countries is a third. It would be naïve to think that there won’t always be alternative world views which seek to impose their views on others, and we will always need a level of protection against that. We’d need rather less protection, though, if the UK wasn’t apparently doing its best at times to recruit more people to their cause.


dafis said...

Good appraisal of the defective rationale that recurs in British politics and its stances on defence/security. In the present global climate the main threats continue to be of the "terrorist" variety. And "variety" is the right term, as it can manifest itself in so many ways.
Accordingly the ability to anticipate attacks through the full range of intelligence tools is vital. "listening" or eavesdropping is part of this alongside the capacity to harvest human intelligence from any valid source. Of course, there is also a need for the complimentary skills in separating wheat from chaff as our enemies will be adept at generating disinformation too. Not forgetting the need to have capacity for filtering out the tendency of our own politicians and some officials to bend the intelligence to suit their own preferred narrative ( a la Blair and Co) a proclivity which is bound to recur in likes of Boris, Gove and sundry other deviants.

Anonymous said...

Out of interest and because I haven't got anything else to do right now, I flicked through Wikipedia to see how British armed forces have actually been involved in shooting wars over the past, oh, 100 years say. The categories are my own and could probably be improved upon:


Ireland, ends 1921
Ulster 1939 - 40
Ulster 1942 - 44
Ulster 1956 - 62
Ulster 1968 - 98

Imperial adventures:

Somaliland, Iraq 1920
Jordan 1923
Kuwait 1927 - 30
Palestine (against Arabs) 1936 - 39
Palestine (against Jews) 1939 - 48
Afghanistan 1944 - 47
Malaya 1948 - 60
Egypt 1951 - 52
Kenya 1952 - 60
Cyprus 1955 - 59
Somewhere in Africa 1959
Aden 1963 - 67
Argentina 1982
Sierra Leone 2000 -02

Treaty obligations (inc. UN, NATO etc):

WW2 1939 - 45
Korea 1950 - 53
Indonesia 1962 - 66
Oman 1962 - 75
Iraq 1990 - 91
Bosnia 1992 - 95
Kosovo 1998 - 99
Iraq (Isil) 2014 -

Regime change:

Greece 1944 - 48
Indonesia 1945 - 49
Vietnam 1945 - 46
Lebanon 1982 -84
Afghanistan 2001 - 2014
Iraq 2003 - 09
Libya 2011
Iran 2019 -


Oman 1954 - 59
Egypt 1956 - 57
Iceland 1958 - 61
Biafra 1967 - 70
Iceland 1972 - 73
Iceland 1975 - 76


Albania 1946 - 48
Iraq 1998

Seems quite a list. Only pattern I can see is that in every case the UK seems to have had the option whether to go to war or not. Whether or not you agree with each and every decision is an entirely different matter.

dafis said...

Anon - That's a mighty long list, mostly made up of instinctive meddling, an urge to shove the "national nose" into other peoples' business. Very surprised that the UK remains relatively unscathed as rogue states that behave in that pattern normally get clouted by an alliance designed for the job.

John Dixon said...


As dafis says, that's a long list. I'm not sure what your point is, though. If it is that the UK needs strong conventional forces based on past conflicts, then you're confirming the point about generals always preparing to fight the wars of the past. But if we return to the main point that the original post was making, it was that there are no reasons to expect that anyone wants to invade either the UK or any of the countries which compose it. And your list sort of confirms that as being the experience of the past as well - there is only one instance of a conflict on that list where it could be argued that 'the enemy' had an invasion in mind, and even that isn't entirely clear-cut. Historically, invasion is something that the UK (or the British Empire before it) has done to others rather than has had done to it.

Gav said...

I'm not sure what the point was either. Too much time on my hands.

No, one point might be that out of 40-odd conflicts only 2 (WW2 and Ireland) represented an existential threat to the UK and a high proportion of the rest are what dafis fairly calls "instinctive meddling". While expenditure on the armed forces is apparently being sold to the paying public as necessary to meet existential threats* in practice that's not what they seem to be mainly used for. Know them by their fruits, and all that. Or possibly our armed forces just have too much time on their hands as well.

Another point is that the size and shape of our armed forces are likely to be very different according to whether they're meant to defend the UK or to be beastly to foreigners a long way off, and it's probably a mistake to try to do both using the same people and kit.

So, I'm probably agreeing with you.

*Let nobody compare 1920s Ireland with 2020s Scotland. The situations are totally different. No resemblance at all.

Spirit of BME said...

Good post, you ask questions, but there is no chance you will get any answers.
The Boy Johnson`s hosing of money on defence issues come to my mind from two basis.
The first is ‘sunken costs’ trap or ‘we are where we are,’ as the two new and obsolete aircraft carriers cannot be deployed to hostile waters, as they can not be protected ,so more hulls in the water money is part of that ,but it’s not enough. Moving money into new technology is clearly logical.
The second is more complex , but again comes from the past historical events ,namely in the last unpleasantness with Germany the UK or Greater England came out victorious which creates more problems than being defeated in some ways, as you are viewed as part of the world police force with the power to project and engage in military conflict. Disengaging from this role is difficult and as Donald John found gets you no friends in the powerful military/industrial and media complex at home. The theory goes when big power do nothing; small powers get going on the mistaken belief that they can conduct their conflicts without retribution. This was a major element in the outbreak of war in 1914.
So, with J.R. Biden Jr. this will change, and we will see greater engagement in foreign deployment of military power, as wars are always beneficial to Wall Street and Jr. has already been bought and paid for. Disengaging from this role is the last problem wants right now.