Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Refighting the past

It’s an old saying that generals always want to fight the last war, meaning that their tactics and the weaponry that they want is based more on experience of the past than on anticipation of the future.  In some ways, the speech by the head of the army a week or so ago gave the lie to that statement, because he seemed quite clear that the next threat will be most unlike the last one, and will be more to do with cyber warfare than with conventional warfare.  And then he went and spoiled it by appearing to argue that the response should be to spend more on tanks and guns, in a vain attempt to match the military capability of Russia.  Certainly, all the coverage around his speech seemed to concentrate on the amount and quality of the hardware available, without explaining quite how any of that would protect us from a cyber attack.
There was another former military chief on the television a few days ago, complaining about potential cuts to the Royal Marines, and arguing that such cuts would lave them at half the strength that they had a few years ago.  He drew a comparison with hospitals and schools, arguing, essentially, that people would be up in arms if the number of hospitals or schools were to be halved, so why weren’t they doing the same about reductions to the military?  It’s a completely misleading and over-simplistic comparison, of course, because it merely considers the provision, not the demand.  If the number of children needing to be educated halved, or some miracle cures were developed which halved the need for hospital beds, then it would be madness to keep the same number of schools or hospitals, simple because that was the number we had before.  In the same way, the size of the military needs to be related to the requirement; the hard part is working out what that requirement is.
It is, I suppose, in the nature of generals to assume that somebody – perhaps everybody – is just waiting for us to drop our guard so that they can march in and enslave us; they don’t need to ask, let alone answer, the question as to why anyone would want to.  In that sense, the UK’s military posture is, after all, very much rooted in refighting the past, based on an assumption that the ‘enemy’ is hell-bent on world domination, and needs to be ‘deterred’ from acting in pursuit of that aim.  Coupled with an image of the UK as a great world power based firmly in the nineteenth century (or, at a pinch, the first half of the twentieth), it leads to a demand for military spending on a scale, and of a type, which is largely unrelated to any real threat to the UK.
The real problem is not about the size or scale of the military at all; it is about the continuing failure to recognise the place which the UK occupies in the real world, and adapt to it instead of pretending to be something which the UK is not.

No comments: