x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Britain 'can no longer afford to be a mini-US'

The UK should give up maintaining armed forces capable of policing world trouble spots, says a report from an influential think tank.

LONDON // Britain should stop trying to be "a mini-United States" and give up maintaining armed forces capable of policing world trouble spots, a report from an influential think tank said yesterday. After a two-year review, the high-powered panel of experts said the UK simply could not afford its international role and recommended slashing £24 billion (Dh146bn) from proposed defence spending.

It also said the government should rethink its commitment to a £20bn project to update the submarine-based Trident nuclear deterrent. The report, prepared by a panel brought together by the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research, is being seen as the most fundamental challenge to the UK defence strategy in 50 years. Lord Paddy Ashdown, joint chairman of the panel and a former international high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, told the BBC yesterday: "One conclusion we arrive at is that we can no longer afford to maintain a museum of Cold War armaments.

"We can no longer afford to maintain full-spectrum armed forces capable of operating anywhere in the globe like a mini-United States." Lord George Robertson, co-chairman of the panel and a former Nato secretary general, added: "In the post-9/11, post-financial crisis world, we must be smarter and more ruthless in targeting national resources as the real security risks. "When it comes to security, national self-reliance is a dangerous fantasy. European co-operation is the only viable way forward in many areas. We need to make it work."

Among the proposals set out in the report is the creation of a US-style national security council and a refocusing of defence priorities, which should be aimed at combating Mumbai-style terrorist attacks and rogue states rather than conventional threats. The report also warns that the mission in Afghanistan could fail unless it is changed to include a joint civilian-military stabilisation and reconstruction taskforce.

"The emphasis must be on responding to the shifting geopolitical landscape, and unconventional threats like climate change, energy shortages, nuclear proliferation and neo-jihadi terrorism," the report says. "Reliance on nuclear deterrence for long-term security is increasingly unsafe given concerns over proliferation to both state and non-state actors." Planned spending on new aircraft carriers, an Anglo-American strike fighter project and on new destroyers and submarines should be cut, the report stated flatly.

Lord Ashdown said he personally favoured scrapping the Trident programme and replacing it with some other, cheaper and more flexible nuclear missile programme. The report itself merely said Britain should "revisit" the philosophy behind Trident and added that the nation should be encouraging moves by the White House aimed, eventually, at ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Britain also needed to pursue far more comprehensive military cooperation with other European states while maintaining its "special relationship" with the United States.

"We must reach out to establish a new concordat with other nations and other global powers in order to secure a secure world in changing and turbulent circumstances," Lord Ashdown said. "That does require new thinking." The report comes at a time when all areas of public spending in Britain are under pressure because of the economic turndown. While Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, the head of the Royal Navy, has defended the building of two new large aircraft carriers from accusations that they are outdated Cold War relics, his case has not been helped by claims yesterday that the cost of the ships has risen to £5 billion from £3.9 billion in the span of a year.

Additionally, Gen Sir Richard Dannatt, the army chief, has criticised many of the ministry of defence's new equipment programmes as being "irrelevant" to modern warfare. Bill Rammell, the defence minister, gave a guarded welcome to the report but defended the government's military equipment programme and the Trident refurbishment plan, which is supported by the opposition Conservatives but would be scrapped by the Liberal Democrats.

"We don't put forward proposals to invest in equipment unless we believe it is necessary," he told the BBC. "We remain committed to the [Trident] policy we set out two years ago. "We are talking about our national security. We constantly need to keep our position under review and we need to work for multilateral nuclear disarmament." But he added: "When we look at the risks moving forward over the coming decades, we don't believe at the moment it would be safe to fail to make decisions now which would effectively commit us to unilateral disarmament in the future, regardless of the circumstances."

The report's proposal to slash £24bn from major defence procurement projects has sent shock waves through industry. Ian Godden, the chief executive of the Society of British Aerospace Co, said: "The debate about big projects versus better conditions for troops or more boots on the ground, is a false one or at best highly risky. "The real issue is the fact that, as a nation, we no longer adequately fund our own defence. Threats to our security do not go away simply because we are in a recession."

Other members of the panel that prepared the report included Lord Charles Guthrie of Craigiebank, former head of Britain's defence staff, and Sir Jeremy Greenstock, former UK ambassador to the United Nations and to Iraq. dsapsted@thenational.ae