With all the ballyhoo regarding the SDSR coming up this year and everyone debating where the extra (Ha!) money might go, I've been doing some mulling over with a nice glass (or two. And a half. And another f**king half) of Amaretto. Specifically I've been thinking about the Russian "threat", which based on some discussions I've seen you'd be forgiven thinking he was knocking on the door to number 10 right now demanding to come in and make himself comfortable.
It's got me thinking about the history of the UK as it relates to the armed forces. Throughout time the UK has always been able to channel itself against various enemies. At one point it was the French (and to an extent the Spanish). The need was clear; retain an absolute advantage relative to the combined European powers in naval warfare, maintain sufficient garrisons in overseas territories to prevent their capture by hostile powers, maintain a reserve of trained active personnel in the UK ready for immediate global deployment as reinforcements, and maintain a semi-trained "militia" in the UK to hedge against the threat of invasion.
The stragtey was all rather simple in the grand scheme of things. Use the navy to choke off any potential invasion of the UK and to command trade routes overseas, shift the overseas garrisons around as needed (with assistance from UK delivered forces) to fight any small fires abroad, recruit as many locals to help as possible, and divert the enemies attention away from the UK and its interests by providing financial, material and technical support to continental allies.
I've heard this best described as the "Excessive Power" doctrine, i.e. trying to prevent any one continental power from achieveing a position of excessive power over Europe. The results were erm, mixed to say the least. But what was critical about this is not the specifics, but that the UK had a very clear idea about what the major challenge of the day was. Political and military leaders knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that this thing or that was the overarching objective, the primary concern of their day.
And for most of the time between then and 1989 the UK had one enemy or another to focus its attention on, aside from a few dry spells. Which is where we find ourselves today, in something of a dry spell. With Afghanistan at a close and the current operations over Iraq more akin to the inter war strafing of rebellious tribes from the 1920's, the UK is in something of a strategic void.
That's not to say that there are no threats. Just none that are especially fatal to the UK as an entity.
The UK is no longer the great naval power of the world. The US is. And the UK happens to be allied to the US. The most prominent land power or air power that could threaten the UK is sitting at the other end of the continent, with several other air and land forces between it. Now as a member of NATO that puts the UK under certain obligations to defend its neighbours and indeed the old saying about prevention being better than the cure would apply here. The events of the second world war have shown us what happens when you allow trouble to arrive on the opposite side of the channel.
But then again, how serious really is the Russian threat? Ask yourself this question for example; how likely is it that the Russian hoardes are about to go rampaging across eastern europe? How far would they get before they ran out of men or tanks? More pertinently, how far would they get before they outran their logistics systems? How far would they get before they simply got lost?
So having answered those questions, how much of a threat really is Russia to the UK, beyond the nuisance value of probing our airspace and making angry noises about NATO expansion, keeping in mind that the situation in Ukraine and Crimea was a response to a perceived threat to their borders and their major naval base in the region, something which Russia has form over when it comes to perceived or real encroachement of their sphere of influence?
This for me is the really telling issue when it comes to debating the SDSR. To me it still seems like an exercise in politics and budgets. There is still not really a strategic element to the strategic review. Like all the talk about being prepared to recapture the Falklands if needs be. How about we prepare instead to not lose the Falklands in the first place?
Any time the Type 26 comes up, the debate turns to whether they should be anti-submarine focuses, or whether they should be more generalist global combat ships, or even be replaced in a number of roles by smaller, cheaper patrol vessels. Not much debate seems to take place around what the Type 26 would actually be used for, why we need them, and how many we need to meet the tasks expected, or what even those tasks should be.
Something to mull over your next glass of your favourite tipple.