Today I wish to start a debate about why we have armed forces, what we expect of them and how they should be shaped, deployed and supported in the future.
The last guidance from the outgoing government came in its vague document “Adaptability and Partnership”, a Green Paper published in February 2010 to hold the line prior to a major defence review. The new government has embarked on that more fundamental review.
The main questions in February were thought to be “What contribution should the armed forces make in ensuring security…within the UK”; “Should we further integrate our forces with those of key allies..?” and “How could we more effectively employ the armed forces in support of wider efforts to …strengthen international stability?”
The whole bias of the doucment was on Iraq/Afghanistan type conflicts, as it gently steered people to the conclusion that more integration of our command and communications structures with the US would make things better and easier.
The new government has rightly warned that the next challenge to our armed forces may be very different from the US led Middle Eastern wars of the last decade. Mr Fox has said that we need to examine our commitment to Europe, maritime defence and the expeditionary capability which has been so important in recent years.
So let’s begin the debate today with a modest proposal that could save money. Why don’t we withdraw the army from Germany?
There is good news. On this issue EUsceptics and EU enthusiasts should be agreed. EU enthusiasts tell us that the EU has and will keep the peace in Europe. There will be no more recourse to arms. Many of us agree that the advent of peace loving democracies in Europe makes war between the main countries over borders unlikely. The UK could say that it no longer sees its own role as in any way responsible for enforcing or helping determine borders between continental European countries as it did in 1914 and 1938-9. If there are disputes then the UN can determine them, and NATO led by the US is available with force should the UN need any backing. Russia remains a major European power, and her views will also be important to and through the UN.
In practise in the run up to 1914 and again in the years before 1939 the UK did not build an army for intervention on the continent. The brave small force sent to France in 1914 was ill equipped for the trench warfare that followed, without machine guns and motorised transport. The much larger army to help win the war had to be recruited, trained and equipped in wartime. In 1939 the UK had no large army to help protect France from invasion. The force which was subsequently sent was too small to contain the might of the German advance, and is best remembered for its heroic and successful retreat from Dunkirk. Most of the equipment and transport was abandoned. Again most of the winning army had to be recruited, trained and equipped in wartime for the invasion of 1944. There was no victory in either war until the US started pouring men and material into the conflict.
This does not in my view argue that we should learn that we need a bigger army to intervene on the continent. Modern more peaceful conditions and the history of 1914-18 all argue in favour of the Uk not becoming embroiled in continental conflicts or keeping an army on the continent. The army in Germany should be the first saving and the first change from a past of European conflicts. We need the people and the cash elsewhere.