Friday, March 02, 2007

Gordon Brown and the Military

It is sickeningly negligent and irresponsible to ask so much of the British military while funding it so poorly. This article for the New Republic (requires registration) details how bad things have gotten:

"Historians assessing the Blair years will wonder how the prime minister's remarkable appetite for sending British squaddies into action overseas could be matched by his ministry's striking disinclination to furnish them with the tools they need. A 1998 Strategic Defense Review concluded that Britain required the capability to conduct two medium-sized operations and a small peacekeeping operation simultaneously. Over the past decade, however, Blair has sent British forces into action in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Iraq, while simultaneously reducing the army, navy and air force's manpower and operational capability. A 2004 "rebalancing" of defense priorities actually reduced the number of infantry battalions--the boots on the ground needed for peacekeeping or counterinsurgency operations--from 40 to 36. With the prospect that as many as 9,000 British troops may be deployed to Afghanistan this year, the 100,000 strong British army simply cannot indefinitely maintain a similarly sized force in Iraq on top of its other, albeit smaller, commitments around the globe.

Moreover, although overall defense spending has kept pace with inflation during the Blair years, the Treasury has insisted that the military do much more with, in real terms, much less. Since September 11 defense spending as a percentage of GDP has actually declined--from 2.5 percent to less than 2.4 percent. That's half as much as it was in 1984 and lower than at any point since the early 1930s. France and Germany, to name but two examples, spend a higher proportion of GDP on defense without the additional expense or strain of actually committing large numbers of troops to overseas adventures.

The effects on the military are clear and, to British eyes, shocking. Nearly one third of the Royal Navy is already confined to port to save money, and First Sea Lord Jonathan Band has warned recently that unless further proposed cuts to the surface and submarine fleets are averted, "We could turn into the Belgian navy." Although the government approved the construction of two urgently needed aircraft carriers as far back as 1998, no orders have yet been placed, fuelling suspicions that the Treasury is unprepared to pay for the new ships. As the Daily Telegraph noted, dryly "If you want to practise gunboat diplomacy, it helps to have some gunboats." As it is, the active duty navy is smaller than the French navy for the first time since Trafalgar.

For its part, the army is struggling to meet its targets for recruitment and, crucially, retainment, and many infantry battalions remain nearly 10 percent under-strength. Though public sector employees such as nurses, doctors, and teachers have received generous pay settlements during the Blair years, the armed forces have been granted no such bounty. According to the Ministry of Defense's own estimates, nearly 50 percent of the accommodation for single soldiers is deemed "unacceptable." It's little surprise fewer squaddies are prepared to re-enlist."

The man responsible is clearly Gordon Brown. His decisions at the Treasury have been the ones which have made this problem so acute. Failing to properly provide for a military being asked to do a huge amount for our foreign policy is an abject failure of judgement on Brown’s part. That, despite this, he is still the likely Labour choice for Prime Minister demonstrates how unserious that party’s approach to foreign policy is.

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