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The thin red line

Posted by Richard Saturday, August 14, 2004

While The Times today devoted a full half-page to Mrs Bloom’s refrigerator – thus demonstrating how trivialised a once proud newspaper has become - it took the Washington Post yesterday to raise the alarm about Hoon’s defence cuts and their potential effect on the US.

The article was written by Robert E. Osgood professor and director of the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, and entitled Thin Red Line, Getting Thinner, in which the author considers that the current round of UK defence cuts should cause Americans alarm. "The British government", he writes:

…squeezed by the costs of its social welfare state and dominated by a Treasury that has little use for the armed forces, is cutting its military in wartime, and when its armed forces are stretched as never before. It will leave a military more suited for sprints than for distance running; so busy operating that it has neither the time nor the resources to innovate; fielding an army too small to sustain substantial long-term deployments; an air force still inadequate in transport, reconnaissance and ground attack; and a navy that will have two handsome new aircraft carriers but would, in fact, be hard-pressed to hurl the army ashore and then remain off the coast to fight alongside it. Misguided industrial policy and poor choices about force structure have played their part in this sad tale. These are, however, fundamentally the fruits of nearly two decades of steady decline in real British defense spending.
Although Osgood concedes that the entire British armed forces are only slightly larger than the US Marine Corps, he points out that Britain nevertheless the only considerable state that can send substantial forces in the field to operate alongside US forces. “If Iraq has taught anything”, he adds,

…it has been the extreme desirability of bringing along a coalition, with all of its awkwardness, to a large geopolitical problem. But to have a coalition one needs at least one large partner. The issue is not just capability in some narrow, mathematical sense but the legitimacy and reassurance that comes from knowing a substantial partner is in the fight with us. And the American military has gotten to be so good, so technologically advanced and so tactically adept that only a handful of militaries can operate alongside ours and hope to keep up. Foremost among those who can are the Brits.
His second point is that Britain brings to bear real military expertise, particularly in the field of counterinsurgency. “Their soldiers and generals have learned a great deal about pacifying distant trouble spots, knowledge from which the Yanks could and have benefited”.

The third and last point he makes is equally important:

Britain is a European power. In NATO it is unique among the militarily serious states. France is hostile to us; Germany is increasingly so, and has debilitated its armed forces by putting them on starvation rations for the past decade. Spain has tilted to France, and Italy, despite pockets of excellence, is an uneven power. The other states are either too small or as yet too poor and inexperienced to provide both muscle and leadership in complex fights.
In and amongst his argument, though, Osgood also makes the point that seems to have eluded Hoon and his MoD planners, noting that: "…as we have learned in the Persian Gulf”, numbers of boots on the ground count in this kind of fight - even when it comes to training indigenous forces".

He believes that American officials "will shy away from chivvying Tony Blair, their best friend in Europe, about his government's reversion to an age-old pattern of cutting the armed forces budgets as the storm clouds gather", but concludes:

No matter: They should point out the price paid for such fecklessness in the past. And they might suggest that as the flames of insurgency burn in Iraq, while Taliban guerrillas and warlords fight a new Afghan government, as al Qaeda terrorists plot mayhem in our cities and theirs, when mass murder erupts in Africa and governments teeter in the Middle East, this is not the time to thin the red line to the breaking point.
It is good to see a US author, in a respected US newspaper, writing in such terms. But one still waits to see when or whether the US will catch up with the European dimension and realise that Blair is selling the nation down the river in order to fulfil his ambition to be at "the heart of Europe". Unable to join the euro, he has instead offered the only thing of value that our EU "colleagues" might be interested in – the British armed forces – on the altar of European integration.

But, if the Washington Post can be congratulated for devoting the space to the issue, one also yearns for the British media to start taking this issue seriously.