U.K. Military Split On Afghan Strategy

Britain's recent military experience in Afghanistan is a major factor in heated arguments about future defense spending between senior military figures in London. The head of the army says the war shows that "boots on the ground" must be the priority; but the air force wants to upgrade its aging squadrons of jet fighters, and Britain's chief admiral seeks new aircraft carriers.

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The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been immensely expensive, not just here in the U.S. but also in Britain. The U.K. is deep in debt, and it's in the process of reviewing defense spending. That review is pitting the leaders of the army and Royal Navy against each other in a debate over the future of the armed forces.

NPR's Rob Gifford has the story from London.

ROB GIFFORD: The last full British defense review was held in 1998. And since then, Britain has found itself fighting in ways that were not envisaged and certainly not budgeted for back then. Now with another review looming, as Britain's finances have hit rock bottom, the head of the British army, General Sir David Richards, has called for fundamental changes in the British military.

Drawing on his experience as overall commander of international forces in Southern Afghanistan, Richards has said Britain needs less-expensive hardware, such as warships and fighter jets, and more specialized soldiers using better intelligence and the latest technology. Richards takes the lessons of Iraq and particularly Afghanistan as a guide, and says it's time for a dramatic shift in military doctrine, much like the one from mounted cavalry to tanks at the time of World War I.

Rear Admiral Chris Parry is a former senior adviser at the Ministry of Defence. He says if Britain is not going to fight traditional wars against other states, it does need a new kind of military.

Rear Admiral CHRIS PARRY (Former Adviser, Ministry of Defence): Are we going to go and sit on somebody else's country and make it right, with all the cost in terms of manpower and treasure that that implies? Or are we going to go for something more subtle, high impact, as David Richards says, but lower footprints? We're not going to sit on people's countries again in the future, making things right. We just can't afford it, I would suggest. And so what we're going to have to do is say, where do we best put our investment?

GIFFORD: The answer to that question, though, from the top brass in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force is very different. Navy chiefs especially now fear that plans for two new aircraft carriers, and replacements for Britain's Trident Submarine Nuclear Missile System, could fall victim to cuts in the defense review.

The head of the Royal Navy, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, says Britain's interests are dependent on a fleet that can operate worldwide.

Admiral Sir MARK STANHOPE (First Sea Lord, Chief of Naval Staff): It is important to realize that Afghanistan is not the only game in town or, indeed, the only model for future engagement.

GIFFORD: Admiral Stanhope says the military must be ready for surprises and strategic shocks, such as the Falklands War in 1982.

Adm. Sir STANHOPE: The Falklands War was such an event. It came from left field. The implications of that is the need to consider the likelihood of crises of all types developing in the near term, and to ensure that we are ready to respond at short notice to the unexpected.

GIFFORD: Even before the global financial crisis, the British military was facing a black hole in its procurement budget of tens of billions of dollars. And unpopular cuts will almost certainly be made by the next government after a general election expected in the spring.

Admiral Chris Parry sites a historical comparison from 1907 that he thinks the government should remember.

Rear Adm. PARRY: Lord Townshend, after the Boer War, for example, said: Look, we've got a new type of enemy for a new century. We've been facing an army of the people that is among the people, and it's hard to tell from non-combatants fighting a new sort of war. Well, that sounds very much like General Richards' vision. And yet 1907, 1914 - seven years later, we were in the biggest global conflict in history. And I think it's incredibly dangerous to say what's happened before will never happen again.

GIFFORD: Though a lot of the discussion will undoubtedly sound like internal military politics and jostling for funds, all military leaders say they agree that the defense review needs to work out how Britain defines its national interest ,and work out how that can best be secured, rather than focusing first on what Britain can and can't afford.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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