At Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in May 1994, the ceremony was marked by a flypast by fighter jets of the SA Air Force. We were living and working in South Africa at the time and I remember marvelling that South Africa had such weapons at all. Who knew?
Later a lady, a judge’s wife, thought it necessary to tell me sotto voce that South Africa only had six serviceable fighter planes left. She clearly saw this as a problem; one that should worry South Africans. Now why should that be? Given the state of South Africa’s neighbours, the only reasons I could think of for the country to retain such weapon platforms were for use either against troops or refugees on the ground (such usage of such weapons being not unknown elsewhere in modern Africa)or against carrier-based planes offshore. Whose? Either case would constitute a world crisis anyway, with the potential to draw others into conflict. So why have these planes at all?
It’s often said that generals enter a war with the assumptions, methods and equipment of the last one. The Maginot Line is the classic example. It’s a point made recently by an article in the Guardian by Simon Jenkins. In it he argues that the UK no longer has a reason for retaining expensive armaments such as Trident or the two new aircraft carriers, because we no longer have an enemy to use them against. (When was the last time a battle fleet fought another? Leyte Gulf?). What enemies, in fact, do we have, he asks, to justify a fully-equipped defence force establishment at all? And in the context of the upcoming defence review, Jackie Ashley, in another article in the Guardian, does well to point out that there are indeed enemies out there, requiring different measures, and we should all have a part in deciding what these measures should be.
Other people have commented on these two articles online, and I haven’t read all their comments. I would just say that I can think of three threats for which an appropriate UK defence posture is still required.
The first is cyber attack – it has already been tried elsewhere in Europe – and it is interesting to see that the US has just set up a new defence command precisely to deal with cyberwarfare. The second is, perhaps within the next two decades or so, a mass incursion of desperate ‘boat people’ fleeing poverty and starvation in a worsening environment to our south. The first signs of such a climate change-fuelled incursion are already appearing, boat by boat, on the beaches of Pantelleria and Sicily. Controlling that flow requires an inshore navy, not aircraft carriers.
The third threat is from attacks inside the homeland by fellow citizens of ours; they have already happened, for whatever ideological or separatist cause; they will happen to us again. In this case, of course, we cannot ask to be fully informed about what measures are in place to counteract terrorism. We have to trust they’re there.
I hope that the defence review attends to these rather obvious points despite the fact that Trident is excluded from its remit! – not least because they were recently articulated, far better than I could do, by Sir David Richards, the favourite to be the next Chief of the Defence Staff. I’m with Ms Asley: let’s get the debate started. It would help, for starters, if we stopped pretending that we have a valid military role in Afghanistan.