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THE policy of one's own country in defense, economics or foreign affairs is not easy to define. The outside world may assume that at the center of government there is a coolheaded, far-sighted policy-forming group which has formulated a clear assessment of the national goals and the national interests, and which ensures that each action or reaction is planned and carried out in conformity with them. But to the student of internal politics—to say nothing of those more intimately acquainted with the erratic workings of any government machine—the image is less precise. Other nations seem to pursue their interests with resolution and wisdom; the policy of one's own country is all too clearly at the mercy of pressures and counter-pressures, of rival political groups, of conflicting economic interests, of ambitious or venal personalities. And although what emerges out of these conflicting forces may appear to foreigners to be a logical continuation of traditional policy, the close observer is more conscious of the painful and usually undignified process of the dialectic than of the synthesis which ultimately emerges.
The chronic schizophrenia from which Britain suffers as an offshore island, at once part of the continent of Europe and detached from it, is nowhere more apparent than in the strategic problems which have confronted her ever since, in the sixteenth century, she emerged as a major European power. The development in that century of long-range navigational techniques opened up to Europe new worlds of wealth and commerce which England, so long as she could remain aloof from continental entanglements, was in a unique position to exploit. Her rivals—Spain, Holland, France—were wealthier, further advanced in civilization and not her inferiors in seamanship. But they suffered from the crippling handicap that they had to pour money and resources into large armies for land warfare which nearly or quite bankrupted them. The English did not. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, England could concentrate the greater part of her military effort on naval development and maritime expansion, and emerge wealthier from each of the successive wars which impoverished her enemies and her continental allies alike.
But this concentration on maritime war could never be complete. If any of her adversaries succeeded in establishing a total hegemony in Europe, not only would England be faced with physical invasion, but a power would be created strong enough to crush her in the colonial, maritime and economic fields in which the rivalries of Europe and her own military immunity had enabled her to stand supreme. The contribution of France to the independence of the United States is universally acknowledged; but it is less often realized that Britain admitted defeat in 1783 mainly because for the first time she could find no continental allies to distract and pin down the French.
Thus in every war, from those against Louis XIV to that against Hitler, the same strategic problem has confronted the British Government: how to divide its resources between, on the one hand, a maritime and economic war waged outside Europe and on the high seas, with the object of preserving and increasing British resources and diminishing those of her enemies; and, on the other, a continental war, to support the armies of her continental allies and help them gain those victories in the field which alone could be decisive. The "Maritime" and "Continental" schools during the eighteenth century developed doctrines which survived into the twentieth; and for over 200 years British governments have tried to avoid any binding continental commitments which prevented a more fruitful employment of forces elsewhere. The conflict between "Easterners" and "Westerners" bedeviled the conduct of British strategy during the First World War; British governments refused until 1938 to enter into any firm military commitment to France; and in the Second World War the same historic instinct, to concentrate on naval and extra-European warfare and weaken the enemy by blockade, by subversion, and now by aerial bombardment, was judged somewhat uncharitably by allies brought up in a different tradition, who only wanted to go in as quickly as possible and win.
This historical background is necessary if the full significance of the change which has come over the British position during the last ten years is to be understood. Britain has now been deprived of her freedom of choice. She is committed to both of the strategies which, in happier days, she liked to consider as alternatives. On the one hand she has accepted, as part of her NATO commitments, the obligation to maintain both ground and air forces in Europe in peacetime—an obligation as contrary to all traditions of British policy as the similar American commitment is to those of the United States. The strategic necessity for this, as well as its desirability on purely political grounds, has never been seriously questioned in British official circles, and acceptance of it was all the easier as it involved, originally, only a maintenance of the distribution of forces which prevailed at the end of the Second World War. But this continental commitment—originally assessed at four divisions—though imposing little strain on a war establishment was not one which a peacetime force, of the size which Britain was accustomed to keep up, could easily fulfill.
For British overseas commitments were still pressing. The transition from Empire to Commonwealth, the development of colonies into independent nations, had modified and altered many of these commitments, but it had not destroyed them. India and Burma opted for a formal neutrality, but Pakistan and the Malay Federation did not. In the territories which still retain colonial status, such as Kenya, British Guiana, British Honduras, and until recently Cyprus, the British possess an unwelcome responsibility for the maintenance of internal order—the "Imperial Policing" which for nearly a century and a half has been the British Army's principal role. Even when these territories become independent they look to Britain—with notable exceptions—to train and equip their forces, and they remain, however temporarily, within the British military orbit, with all the moral obligation in which this involves the United Kingdom to aid them even if there is no specific obligation to do so.
The same principle applies yet more strongly to Canada, Australia and New Zealand—nations which, although they lean increasingly and inevitably towards the United States for operational and material support, still constitute with the United Kingdom a single military system, largely uniform in weapons and equipment and sharing a common military education. Finally, outside the Commonwealth but of no less concern to British policy, are those Middle Eastern States—Jordan, Kuwait, the Sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf—where traditional obligations and pressing national interests alike commit the British to do all they can to preserve the stability of the existing régimes.
It all adds up to a formidable list. British troops are currently stationed in the Bahamas, Jamaica, British Honduras. British Guiana, Gibraltar, Libya, Malta, Cyprus, East Africa, Aden, the Persian Gulf, Singapore, Malaya and Hong Kong. Many of these commitments have been integrated with the alliance systems of CENTO and SEATO into which Britain has entered concurrently with the United States; but they have an existence independent both of these alliances and of the cold war which brought the alliances into being. Some are as old as the British settlement of the West Indies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; others date only from the discovery of the oilfields of the Middle East. The military necessities of the cold war have given them all a new significance but did not create them.
There is indeed a gap between the British and the American attitude towards the military problems of these non-European areas—a gap which is not always fully understood in either country, and which could provide a dangerous source of misunderstanding. American strategic thinking is shaped almost entirely by the great ideological cleavage between the Communist and the Western worlds which alone was powerful enough to coax the United States out of the traditional isolation into which it showed every sign of relapsing after the Second World War. To this pattern of conflict all other developments and complications in international politics have somehow, in the American mind, to be related, and to it all else is subordinate. Such at least is American defense and foreign policy as it appears from London. But for Britain, the threat of Communism is only one factor among many to be considered in a world which has always been full of difficulties and menaces. In some of its aspects, indeed, Communism is only the latest form of such old and recurrent threats to local peace and world balance as nationalism and Russian imperialism—threats to which Britain has long been accustomed, even if she has not countered them particularly well. To Americans, this may seem a tradition-bound approach fatally incapable of adjusting itself to the realities of a world in which the disciples of Lenin and Mao Tse-tung are striving patiently and ruthlessly for world domination. But the British can reasonably argue that most of the conflicts in which their forces have been involved since 1945—Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus, Oman, Suez, Jordan—have had only an indirect connection with the major confrontation between Communism and the West, and were likely to have arisen in some form even if Marxism had never existed. The adversaries with which British troops have had to deal have been as much the followers of Giuseppe Mazzini as those of Karl Marx. Those who frame British defense policy work therefore on the assumption that violence may occur for many reasons and in any part of the world where Britain has a responsibility to her allies, to the inhabitants or to herself for keeping the peace. Their main concern is to remain in a position to deal with violence when it does arise. It is this concern which explains that dominant characteristic of British defense policy—the determination to preserve a chain of bases around the world as places d'armes, not specifically intended for a war with the Communist powers and their satellites, but simply to enable British forces to deal with any emergency, however unexpected, that may demand their attention.
Since the Second World War, then, Britain has not only assumed new responsibilities as a major European power, but she has preserved many of her commitments in the extra-European world as well. To these she has added a third and equally demanding set of commitments: those involved in becoming a nuclear power, with the consequent necessity not simply of developing a nuclear potential to provide the warheads of nuclear weapons but of keeping abreast in the means of delivering them, either by rockets or, more recently, by using aircraft as mobile launching sites. This ambitious decision has been under increasing attack within Britain, not only from pacifist and anti-nuclear groups, but from serious military commentators and specialists, who have objected to it as an unnecessary expense, undertaken for reasons of political prestige rather than of sound military necessity. They argue that it adds nothing to the deterrent force of the West, decreases British ability to keep up adequate "conventional" forces, and opens up the problem of the "nth" nuclear power. Few of these arguments were relevant, however, between 1946 and 1948, when the vital decisions were taken. The problem then was not whether or not to develop an independent nuclear power; it was whether, as a result of the American decision to dissolve the wartime partnership in the investigation and military exploitation of nuclear energy, to halt developments in Britain which were already well under way. British scientific expertise and industrial capacity could undertake the task without noticeable strain, and the V-bomber force which the R.A.F. developed as carriers for the bomb were useful all-purpose aircraft. The decision to proceed was not one which a Labor government doubtfully sympathetic to the United States found difficult to take, or one which the Conservatives, traditionally careful of Britain's independence and prestige, found it in them to oppose.
The expense involved in these three areas of commitment—Europe, overseas and nuclear development—was accepted by the country during the critical years between 1948 and 1953 when war with the Soviet Union seemed likely and at times imminent—much as a similar increase in defense burdens was accepted, during the same period, by the United States. But after 1953 the danger appeared less intense. At worst, it seemed to be dissipated into non-military or para-military channels. A Conservative government was in power, temperamentally inclined towards the reduction of taxes, greater production of consumer goods and liquidation of the restrictions and shortages under which the British had suffered since 1939. The American example was tempting. President Eisenhower's Administration in 1953-4 had also felt that the defense burden of the past four years was heavier than the country need reasonably be asked to bear, and in seeking to reduce it had adopted the principle of concentrating national resources on forces which would, it was hoped, deter war by threatening aggressors with swift and certain nuclear retaliation rather than on forces to fight through a war by conventional means. The British Defense White Paper of 1957, presented by Mr. Duncan Sandys, also adopted this principle. Economies were made, not in Britain's deterrent apparatus, but in her conventional forces. A five-year plan was initiated which succeeded in reducing the burden of defense, as a percentage of the Gross National Product, from 10 percent in 1957 to approximately 7½ percent in 1960; and the decision was taken to reduce the services to a size at which compulsory National Service could be abolished altogether in 1962.
It was the decision to abolish conscription which attracted most attention in the Defense White Paper. It was naturally popular on all sides. The Labor Party had always been temperamentally opposed to National Service, and even among the Conservatives there were two strong sources of opposition to it: those who considered that it rendered economically useless a substantial proportion of the nation's manpower; and those who objected to the distortions and strains which it imposed upon the traditional pattern of the fighting services to which many of them were deeply attached. Within the services themselves there was little objection to the provisions of the White Paper. As the complexity of weapons increased, the training of National Servicemen had become progressively more difficult. The principal need of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force was for long-serving specialists, while in the army the rapid turnover in the personnel of regiments fighting in Malaya, Kenya or Cyprus drove commanding officers to despair. The prospect of a stable, professionalized force was an attractive one; and the officers for whom no place could be found were to be awarded generous terms of compensation.
But how large a force could be raised by volunteer recruiting alone? The figure aimed at in the 1957 Defense White Paper was 375,000, of which it was reckoned that 165,000 would be the share of the army. It was widely believed that this figure was determined, not by any dispassionate assessment of the minimum figure needed to fulfill British commitments, but by an actuarial estimate of the number of regular recruits that the forces could expect to get. Certainly there was one commitment which had to be modified almost immediately, and that was the British element in NATO. The British declared that their contribution to the nuclear deterrent justified their reducing the commitment of four divisions which they had hitherto maintained in Europe; and they were further to argue that improvement in the effectiveness and equipment of their forces and the introduction of the newmodel Brigade Group made it possible to diminish their size without affecting their value. Neither argument satisfied the critics; and the political repercussions were even more unhappy. There was a strong implication that Britain, whatever her protestations, was economizing at the expense of her allies, and this, in the existing condition of European politics, was an unfortunate precedent.
Nevertheless the 1957 White Paper was in general accepted. It had to be. The only alternatives were to maintain an increasing rate of expenditure on defense, which neither political party was prepared to advocate; or to economize, not by cutting conventional forces, but by abandoning the deterrent. To abandon the deterrent so soon after Suez would have involved a measure of national humiliation which no Conservative government was likely to court, whilst to maintain conventional forces at their existing level, with the continuance of National Service, was not a policy which any Labor opposition could be expected to urge. Discontent therefore made itself felt only gradually. The services themselves—whose leaders were presented with the White Paper as a fait accompli—grew increasingly alarmed as they realized how much they were expected to do with so little. Independent military critics, led by Captain B. H. Liddell Hart, Professor P. M. S. Blackett, and the defense correspondent of The Times, questioned the value of a strategic posture capable only of fighting a war in which Britain would almost certainly be destroyed. And in the public as a whole a serious disquiet spread, of which the launching of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament with its annual ritual marches from Aldermaston was only the most spectacular symptom. In the annual defense debates an increasing number of critical voices were heard from the Conservative benches, led impressively by that of Mr. Antony Head, Mr. Duncan Sandys's predecessor as Minister of Defense. Then in the autumn of 1957 came the launching of sputnik; and in January 1959 Lunik hit the moon.
The impact of these events on the United States was formidable, revealing, as they did, that the technical supremacy of the West, till then taken for granted, had disappeared, even if temporarily, and could be regained only by struggle and sacrifice. Responsible officials began publicly to express doubts about the credibility of an American deterrent based on manned bombers which Russian missiles might destroy before they even left the ground. But the American Strategic Air Command could at least protect itself by a wide degree of dispersal; the British V-bomber force, operating within the narrow limits of the United Kingdom, was at a yet greater disadvantage. And whereas SAC could expect 20 minutes' warning of a Russian strike, the Royal Air Force, if the attacking missiles were launched from Eastern Europe, could count at best on five.
Moreover, when in the mid-sixties the British deterrent was transferred from manned bombers to missiles, the British defense budget would not permit the development of the multiplicity of missiles—land, water and air-based—to which the United States looked forward. One weapons system alone would have to succeed the V-bombers. The Ministry of Defense settled for Blue Streak, an I.R.B.M. with a range well above the average and capable of carrying a thermonuclear warhead. But these would be large in size, delicate in mechanism, liquid-fueled and therefore immobile. Even in underground silos they would be as vulnerable a target as the airfields themselves. It seemed unlikely that they would stand any better chance than the V-bombers of evading a possible Russian first strike.
By the autumn of 1959 when Mr. Macmillan's Conservative Government returned with an increased majority, it was clear that a reconsideration could not be long delayed of the two basic principles of the 1957 Defense White Paper: the independent British deterrent, and the ending of National Service. To persevere with the first would involve—even if Blue Streak alone was developed—a rate of expenditure far greater than anything anticipated two years earlier; and Blue Streak by itself would be so vulnerable that its deterrent value was highly doubtful. The Government might persevere both with Blue Streak and alternative weapons regardless of expense. It might, as the Opposition was eventually to urge, abandon the whole principle of an independent British deterrent, rely on conventional forces and make a virtue of necessity by forming a "non-nuclear club." It might, as Alastair Buchan proposed, pool its resources with its European neighbors and with them create a NATO deterrent; or it might enter into a closer partnership with the United States in weapons production, cease to duplicate the research and development undertaken in that country, and, while preserving the forms of independence by retaining its own nuclear warheads, reconcile itself to dependence on the United States for the missiles themselves.
In the defense debates in the spring 1960 Mr. Harold Watkinson, Mr. Sandys's successor at the Ministry of Defense, made it clear that the hopes which his predecessor had built on Blue Streak had been disappointed, and it was generally accepted that he would take the last of the courses outlined above. There was little surprise when, in June 1960 after a visit to the United States, he announced that Britain would henceforth share in the development, and ultimately the allotment, of an American solidfueled missile, capable of being fired from a mobile base. More controversial was the weapon he chose. Many experts favored the U.S. Navy's Polaris, a weapon already far advanced in development and particularly suited to a naval power such as Britain. But Polaris has disadvantages. Its present range of 1200 miles limits its value; moreover, the Royal Navy will not for many years possess the fleet of nuclear-powered submarines with virtually unlimited cruising range which is needed to make Polaris fully effective. But the Royal Air Force does possess its V-bombers, and although they will become increasingly vulnerable both on the ground and in the air, this expensive and expert force can still serve as a platform from which to launch the Skybolt, on which American research teams have been working. This, it may be assumed, was the principal reason for Mr. Watkinson's decision to opt for Skybolt. It has been greeted with strong criticism. Skybolt does not yet exist. There is no guarantee that it will ever exist. The Americans may abandon it, as, to the chagrin of the Canadians, they abandoned the Bomarc anti-aircraft missile to which their continental defense was formerly geared. And even if it is developed, will not the bombers which carry it be as vulnerable to a preëmptive strike as they are today? Mr. Watkinson's brave protestations about the chances of dispersal and the speed of take-off did not convince all his critics. But he has, for better or worse, made his decision; and it is one which marks the end of Britain's decade as an independent nuclear power.
The second decision, at the moment of writing, still remains to be taken. National Service is due to cease in 1961, and the size of the Armed Forces will then depend on the number of volunteers they are able to attract. Hopes vary with the fluctuation of monthly recruiting figures, and at present the Ministry of Defense still officially expects its plans to work out. But even the most optimistic officials do not expect to see for some years an army larger than their present goal of 165,000, and about the adequacy of that figure there have been increasing doubts. If it is not reached, and maintained, Mr. Watkinson will have an unpleasant choice. Either he will have to propose some form of selective service and face the wrath of his party, the scorn of the opposition and the grumblings of a nation dogmatically attached to the principle of equality of sacrifice; or he must revise his and Mr. Sandys's estimates and hope that, with economies in the use of manpower and increased mobility, the British Army will be able to fulfill its commitments with fewer men than was previously expected. But if the latter choice is made, the Government may take another long, hard look at those commitments, and the age-old question will arise again: Is Britain primarily a maritime or a continental power? Will she, in fact, maintain her present NATO strength? Will she shed some of her overseas obligations? Or will she, by transforming her army, be able to create that mobile, hard-hitting force, amply provided with air-lift and available for immediate service anywhere in the world, which alone might solve her historic dilemma? Such a force would inevitably be very expensive indeed, and this would again raise new political and economic problems. Cynics doubt the likelihood of any such transformation taking place. In 1957 Mr. Sandys announced it as his objective; but every year since then the pungent revelations of Mr. George Wigg in the House of Commons have shown how far he has been from attaining it. The military revolution, so long promised, has not yet occurred. Money, vision and a ruthless departure from traditional procedures and ways of thought may yet bring it about. But until they do, the verdict on Britain's defense policy must still be one which might, in spite of naval supremacy, have been passed on it at almost any moment during the past century and a half: that she is courting disaster by assuming responsibilities far beyond her capacity to sustain.