Fox: I am concerned we do not have a narrative
Earlier this month Newsweek leaked the existence of three potential military strategies under consideration by the Coalition government.
The "Adaptible Britain" scenario sees the UK retain the ability to respond to "generic threats" - retaining an army, airforce and deepwater navy, through conventional warfare. "Vigilant Britain" was code for retaining the big stick of nuclear weapons and a large Navy but with an army capable of only an "occasional foray". "Committed Britain" was code for a focus on power-projection, Afghanistan style.
Last night's leak of a letter from Liam Fox reveals not just the anger within the MoD at the scale of defence cuts, but also which posture has been chosen.
"Committed Britain" is a dead duck: the current government and its national security advisers seem to have already decided not to design the armed forces for future Afghan-style deployments. The starting point is the "Adaptible Britain" scenario - which means nuclear deterrent, aircraft carriers, tanks and a deployable ground force.
So at least, thanks to two press leaks, we now know what the military/diplomatic strategy of our country is.
However, the problem with "Adaptible Britain" seems to be that it can't be funded. This is the gist of the Liam Fox letter. The key passage summarises the aims:
"The maintenance of generic defence capability across all three environments of land, sea and air - not to mention the emerging asymmetric threats in domains such as cyber and space -with sufficient ability to regenerate capability in the face of these possible future threats were it required."
But we now learn that in order to pay for this the Nimrod surveillance aircraft, part of the Royal Navy's surface fleet, the ships, helicopters and support services needed to stage an amphibious landing; and the army's ability to respond to domestic crisis - are all on the block. Not mentioned in the letter, but widely leaked, is the proposal to lose 60% of the Royal Air Force's combat aircraft.
Liam Fox's argument is, essentially, the new stance cannot be delivered while making 10-20% cuts. I have pointed out before that the cyber and space threats mentioned in Fox's letter are new and imply extra cost (Note he is talking about threats, not capabilities, and that there is by implication an "asymmetric space threat" to the UK. I think this is the first time we have heard about this).
As a result of this gap between strategy and resources, he says:
"I am concerned that we do not have a narrative that we can communicate clearly."
The threat of a hit to morale, mentioned in the letter, is borne out by briefings and discussions coming out of the armed forces: note too Mr Fox seems to be predicting in the letter "significant casualties" from forthcoming operations in Afghanistan.
"Cuts there will have to be," Mr Fox ends; "Coherence we cannot do without, if there is to be any chance of a credible narrative."
And this goes to the heart of the debate currently being had behind closed doors and in the parliamentary committees: Britain lacks a strategy and a narrative. For this to be the case at a time that troops are on the ground in Afghanistan and the security services engaged with a very definite terrorist threat may seem to some strange.
But long range thinking identifies very different threats: to food, to energy, to the financial system, to government computer security - and they can come from sources as diverse as al-Qaeda and the People's Republic of China.
The problem is you can't do it all. As Sun Tsu famously wrote: he who defends everywhere defends nowhere. And if you do try to do it all, and weaken every element of your forces, you do not have much to take to each specific challenge. By retaining the trappings of great power status you risk not being able to bring much to the table in the so-called special relationship with the USA. That is what seemed to worry the US sources who briefed Newsweek.
To be able to ask yourself "what kind of country do we want to be in the world" is a nice choice to have: many countries don't have that choice. Mr Fox's letter reveals starkly where the Coalition is on that debate.