What sort of defense capability is now needed and how much can be afforded?

The British government has postponed a necessary strategic defense review until after this year’s general election. A discussion paper has set out some of the options and has highlighted the differing demands of the three services. All three services want to maintain their ability to fight a modern war with the latest sophisticated equipment, but the costs of modern high-tech ships, aircraft, guns, tanks and communication equipment are increasing all the time. And with new technology being developed, much equipment becomes quickly out of date.

The recession is not over and government indebtedness is a serious issue for the markets. Yet, as the pressure for cuts in expenditures grows, neither the government nor the opposition is proposing that defense expenditures should be exempt.

Defense chiefs inevitably pitch their demands for resources on the basis of service experience in the last conflicts in which they were engaged. This leads to them trying to prepare for a repeat of previous wars. But the threats are changing and need to be constantly reassessed.

Although the Cold War is long since over, a nuclear threat cannot be entirely ruled out. But with the United States and Russia both agreeing to reductions in their stocks of nuclear weapons, the likelihood of a nuclear war in Europe for the present looks remote. It is possible that Iran will develop nuclear weapons soon. Pakistan and India both have nuclear weapons: These do not pose a threat to Europe, but instability in Pakistan, where Islamic fundamentalists are active, could lead to nuclear weapons getting into the hands of terrorists.

The British nuclear deterrent is dependent on four nuclear submarines on constant patrol. Three might be sufficient to enable Britain to claim a place at the table of nuclear powers. British politicians of both main parties seem unwilling to accept that the tiny British nuclear potential is of limited value in the world as it is today. It is almost unthinkable that the British or the French would use their nuclear weapons independently of the U.S.

The Royal Navy seeks the capacity to fight any potential enemy at sea and to be able to provide cover for amphibious forces. There is no likelihood in the foreseeable future that any power in Europe will attempt to invade these islands or cut off our trade by attacking our merchant marine vessels. The main current threat at sea comes from piracy. This is a real one, but it can only be tackled by cooperation with other countries and with fast and lightly armored small ships.

There is also a need for minesweepers and a few submarines. The Royal Navy is seeking two huge and expensive aircraft carriers, but where would they be used and would the expense be justified?

The Royal Air Force wants to ensure that it has the best modern aircraft capable of dealing with any possible threat from the air. But what is the likely threat from the air? It is unlikely that in the foreseeable future the British Isles will again be subjected to a bombing offensive such as that in World War II or to an attempt to invade these islands. So where might such sophisticated aircraft be used? Perhaps in support of a local conflict backed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations. But how many expensive aircraft does the RAF really need for such a purpose?

The army seeks to maintain a force of modern tanks capable of dealing with an enemy with modern armor. But where is such a threat coming from? The main threat to British security today is from terrorists and guerrillas who, as in Afghanistan, can and do merge with the civilian population. They generally use light weapons such as grenades, rockets and machine guns, but the greatest threat has been from unsophisticated explosive devices hidden on paths and roadways. British forces have suffered over 250 deaths and many more have been seriously injured in operations in Afghanistan.

Fighting the Taliban has been a frustrating experience. Drones and other sophisticated surveillance equipment are useful as are helicopters, but as is so often said, this war is for “the hearts and minds of the local population.” This means not only providing security but also infrastructure and above all an adequate livelihood. If the opium poppies are destroyed, what substitute is there to provide an equal income? The army needs more trained and educated men and women capable of reaching out to the local population. Civilian aid must be integrated into the operations.

The strategic defense review needs to take a hard look at the nature of the threats now as well as in the next decade. Procurement of modern high-tech equipment needs to be better planned. While we need to maintain a broad if inevitably limited defense capability, we must concentrate on the immediate threat and recognize that we cannot afford everything. This means closer cooperation with our allies in Europe, particularly with the French and with other NATO countries.

Japan also needs to reassess real threats to its interests. Japan has the capability to develop nuclear weapons, but such development would be hugely expensive, provocative and unnecessary as long as the American nuclear umbrella remains. An invasion of Japan by foreign forces could only be mounted by China. It would require vast resources of ships, aircraft and landing craft which could not be hidden. China has neither the will nor the motive for any such enterprise.

North Korea is likely to continue to make minor provocations and its leadership is unpredictable. Japanese forces need to remain on the alert and capable of dealing with minor intrusions by air and sea. They also need to be ready to support U.N.-backed interventions, but a large Japanese defense buildup is neither necessary nor desirable.

The alliance with the United States remains vital for Japanese security, but does the U.S. under present circumstances need large forward bases? The U.S. Department of Defense is a conservative dinosaur that should also undertake a thorough review of the threats in East Asia and how best to respond to them.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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