Rebuilding Imperial Delusions – The UK’s Security Review 2021

If any one official publication could be said to encapsulate everything that is wrong with the British state, then the  latest in the series of so-called ‘fundamental’ security reviews would be it. After much delay, ‘Global Britain in a competitive age : The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ has been launched, complete with ticker-tape parades through the cheering, patriotic crowds and garlanded in roses. 

But there is nothing integrated about a strategy that ignores the existential threat of irreversible climate change to all life on the planet; there is nothing integrated about a multi-billion pound increase in arms expenditure for the purchase of baroque weapons systems that undermine international security; there is nothing integrated about extending our subservience to the United States in global power projection; and there is nothing integrated about fuelling a poisonous militarism that can only lead to further confrontations between the major powers and to the threat of both conventional and nuclear war. 

How did we ever get into this mess? At the end of the Cold War there was an opportunity to rethink security in a profound way. The Gorbachev peace initiative, launched in his speech to the United Nations Assembly in 1988, called for an end to the arms race between the Soviet Union and the West with steep cuts in arms expenditure. Disarmament was essential to a new focus on international development and environmental policies as the building blocks for global peace – what became known as the Common Security agenda.

Instead, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the expansion of NATO, the invasion and occupation of Iraq and an endless series of weapons modernisations to both consolidate and extend Western military supremacy. Global military expenditure continued to expand over the last decade, reaching $1,917 trillion in 2019, led by the United States and its Western allies. Rather than a common security agenda we have a common insecurity agenda and an accelerating arms race. 

Both Conservative and Labour governments indulged in the post-imperial fantasy that the UK remained a global, military power. Essential to that delusion was the retention of nuclear weapons through the Trident programme and a blue-water navy complete with aircraft carriers, destroyers, and hunter-killer submarines. But the costs of these programmes have been extortionate, leading to successive reviews, all preoccupied with how to absorb spiralling increases while retaining the range of both nuclear and conventional forces. 

The UK’s military spending stands at £42 billion a year with the government allocating an extra £16.5 billion over the next four years. But the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has managed its ongoing procurement crisis mainly by reducing the number of platforms for every major conventional equipment programme, as well as cuts to armed forces personnel. The most recent example is the F-35 fighter aircraft, an astonishingly expensive programme even by military standards, and beset by the usual array of technological problems, delays and cost over-runs. The UK was expected to purchase 120 from Lockheed Martin, the US manufacturer, to be deployed on the aircraft carriers, but recent reports suggest the final order will be in the range of 40-50.  (Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy)

The only way to maintain the imperial delusion was, paradoxically, as a de-facto satellite of the United States. Our ‘independent’ nuclear weapons system relies on missiles leased from the US  Trident fleet, since the UK has no ballistic-missile capability, and on warhead specifications determined by the United States. Our aircraft carrier fleet is so small that it can only be operational, in any serious military engagements, as part of a larger, US-led force. The increase in nuclear warheads announced in the review demonstrates both the government’s total contempt for its international obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the UK’s continued dependency on the US warhead development programme  into the 2030s.  (BBC News: Replacing Trident could take the UK-US ‘special relationship’ to “new heights”)

The quid pro quo has been the military occupation of the UK by the United States. A notable example is the giant spy base at Menwith Hill, near Harrogate in North Yorkshire, owned, operated and controlled by the National Security Agency (NSA) for global surveillance and communications, and for integrated  command and control of US conventional and special operations forces. Effectively, Menwith Hill and the other intelligence and air-force bases are sovereign US territory in the heart of the English countryside. (Lifting the lid on Menwith Hill…)

The much vaunted ’tilt to the Indo-Pacific’ in the review then, is simply further evidence of this subservient relationship, where the UK desperately projects itself through the carrier fleet – a pathetic, virtual refraction of the United States, the only global power capable of launching a full-scale military offensive against Chinese forces anywhere around the Pacific rim. 

If the Review has no strategic significance, it still serves an important ideological function – to maintain a general sense of fear and anxiety about the state of the world,  balanced by the reassurance that multi-billion pound increases to military spending will keep the UK safe and strong. All the usual suspects are given their allotted roles in the global volatility spectrum, from major power confrontation, to terrorism and cyber war. That isn’t to say that the threats are illusory but that the deep, structural issues of poverty, environmental degradation and insecurity caused by the legacy of Western militarism can never be acknowledged. Even climate change is weaponised as a source of instability requiring military options rather than a global, existential emergency that demands a fundamental re-evaluation of security priorities in which comprehensive disarmament must play a key role.

For the corrupt, UK Military-Industrial Complex (MIC) it is business as usual. The arms manufacturers are guaranteed long-term profits on the next generation of baroque weapons, with offensive cyber-warfare and artificial intelligence as welcome additions to the gravy train. Contracts will be celebrated for protecting manufacturing jobs, sadly with the enthusiastic support of Labour politicians and trade union leaders. Senior civil servants will move smoothly  from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) into senior management positions as global salesmen for BAE Systems, a company that paid hundreds of millions of pounds in bribes and sells armaments to despicable, authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia  that are then used to kill the  poor and dispossessed people of the world. (BAE Systems)

Never has there been a greater need for a common security agenda prioritising the challenge of climate change. But the outlook has never been more bleak. Over the next decade, the international community will spend trillions and trillions of dollars on a terrifyingly dangerous arms race, when those industrial, technological and scientific capabilities could have been used to rapidly decarbonise the economy, prevent irreversible climate change and address the structural problems of global poverty. A Just Transition programme integrated with  arms conversion would offer a range of new civil work in  renewable energy and energy efficiency that more than compensates for the loss of fossil-fuel and armaments-related employment. (A just transition to a greener, fairer economy)

There is a smell of sulphur in the air. Any lingering hopes for disarmament and common security are being expunged. The peace movement faces an authoritarian, surveillance state where the police have the powers to crush popular protests against militarism and where its leaders will be demonised as, not only unpatriotic, but as the enemy within. The drumbeats of war are echoing over the horizon. The UK straddles the international stage with the nuclear weapon on its hip and its aircraft carriers sailing resolutely into the wide blue yonder. Here’s looking forward to the next review – ‘Security on a Dying Planet – Why the UK Needs to Expand Its Military Capabilities’.

Steven Schofield

March 2021

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