Between the years 1919 and 1937 or thereabouts the armed forces of the UK were allowed to stagnate to an extent which brought us, in June 1940, to the very brink of defeat. Only a series of timely decisions by BEF Commander Lord Gort VC and the commander of II Corps, Lt. General Alan Brooke, the skilled and determined operations of the Royal Navy off the beaches of Dunkirk and La Panne and the unseen work of the RAF in the skies above the evacuation ports and beaches saved us from utter defeat.

There were many reasons for this situation. A belief that the Great War had indeed been the war to end all wars pervaded the thinking of politicians, many of who had served in the trenches and could not bear to contemplate another war of that kind. Throughout the 1930s an almost endless debate rumbled on as to whether we should prepare an Expeditionary Force for service in Europe or whether we should have an army solely dedicated to Imperial policing. Given the belief that we should have no more war on the scale of the Great War, there was some logic, misguided though it may have been, to the argument that we did not need to prepare an Expeditionary Force. The Navy found itself constrained by lack of investment and by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 and two subsequent Treaties of London (1930 and 1936). The RAF was sent down two blind alleys: that of arrogating to itself the role of low cost Imperial police force and that of the cult of the bomber, from which it only emerged in a nick of time with the development of the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire and radar, together with the development of a battle-winning command and control system for Fighter Command.

There is a grave danger that we are heading down a similar route today. Our Armed Forces have been run down to their lowest ebb since perhaps the time of Queen Anne, in particular in terms of our conventional land warfare capability and, in the wake of wars incompetently prosecuted by Blair and Brown, are witness to a hæmorrhaging of skilled and experienced personnel disillusioned and demoralised with the poor performance of overly politicised heads of the services and by the sheer ineptitude of the Ministry of Defence at providing the right equipment for the wars they are fighting.

Much as in the 1930s, politicians and some military men seem to have fallen into the trap of believing that, the Cold War having come to an end, we no longer need Armed Forces equipped for fighting conventional war, for example, by shifting decisively the Army’s fulcrum in favour of having a lightly armed paramilitary Gendarmerie whose task it is to fight a series of classic guerrilla wars in the Middle East. The proponents of “war-lite”, such as General Sir Mike Jackson, who so unwisely and disastrously presided over the destruction of the Army’s Infantry, and whose background was in intelligence and the Parachute Regiment, quintessential specialists in anti-guerrilla/anti-terrorist warfare, have pretty well stripped the Army of its ability to fight a conventional war.

Put simply we have taken our eyes off the main event. Whilst our young men, often shamefully ill-equipped for the task in hand, fight and die in Basra and Helmand Province, the main event is being planned and practised by two other players who will, if they are given the chance, end up miles ahead of all but the USA.

Russia is awash with petrodollars and is able for the first time since the early 1980s to spend, spend, spend on its military. They are not planning to devote much of that loot to anti-guerrilla warfare, though they undoubtedly have a guerrilla problem to which they are perfectly happy to apply massive force in a way for which we in the West lack the courage. Instead they are ramping up their conventional forces and at the same time they are cosying up to Communist China in what amounts to an alliance similar to the defunct Warsaw Pact.

China, meanwhile, is planning a blue water navy and is rapidly modernising its armed forces across the board. At the same time it is rapidly extending its imperialist grip on Africa. Niall Ferguson has an excellent article (here) on the China problem and The Times an alarming article on China’s Cyber Warfare preparations (here).

EU Referendum’s sister blog Defence of the Realm is now the repository of some excellent articles on the deficiencies of our Armed Forces and its items on the criminal failure to provide our infantry with vehicles that provide adequate protection from mines and roadside bombs provide sharp and shameful reminders not just that we have taken our eye off the ball as far as conventional warfare and the skills needed to conduct it but that we are unwilling properly to provide for the wars we are already conducting.

One of our problems is democracy. Politicians facing an election within three or four years do not plan five years ahead, let alone twenty, but only for tomorrow’s opinion poll. The likes of China, a communist tyranny, and Russia, fairly rapidly sliding into proto-Fascist dictatorship, have no such worries but can spend on defence unconstrained by the inconvenience of worrying about an electorate which might be more interested in butter than in guns. In our democracy, raising money for defence, when so much is thrown at the NHS and Education and bribing voters in marginal constituencies, is not something our political elite really sees as a big vote-winner. As usual it will all be left until it cannot be ignored any longer by which time our enemies will be miles ahead of us and it will be too late. This is not a plea for us to overthrow our democracy, but merely a reminder of its inadequacies. We got away with it in 1940. The chances of us doing so again are minimal. Next time it will be for keeps

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