New Labour thought long and hard about the role the Armed Forces should play.
When it finally came into office, the Strategic Defence Review of 1998 put the government’s strategy where its mouth was.
The forces were re-configured for expeditionary operations: acting as peace-keepers, being a force for good; to ‘go to the crisis’, as the SDR quaintly put it, ‘rather than have the crisis come to us’.
The new force structure was convincing and the strategy seemed to work; in Bosnia, in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, in beefing up European defence capabilities, in learning lessons from all the complex multi-national operations around the world.
But the Government didn’t put its money where its mouth was.
This new – relatively expensive – strategy was covered financially by smoke and mirrors and now that the wispy distortions have worn off, the Forces are about £1 billion a year short to meet the ambitions of the original strategy. Capital expenditure has been diverted to current spending and the Forces are now facing again the age old choice of doing less, or needing more to do the same.
Then too, the American view of the world changed in 2001 and the Forces have found themselves being sent on some pretty big and extended ‘expeditions’.
Britain is left with a ‘one-shot’ military instrument. It’s pretty effective in any single operation – but only in one operation and not for too long. Recovering from each big ‘expedition’ takes more than a couple of years before this particular national bolt is properly reloaded.
Not quite what the planners of the SDR had in mind.