There is a constant refrain from British political leaders how Britain is still a major military force to be reckoned with in the world and this allows the country to punch above it’s middle ranking economic and political power status. The Prime Minister Theresa May has constantly stressed how Britain is a leading member of NATO and spends 2% of UK GDP on defence. Indeed, in her new role as President Trump’s cheerleader-in-chief she has taken it upon herself to start lecturing other European members of NATO about their military capabilities. British Defence Secretaries over the decades have boasted that Britain has global military power projection capabilities, while other commentators talk of Britain’s military as «the guardian of the Gulf» or a reliable and steadfast military partner of the United States or upholding the rule of law abroad, the scourge of dictators like Saddam Hussein and terrorist groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban. In reality, is Britain in any position to lecture other European countries on their militaries? Is this just more delusional rhetoric from the British State which is quick to lecture others without ensuring its own house is in order?
In reality is Britain still a major military power? And when the broad sweep of 20th century military history is taken into account, has the British military ever really been an effective fighting force? The views of General Sir Richard Barrons, one of the former chiefs of the four services, should give everyone who promotes the idea of Britain as an effective, major military power, pause for thought. Back in September 2016 General Barrons stated that due to nearly a decades worth of stringent cuts to the UK defence budget Britain’s military had «withered» and would not even be capable of defending the UK against a serious military attack let alone fight in conventional wars. In a forthright and refreshingly honest ten page memo to the Tory British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, the General made clear that: «Neither the UK homeland nor a deployed force — let alone both concurrently — could be protected from a concerted Russian air effort». So, in the expert opinion of the former head of the UK’s Joint Forces Command the British military would be wholly inadequate in protecting the UK against an external military force acting with hostile intent. The first duty of any military is to be able to secure and defend the homeland of its country. If the UK military are not even up to this task, how can they be called a major military power and how can Theresa May with any credibility lecture other countries about their defence preparations when the UK military could not even defend the UK in the event of a major military attack?
In particular, the performance of the British army throughout the 20th century and early 21st century raises serious concerns if the British army is really fit for purpose. Despite having vastly more troops than the Wehrmacht and the added strength of the French army, the British Expeditionary Force was unable to secure the borders of France against the invading Nazis and were resoundingly defeated and humiliated with their withdrawal to and subsequent scuttle from Dunkirk. Indeed, the British army were very lucky that they were not completely annihilated at Dunkirk and it was only due to ironically and perversely the mercy of Adolf Hitler and his peculiar admiration for England. The Nazis could have finished off the British army at Dunkirk but rather than delivering the killer blow Hitler allowed the remnants of the British army to escape. Indeed one of Hitler’s last statements before his suicide on 30 April 1945, claimed that he had allowed the British Expeditionary Force to escape as a «sporting gesture» in order to induce British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to conclude a peace agreement with Nazi Germany.
The rest of the performance of the British army during World War II was mediocre at best and embarrassing at worst. Comedy caricatures always contain a grain of truth and there was a reason why the BBC commissioned the comedy «Dad’s Army» because in many ways that was what the British army were and still are to this day. The British military historian Max Hastings has been scathing in his critique of the British army’s performance during World War II describing it as «poor». During the early years of the Second World War, the British Army suffered defeat in almost every theatre of war in which it was deployed, due mainly to neglect in the interwar period and poor strategic leadership. With mass conscription, the expansion of the British Army was reflected in the formation of larger armies and army groups. From 1943, the larger and better equipped British Army never suffered a strategic defeat (although there were failures, most notably the Battle of Arnhem, part of Operation Market Garden, in September 1944).
Yet, the hard geopolitical reality is Britain’s military would never have been able to defeat Nazi Germany and liberate the occupied European countries without the overwhelmingly superior fighting forces of the Americans and Russians. Alongside the United States as part of a UN force, the British army was unable to hold off against Chinese intervention in the Korean war and was driven back to the 38th parallel away from the Chinese/North Korean border and trapped in a war of attrition which finally ended in stalemate in 1953. The Suez Canal intervention was an absolute unmitigated disaster. Closer to home, the British army was unable to defeat outright the Provisional Irish Republican Army during its terrorist insurgency in Northern Ireland throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s. It is strange how the British army were unable to bring to heel the IRA given the fact that Northern Ireland is such a small province of only six counties, roughly the size of Yorkshire with a population then of roughly only 1.5 million people.
But sadly they proved incapable of being able to root out the IRA and restore law and order to a tiny province. With all the resources and sophistication of the British state and military the IRA were able to wage war against the British state, British civilians and the British military over the course of three decades and wrestle the British military and government to a stalemate by the 1990s resulting in the ensuing peace process. Perhaps the only bright spot for the performance of the British military acting independently during the latter half of the 20th century was the Falklands War but then again the UK would never have been able to win the war without significant behind the scenes military technology assistance from the United States and it would really would have been shocking if the British could not take on and defeat what was at the time a developing, Latin-American banana republic in the form of Galtieri’s Argentina.
Looking over recent conflicts of the early 21st century that the British military have been involved in does not inspire much confidence in the performance of and leadership of the UK military. Iraq is an absolute disaster and breeding ground from radical Islamist extremist terrorist. It is a bigger security headache now that what it was prior to the UK-US invasion of 2003. Meanwhile Afghanistan is not much better. It was truly shocking, disappointing and deeply upsetting that after all the time and money and lives and resources expended by the British military in securing Helmand province that once the British army largely withdrew the province was once again overrun by Taliban forces. As Major Richard Streatfield, who spent seven months in Sangin in 2009 and 2010 with the Rifles, said it was «hugely disappointing» to see the Sangin under threat again. »I won’t deny, on a personal level, it does make you wonder – was it worth it?» he said. «Because if the people we were trying to free Afghanistan from are now able to just take it back within two years, that shows that something went badly wrong at the operational and strategic level». Quite. Perhaps from a cold headed analysis of the performance of the British military in various theatres of war throughout the 20th century and most certainly early 21st century would reveal that on an operational and strategic level the British military is not a major global military force as the British Government would have their public believe. As Mrs Thatcher said of spin: «Such is presentation. How different from reality».
By Matthew Jamison
Source: Strategic Culture