The Unarmed Retreat of the West

When the Great White Fleet—the American battle fleet—visited Australia in 1908, Australians went wild with celebration and rejoicing. Newspaper and other opinion left no doubt (the word white was significant here), that this was a tangible reassurance for Australia by a mighty ally against the “Yellow Peril” of Japanese invasion.

Up till then, Australia had been garrisoned by British troops and ships, though since Federation it had worked hard to build up its own forces. When the first Australian Naval Squadron arrived in 1913 it was composed of British-designed and largely British-built ships. Careers in the British and Australian navies were interchangeable and the officers shared a common Navy List. During the Boer War, the First World War and the first part of the Second World War, Australian forces were at Britain’s disposal, as were New Zealand forces.

The story of American servicemen arriving in Australia early in 1942, to be greeted with enormous relief and rejoicing, is well known. It is less well known that at the time of what was seen as the greatest danger of Japanese invasion, Britain sent the 15-inch-gunned battleship HMS Warspite, one of the largest and best-worked-up ships in the Royal Navy, to Australian waters in secret. After the Japanese air-raids on Darwin, British Spitfires were sent there, and later British and US submarines operated out of Fremantle. At the end of the war, Britain had a huge if worn-out navy of battleships, aircraft-carriers, cruisers, and hundreds of frigates and destroyers. With the gradual assumption of American global naval leadership, the Anglosphere controlled the waters of the world.

As Wayne Reynolds has pointed out in his fascinating book Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb (2000), Australia offered Britain its uranium to build atomic bombs, and under John Curtin, in May 1944, co-operated with Britain and the USA to design and build the Canberra bomber as a possible carrier for nuclear weapons. It also made facilities available for testing nuclear bombs, as well as giving Britain use of the Woomera rocket range. The Attlee Labour government co-operated with the Chifley Labor government in setting up the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, and Anzac forces fought beside either British or American forces in Korea, Malaya, the Indonesian Confrontation, Vietnam and a number of minor conflicts. The British military commitment to defend Malaysia can be seen as a part of a wider anti-communist war whose northern part was Vietnam.

Reynolds has pointed out a virtually-forgotten fact of history: towards the end of the Second World War Curtin was pressing Churchill for an integrated British Empire armed force, including a nuclear weapon. (The project was apparently killed by US pressure.)

A knowledge of co-operation with, and protection by, “great and powerful friends” as Prime Minister Robert Menzies put it, during and before the postwar years sank deep into the consciousness of the whole Australian population. 

Today, for the first time since the 1930s, all three countries are simultaneously cutting their defence forces radically. To this list may be added Canada, New Zealand and other major Western countries such as France. Israel is also under financial pressure to cut defence in favour of social security, threats to its existence notwithstanding. This is not because the world is a safer place than it was a few years ago. On the contrary, it is full of conflicts and something like a state of war with fundamentalist Islam.

North Korea has nuclear weapons and long-range rockets and Iran appears on the verge of acquiring them. It is not necessary to go through a roll-call of all the other possible threats to peace. The armed forces of all the Anglosphere countries are in a state of crisis and it is difficult to know if they could even give one another help in a defence emergency.

The paltry armed forces of New Zealand—the country spends only 1 per cent of GDP on defence—can be simply written off. It has been content to “free ride” on Australia, as Australia has been content to free-ride on the USA. There is a “joke” that New Zealand would be unable today to put down a well-organised Maori uprising. As far as Australasian defence strength goes, New Zealand can be regarded as little more than a liability. Its willingness to leave not only its own defence, but also that of a vast area of the South Pacific, to Australia, indicates an appalling lack of national self-respect.

No European member of NATO is spending anything like its agreed 2 per cent of GDP on defence. In the face of increasing Argentine bellicosity, Britain has just one ship, (possibly) one submarine, four aircraft which cannot be reinforced and about 1000 soldiers defending the Falklands. The British Army is being shrunk from 100,000 men to 82,000, immediately, with the probability of more cuts to come. The Royal Navy has just nineteen frigates and destroyers. It is building two conventionally-powered aircraft-carriers, but they will not be ready for years and have no aircraft in any case. The Harrier jets, which could at a pinch operate from makeshift flight-decks, have been sold. This only begins the list of deficiencies.

It gets worse. Remember that figure of 2 per cent of GDP which was the minimum NATO countries agreed to spend on defence? According to the Royal United Services Institute, Canada spends 1.5 per cent, Germany 1.4, Italy 1.4, Netherlands 1.5, Poland 1.7, Romania 1.4, Spain 1.2 and Turkey 1.8 (which side Turkey is on is now problematical). All have been free-riding on the USA. Total defence spending in Asia this year is projected to overtake that of Europe for the first time since the industrial revolution. In fact Asian spending will be greater than is apparent from raw budget figures because its armed forces often grow their own food and are also self-financing in other ways.

The Obama government has also slashed defence spending and, as in Britain and Australia, has not done it in a careful, nuanced manner but with reckless axe-blows.

This is at a time when all Western countries face significant tensions and uncertainties in their areas of interest, with, according to one estimate, at least fifty shooting wars worldwide, and when the USA, Britain and Australia are fighting a difficult though hardly a major war in Afghanistan, which their policy-makers evidently believe to be important.

The Cameron government began with cuts of 7.5 per cent over four years from 2010, leaving the percentage of defence spending at 2.2 per cent by 2014—not counting cuts resulting from the projected withdrawal from Afghanistan, or inflation, leaving real defence spending at less than 2 per cent of GDP. What is more, cuts to the Army will be principally at the “hard” end—the infantry, artillery and armoured units, not to the Whitehall bureaucracy. This will be taken as an admission by Britain that it is abdicating influence in the world. With nothing left but a home defence force and a bathtub navy, its power to bring law-and-order to Third World trouble-spots, or to protect Britons abroad and other refugees from riots and massacres, will be gone.

The Cameron government has promised 25 to 40 per cent spending cuts in all government departments, and it is necessary and inevitable that cuts of this magnitude should be made. Things are already close to tipping point. There are nine million unproductive people on state benefits out of a population of just over 60 million. The fighting services are to lose at least 17,000 fighting men, though the Ministry of Defence has spent money in six figures on new works of modern art for its office walls. Despite the financial urgency, the National Health Service and the foreign aid budget are reported to be ring-fenced against further cuts.

Neither US President Obama nor the British Liberal Democrats have shown much interest in Britain maintaining the “special relationship” with the USA, which despite occasional spats has been of inestimable value to Britain’s defence and security.

Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan continues to consume British defence resources. Many of the 444 deaths of British servicemen there have been found to be due to inadequate equipment. Protests by senior defence figures at poor equipment have been apparently unavailing—and when action has been taken it has been too late to save many lives.  

The Australian Labor government has stripped defence spending to the lowest proportion of GDP since 1938. The much-heralded plan to obtain a new class of twelve submarines looks like a fantasy—few major countries, and not Britain or America—now build conventional submarines, anyway.

Australia’s defence budget this fiscal year is set to be 1.56 per cent of GDP, down from 1.8 per cent last year. US defence spending is 3.5 per cent of GDP, a huge drop from 4.7 per cent in 2011. In all three countries the defence budgets are the lowest since before the Second World War, and in all three countries senior officers have been crying out unavailing warnings that defence spending is falling below viability.

Investment in Australia’s defence is to be slashed by a further $5.5 billion over the next four years. This is on top of a cut in the size of the Australian Defence Forces of 28 per cent in 1991. Defence as a portion of the federal budget is lower than it has been since the Korean War. Of 180 defence projects listed in the 2009 Defence Capability Plan, thirty-nine have been cancelled by the Gillard government, including, for example, the Army’s acquisition of self-propelled artillery, and new transport aircraft, and with a further nineteen delayed including new fighters and submarines. The Army Reserve, already seriously undermanned, has had its training cut to twenty days a year, which is useless in complex modern conditions. Writing in the March issue of Quadrant, Major General (Ret.) Jim Molan, a soldier of forty years experience, called the decline in the Australian Defence Force “terminal”.

He states:

Defence policy-making by the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments should truly dismay all Australians, and its consequences for the Australian Defence Forces are terrifying.

The process is broken, the strategic thinking is confused, the denial of the world and regional situation is dangerous, the management of our allies and others has been confusing, the leadership team is dislocated, and delivery of anything except the most simple capability or those [items] purchased from the USA is bumbling, the constant policy disruption is grossly wasteful, and the explanations to the Australian people about ADF capability and risk are duplicitous.

Some commentators, he said, estimated that $24 billion has been removed from defence since Labor took office. He also stated:

Prime Minister Gillard seems to be reassuring the Australian public that regardless of what her government might be doing to the ADF, the USA is always there to backstop Australia’s defences. This is a desperate strategy of hope stemming from failed, short-term policies and portrays Australia as the worst kind of ally.

The Pentagon is facing a spending reduction of nearly $500 billion over a decade. An additional $110 billion in automatic spending cuts to military and domestic programs will take effect with the so-called sequestration program.

According to one commentator, Zbigniew Mazurak:

The USAF’s ICBM fleet will be completely eliminated, its bomber fleet will be cut by 2/3, the Navy’s SSBN fleet will be cut by 4 boats, from 14 to just 10, and plans for replacement weapon programs will be cancelled, leading to a total elimination of all three legs of the nuclear triad over time through non-replacement. The USAF’s fighter fleet will be cut by 35 per cent, the Navy’s ship fleet will shrink to its smallest size since 1915, the Army will shrink to its smallest size since the late 1940s, and the Marines will be cut from 186,000 men to just 145,000 troops, far short of what the USMC’s leaders say they need to protect America. Weapon programs will be closed across the board.

There is a reverse snowball of mutual weakness here: because the USA is cutting back on F-35 aircraft, the unit costs will increase, and Australia will be unable to buy the projected number of 100 aircraft.

For some time the Royal Navy has been smaller than the French Navy, despite the fact that Britain is an island and France is not. There will be a gap of several years when Britain will not have a single capital ship.

Although one is not comparing like with like, of course, the equivalent cost of an item like a capital ship remains roughly constant over time. During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain could afford a navy of up to 120 capital ships and 200 frigates (cruisers). It had twenty-two capital ships with more building in 1939 and a large though, in the event, still inadequate force of cruisers. Now it has none of either.

The Armed Forces’ Minister of State, Liberal Democrat Nick Harvey, a former public relations marketing director and student unionist, who previously voted against Britain retaining the Trident nuclear deterrent, has announced that Britain’s armed forces will become “smaller, lighter and more dependent on allies”. It is not hard to guess what this means. And what allies?

Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute, Harvey has said Cold War models of large standing armies are no longer relevant (the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, like the massive Russian re-armament now taking place, having possibly escaped his notice), and that the British military has to become better merged with “other levels of national power and influence, at home and abroad”. It reminds one of the scene in the film Aliens where, the marines having been disarmed before facing an unknown enemy, the veteran grunt asks sarcastically: “What are we supposed to use? Harsh language?”

Harvey continued, in words reminiscent of the dripping-wet college master in Porterhouse Blue: “Let me be quite clear: change is coming … the armed forces will need to be less focused on scale when contributing to multinational operations, with the emphasis moving to quality.” Wasn’t there always meant to be an emphasis on quality? This has been a mantra chanted by every politician cutting defence for the last sixty years. In fact it is an elementary point of military science that there are times when quantity is crucial. In any event, the final purpose of defence forces is not to take part in multinational operations but to ensure national survival.

At the time of the Falklands campaign Britain could just put together an adequate task force, with a lot of American and some Chilean help, to take on a second-rate military power. Even as it was, it took many casualties. The destroyer Sheffield, for example, was lost to a single Exocet missile, and several British servicemen have spent the rest of their lives looking like half-melted dolls because of skimped equipment and lack of redundancy in fire-fighting and damage-control systems.

The defence assets which Britain had then are now virtually all gone or going, including the Harrier fighters which covered the landing force and the Vulcan bombers which were used to crater the Falklands runways and deny them to enemy aircraft. It is forecast that to pay for the future aircraftless carriers, the rest of the Navy will be reduced further. This means, as a subsidiary effect, that large areas of ocean will be given back to drug-runners and the pirates who were meant to have been cleared up a couple of hundred years ago. It might make some adventure cruises really adventurous.

Harvey gave no details about the alleged forthcoming “co-operation with allies” but it has been suggested the British government has France in mind—France, which supplied the Argentinians with Exocets.

It is not hard to imagine a few more slices off the salami bringing Britain to the point where it is decided it is not worth maintaining armed forces at all, or reducing them to a merely ceremonial display for the benefit of (hopefully unarmed) tourists to London. Such a proposal has been put forward in at least one major newspaper. Should Argentina decide to have another try at grabbing the Falklands and the rich sea-bed mineral resources now reported in the vicinity, it is impossible to imagine how Britain could do anything about it—that is, defend its own territory.

The commentators wailing about Britain’s “humiliation” at the hands of Germany in the World Cup might then have a chance to find out what the word really means. Meanwhile, there is little sign that Australia has psychologically adjusted to the new realities.

A different version of this article was published in Investigate (New Zealand) April/May 2013.

Hal Colebatch’s next book is Australia’s Secret War, forthcoming from Quadrant Books.


Leave a Reply