The controversial question regarding the desirability and feasibility of Britain’s independent nuclear role has dominated the debate over defence policy to such an extent and for so long that its other important aspects have tended to be pushed into the background. The relevance or irrelevance of the nuclear force relate exclusively to Europe. As such it is not a matter of immediate national interest for us either way. But since Britain continues to accept major military obligations in the Indian Ocean we have considerable stake in the effectiveness or otherwise of her overall defence policy. Now that the Chinese threat has become explicit, the question about Britain’s willingness and ability to meet these commitments has acquired a new urgency and the Chinese power will grow with years.
As a member of the Commonwealth, India is morally entitled to co-operation and assistance from Britain in respect of her security. That Britain accepts this moral responsibility was made clear at the time of the Chinese invasion last October. Since then, Britain has continued the supply of urgently needed equipment and British experts have visited India to study the problems of long-term defence. India’s membership of the Commonwealth is, however, not the whole story. The other part of it is the explicit understanding between Britain and America that the former would continue to play an important role in the security and stability of the vast area between Singapore and Sicily. That is made possible by British presence in Singapore and Aden and remains dependent on it.
In spite of the liquidation of the empire, Britain decided to continue to play a world role. That this was an act of conscious decision is obvious from the case of another imperial power. France lost interest in Indo-China and consequently Asia after the Geneva agreement in 1954. Under President de Gaulle, she has chosen to limit her interests outside Europe to Africa only. Germany falls in a different category. As before, she remains a European power. From our point of view, the trouble is that even in Britain all discussions on defence issues continue to centre round Europe.
There are several reasons for the appalling lack of popular interest in the country’s worldwide commitments outside Europe. The controversy regarding the nuclear deterrent is one of them. The second important reason is that so far by and large the principal threat to the non-communist world has been seen to be in Europe. Thirdly, it is not easy for ordinary people to realise that in spite of the liquidation of the empire and the adoption of the policy of non-alignment often with overt anti-West bias by many of the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa, Britain cannot afford to give up her obligations as a world power. Finally, in the last two years the efforts to sell the policy of joining the European Economic Community to the electorate and the consequent denigration of the Commonwealth has accentuated the lopsided nature of the defence debate.
It is not an accident that while the strength of the British army on the Rhine in terms of both numbers and equipment is all the time a subject of scrutiny and criticism, little is heard of the size and effectiveness of the installations in Singapore and Aden. It is also illustrative of the popular thinking that the Liberal party should be pressing the Government to raise the strength of the army on the Rhine from about 52,000 now to 75,000. The Government has accepted the figure of 55,000. It does not even occur to the Liberal leaders that the drain on foreign exchange resources would be unbearable and unnecessary in that it is becoming increasingly difficult even to conjure up the nightmare of the Soviet Union launching on a policy of military adventure in Western Europe.
The Liberal party is wholly Europe-oriented. Its defence policy indicates that it would have become difficult for Britain to continue to fulfil her worldwide military obligations if she had succeeded in becoming a member of the European Economic Community. In fact, as the price of admission itself she was being asked to become truly “European,” which meant the giving up of her worldwide connections and commitments. The issue was much deeper than that of Australian wheat or New Zealand lamb or Indian textiles.
The wholly ineffective organisation of the conventional forces for independent action outside Europe was exposed in 1956 at the time of the Suez. The Labour spokesman of defence affairs, Mr Denis Healey, recalled in the defence debate earlier this week that after three months of preparations and eight days of operations, British forces could not achieve strictly limited objectives. He did not condone the utter immorality of the operations. He was merely recalling the ineffectiveness of the military organisation. Knowledgeable persons have asserted that five years later in Kuwait, the British forces would have found it difficult to resist the Iraqis if Gen Kassem had carried out his threat of marching into the sheikdom without the use of tactical (nuclear) weapons.
Britain spends 10 per cent of her defence budget on the nuclear deterrent. It is difficult to believe that the conventional forces can be raised to the necessary level if this expenditure of about £170,000,000 is suitably diverted though it could help to meet the shortages of equipment for the existing forces. The fact of the matter is that even at the fabulous cost of £1,837,000,000 (this is the budge figure for the next financial year and the chances are that it will be exceeded) it is just not possible any longer to raise forces capable of independent action in so vast an area as between Hongkong and Europe.
The new White Paper on defence also shows that even such a highly industrialised country as Britain cannot meet her requirements of weapons these days. The army is to be equipped with Belgian rifles, Italian howitzers, Swedish and Australian anti-tank weapons, Belgian machine guns, American heavy guns and German bridging equipment. Similarly the three weapons to come into service with the Royal Navy are the French SS-11 missiles, American sidewinder missiles and Bullpup guided bombs. The first nuclear submarine Dreadnought is to be powered by an American plant. The Polaris-firing submarines which are to follow will carry American missiles. The only new equipment listed for the Royal Air Force is the American early warning station. Britain incidentally has spent £800,000,000 on research and development of weapons in the last five years.
There are any number of leaders of opinion here who sincerely believe that Britain can no longer afford to play a world role and should seek to reduce her commitments. This demand could become difficult to resist if the British economy and exports remain stagnant. Meanwhile, the need for a re-examination of the assumption underlying the British strategic philosophy is becoming obvious. It is realised that “non-policy for defence” as The Economist graphically but accurately described the current situation two weeks ago, would not do.
So far the development of a proper defence policy has been hampered by inter-services rivalries resulting from the more or less autonomous character of the War Office (army), Admiralty, and the Air Ministry, each with a minister of its own. This arrangement left little power to the Defence Minister. Now these ministries are to be amalgamated under the overall control of the Defence Minister. The service chiefs would serve directly under him and so would the ministers now in command of the separate services. This elimination of the organisational anarchy would, however, only pave the way for the shaping of a proper defence policy. Since defence policy cannot be divorced from foreign policy there is obvious need for a fresh look at the radically altered world scene.
Any such review of the world scene and Britain’s role in it would have to pay far greater attention to China than has been the case so far. China’s invasion of India is itself a landmark in the former’s rise to the status of a leading world power. The confidence and arrogance with which Peking is conducting the current ideological debate with Moscow marks the rise of China as a rival centre of the communist faith. It is a matter of time before the Chinese explode their first nuclear device. These warning bells should be loud enough. None of the three political parties here has given any indication that it has heard the bells and is getting ready to face the challenge ahead. In the Sixties they are responding to the challenge of the Fifties.
The Times of India, 9 March 1963