Behind Britain’s New Defense Policy

June 1, 1957

Economic pressures have forced Britain to take the long jump from conventional forces into the nuclear missile age before either her Allies or the missiles are ready. Some money will be saved but more important to the British are the projected sav-ings in precious manpower. Here is the reasoning behind this serious calculated risk as presented by one of Britain’s outstanding military analysts.

In its annual Statement on Defense, issued at the beginning of April, the Conservative government outlined its plans for Britain’s defense policy over the next five years. These plans are not in substance “revolutionary.” They carry to their logical conclusion a series of decisions which have been made since Sir Winston Churchill first announced Britain’s intention to manufacture thermonuclear weapons two years ago. But they do so with a startling honesty which, while it on the one hand reassures those who have complained of too much wavering in the past, on the other hand, shocks many, both at home and abroad, who have ignored or not understood the logic of Britain’s defense position. What is more, Britain’s defense problems are, on a small scale, those of the West as a whole. Therefore, the greatest value of this White Paper is that it should prompt more honest and successful thinking about the whole problem of the defense of the West; its danger is that, if misunderstood, it may do the very reverse.

Two sets of problems lie behind the decisions which Mr. Sandys, Minister of Defense, has just announced—the first political and economic, the second military. The two are so closely interwoven that to decide which to describe first is like facing the perennial problem of the chicken and the egg. The economic problems are deep-rooted. Up-to-date Britain has been spending about one-third of its annual budget and ten percent of the gross national product on defense, a higher proportion of both than any other country in NATO except the United States. The defense effort has been taking one-eighth of the output of our metal-working industries and two-thirds of our entire national expenditure on scientific investigation and development. It’s nonsense to argue that a defense budget of £1.6 billion ($4.48 billion) a year has crippled Britain’s economy and prevented any rise in our standard of living. In 1956, for example, both overseas trade and personal saving showed a clear improvement. But, since 1945, we have had repeated balance of payment crises and are at the moment still in a period of credit restriction. We face persistent price inflation; recent strikes have by no means solved our labor troubles; and the cost of a highly developed social security program is constantly rising. Like any other democracy, Britain faces the problem of how much to sacrifice of those things it wishes to defend in order to make the defense of the rest possible. What is more, Suez showed beyond a doubt that our spending on defense so far had far less than the desired result. The government has, therefore, been under pressure for well over a year to reduce its expenditure on defense and to spend what it does spend more profitably.

The military problems are those posed by weapon developments of recent years, chiefly the megaton bomb and the application of atomic techniques to a whole range of what were conventional weapons and are now loosely called “tactical atomic.” Can Britain afford to have these weapons? Can she afford not to have them? Above all, can she afford to have both the new weapons and also the whole former range of conventional weapons together with the military manpower they demand? Here, again, Britain’s problem is obviously not confined to herself alone.

Mr. Sandys’s solution is to save a little money this year with the hope of a little more later on, to promise a far greater saving in manpower than in money by abolishing conscription; and to plan to equip Britain’s smaller but increasingly professional forces increasingly with nuclear weapons. All these are closely connected. Conscription has long been admitted to be the one item that prevented economies in the defense budget and, said the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, “short of general disarmament, ending conscription must depend on the acceptance of nuclear weapons.”

The saving in simple money terms is acceptable but limited. The defense estimates for 1956-57 were £1,600,000,000. With the old plans they would have rise to £1.7 billion ($4.76 billion) for 1957-58. In fact, Mr. Sandys has cut the total for 1957-58 to £1.483 billion ($4.152 billion). Already there have been some tax concessions as a result of this. But the country has been clearly warned that it should not expect vast reduction in defense expenditure in subsequent years. The cost of smaller forces will not necessarily be much cheaper in money terms. New weapons are expensive both in the research that makes them possible and in production. Substantial saving is to be made not in money but in men.

Britain, at the moment, has approximately 700,000 men under arms, of whom rather more than half are regulars on long or short term service, and the rest national servicemen. The government has now decided that the last conscript classes will be enrolled in 1960 and that conscription will end in 1962. After that the government is planning on all regular, professional forces totaling about 375,000. The Minister of Labor has said that, under the new defense plans, during the next twelve months the numbers of men employed in royal ordnance factories will probably be reduced by about 5,000; in the same period reducing military projects in the aircraft industry will set 15,000 more free; while a cut in Admiralty contracts will make another 7,000 men available for civilian industry. Further transfers will follow in subsequent years. Considering that there are at present some 60,000 vacancies in the metal-using and engineering industries, it seems that there should be productive jobs for all, both for those released from defense industry and for those released from military service. This is where the real saving to Britain’s economy should be made, particularly if a substantial number of badly needed scientists and technicians are included among the men set free for non-defense production.

While conscription is being allowed to run down there will, in fact, be some form of selective enlistment; and if—as seems highly probable—voluntary enlistment does not produce the required total after 1962, selective conscription in some shape or form will have to continue. In this connection it must be remembered that a very large number of our present “regulars” are really national servicemen who have signed on voluntarily for a third year in order to get better pay. Most of these men would probably never consider the services as a long-term professional career and will not do so after 1962. Of the planned 375,000, from 1962, the Navy will take one-fifth, the Royal Air Force rather less than two-fifths, and the Army the rest. It is probably that both the Navy and the RAF will get most of the men they want; as the more technical arms, they tend to attract the volunteers. The real manpower problem will rest with the Army. Suppose Britain plans for an Army of about 160,000 from 1962. In the first place, the present rate of recruiting would not produce more than 100,000 to 110,000 per year. It is by no means clear that the others can be bought by more pay and generally improved living conditions. Secondly, even an Army of 160,000 could not possibly deal with the present list of commitments, and may well be too small for the curtailed list which the government now proposes.

Reductions in Army commitments are to be made both in Europe and elsewhere. The British Army of the Rhine is to be reduced from 77,000 to 64,000 during the next twelve months, and it is assumed that it will be down to 50,000 men by 1960. Further, there will be considerable reductions in overseas garrisons wherever possible, e.g. in Libya. As an alternative to these reductions, the government says it plans a central strategic reserve of troops in Britain which, provided with air transport, could be moved wherever needed in a short time. But if, by 1962, the Army has 50,000 men in Germany and about another 25,000 or more still in overseas garrisons, that will leave only 75,0-00 or so at home for all training, specialized arms, supply and staff, and the so-called central strategic reserve. In such circumstances such a reserve could hardly amount to more than 20,000 men. Even if it were provided with adequate air transport—and that is one of the big “ifs” of the whole plan—it could hardly contribute much to a Korea or Indo-China, and would be entirely inadequate either for a succession of such wars or for two or three together.

In other words, with drastic restrictions of numbers, the peripheral commitments, whether in the Middle East or Far East, are clearly being sacrificed to commitments nearer home. It is true that the White Paper specifically mentions some Middle East and Far East commitments which will be maintained, particularly as part of Britain’s responsibilities under the Bagdad and SEATO agreements. Aden, East Africa, and Cyprus are listed under the first pact; Malaya and Hong Kong under the second. Moreover, a much reduced Navy has the function—indeed, according to the White Paper it is virtually its only function—of “bringing power rapidly to bear in peacetime emergencies of limited hostilities” by means of carrier groups. But a comparison of this modest list, and of the troops and ships allotted to it, with what Britain has spent in men and money in these same areas ever since 1945, soon reveals how seriously garrisons and other British forces overseas are to be reduced. And Suez showed how inadequate our plans for a central reserve, available anywhere at short notice, have proved to be so far. The phrase “imperial commitments” now arouses as much hostility in the rest of the world as it has long done in the United States. But it is worth remembering that much of Britain’s recent responsibility under this head has, in fact, been part of the general fight against Communism. It is not clear who is to discharge that responsibility if Britain feels that she can no longer do so.

The military assumptions upon which the whole Paper is based are twofold. First, that since thermonuclear weapons have made of total war a business of mass suicide for both sides, then the top priority must be to prevent war by means of the nuclear deterrent, i.e. chiefly hydrogen bombs and carriers for them. Second, that particularly with a relatively small target such as Great Britain, “there is at present no means of providing adequate protection … against the consequences of an attack with nuclear weapons.” Two years ago Sir Winston Churchill announced that Britain would manufacture thermonuclear weapons of her own which would be carried for the present by the V-bomber force. The present government has kept this as top priority. Total war is to be prevented by threatening potential enemies with retaliation which will make aggression worthless. But Mr. Sandys has gone further than his predecessors in announcing detailed plans for the next phase when ballistic missiles will replace manned bombers. An agreement has been made under the terms of which the United States will supply Britain with medium-range ballistic rockets, an arrangement which will free Britain’s limited research facilities for work on later rockets of the true intercontinental type. Further, the United States is to build rocket launching bases in Britain.

One illustration of the increasing importance of the deterrent through airpower in Britain’s plans is that the Air Force slice of the total defense budget has increased in relation to the other two services and is now considerably larger than that of either of them. This will almost certainly be emphasized in subsequent years as the size of the Army falls. The thermonuclear deterrent is the core of Britain’s defense policy. British atomic bombs are already in steady production, and a British megaton weapon is now developed and ready for testing. The government has firmly resisted strong pressure to postpone that test as a preliminary move toward disarmament. Moreover, the Labor opposition, although it is in the throes of public disagreement on this issue, is, as a whole, of the same mind as the government. A few Labor members, it is true, ask for immediate nuclear disarmament. The formal party line at the moment is to ask for a temporary postponement of Britain’s tests while disarmament proposals are examined. But the latter is essentially a compromise proposal; and if Labor formed a government tomorrow it is not likely that it would alter this critical part of Britain’s defense policy to any important degree.

The White Paper further reaffirms what Mr. Sandys has repeatedly said, both within the House of Commons and outside it, that “the possession of nuclear airpower is not by itself a complete deterrent. The frontiers of the Free World, particularly in Europe, must be firmly defended on the ground. For only in this way can it be made clear that aggression will be resisted.” Britain’s contribution to NATO’s land forces in Europe is therefore the other, even if the lesser, part of the deterrent. And though the size of that contribution in men is to be reduced, this, it is claimed, has been made possible by the greatly increased fire power of tactical nuclear weapons.

Under the second assumption, that no adequate defense is possible for Britain against nuclear attack, there are three conclusions worth noting. The first is that active fighter defense is to be confined to bomber airfields—though it is not clear how, with defense in depth, an enemy bomber’s target will be guessed at ranges of 100 to 200 miles distance. Anyway, the towns, although they may by protected by ground-to-air missiles later on, are not going to be protected now. Secondly, civil defense is decently buried under a polite form of words; it will be provided for on a “basis on which realistic planning can continue.” Expenditure on shelters and evacuation is out. Thirdly, the assumption of a brief overwhelming nuclear war leads to the conclusion that “the role of naval forces in total war is somewhat uncertain.” How uncertain, in the government’s opinion, is not made clear. Indeed, this is one of the least satisfactory sections of the whole paper, whether from the point of view of those who believe that sea lanes must always be protected, or from the point of view of those who think this is irrelevant within the time limits of nuclear war.

On the whole, however, this is a clear and courageous statement of policy, courageous in the sense that the government has made difficult decisions, some of which are bound to offend people at home and other friends abroad. Strategic reappraisals and economic defense have been in demand on all sides for some time past. Here is a genuine attempt to provide some of the answers. Moreover, if these answers are discussed by and with Britain’s allies, they should help to solve some of the critical problems of the Western Alliance as a whole.

But there are two obstacles to this happy ending which must be fully realized if they are to be overcome. The first is that, within an alliance, no one country’s problems are a law unto themselves; they must concern every ally. In this White Paper the British government explicitly admits that “the defense of Britain is possibly only as a part of the collective defense of the Free World,” and goes on, further, to admit that Britain can make only a “modest contribution” to the nuclear deterrent. Moreover, it is clear both that the British government has given notice to the NATO powers of its defense problems ever since the autumn of 1955, and also that these latest moves were discussed with the US President at Bermuda. Nonetheless, these moves have shocked some of Britain’s allies, particularly France and Germany, and she has been accused of acting unilaterally in matters of common concern. There is a fear that a reduction of Britain’s NATO forces is the first sign of a British withdrawal from the continent, despite the fact that Britain has now bound herself closer to Europe than ever before and that at some cost to her former world position.

Britain is also accused of planning to build herself up to the status of a third world nuclear power to complete a trio with the United States and Russia. This makes no sense in any case, and certainly it is nonsense when placed beside the British government’s open admission that “the Free World is today mainly dependent for its protection upon the nuclear capacity of the United States.” But here, obviously, is a chance to revive the charge of “perfidious Albion.” In Germany, again, the federal government is now asked why Germany needs conscription if Britain does not; and let no one think that many Germans are reconciled to the prospect of fighting with nuclear weapons on German soil.

The fact is that every government in the alliance of democracies is under pressure to make defense cheaper; all of them are faced by the problem of what use to make of nuclear weapons. Either those problems will be solved by mutual consultation and agreement or the alliance must fail. If Britain is to cut out commitments she can no longer bear, that does not prove that the commitments no longer exist. All it means is that some other country may have to shoulder the responsibility. There is no need to apportion blame on this occasion. And, in any case, the British government’s unilateral decisions may well force the pace of the whole alliance along the right paths. What matters is to realize that NATO and the other defensive organizations of the Free world must grow in influence or perish. There is no standing still. And if they die, freedom will perish with them. That means that matters of common interest must not be treated as purely domestic concerns; nor must they be ignored by governments which haven’t the direct domestic responsibility for dealing with them. Specialization within the alliance is implicit in any claim that no one nation can do all the jobs. And specialization means the closest consultation. In that respect NATO has already made progress. But there is a great deal further to go.

The second problem arises from the nature of the weapons with which the British government is increasingly determined to arm its forces. It is the decision upon the weapons, the Prime Minister has said, which “governs the whole issue.” There is a wide measure of agreement among both government and opposition that Britain’s safety and that of her allies can, in the present state of world politics, be endured only by the Great Deterrent. Moreover, nobody can deny the government’s claim that only a rearming with nuclear weapons will make a serious reduction of forces, and therefore the abolition of conscription if that is what is wanted, possible. What is a source of anxiety to an increasing number of people, more, perhaps, on the Continent than in Britain itself, is the fear that Britain and her allies may ultimately so depend on nuclear weapons that they will have no other way to fight wars, even limited ones. After all, we have commonly argued that the more successful the Great Deterrent is in persuading Russia that all-out war is not worthwhile, the more she will be diverted to lesser adventures. “It is the local conflict that is the real danger,” said The Times in a leader on the White Paper. “The deterrent against the local conflict is therefore the root of all deterrence.” Is it possible that lesser wars be dealt with by major weapons without leading to major wars

This is a subject of great complexity and one capable of around bad temper. But, assuming that wars of some sort will happen again, and that wise men will want to make war serve the ends of politics, there are some points worth considering. The first is that Britain’s claim that she cannot provide for every military eventuality is a perfectly genuine one. Moreover, that is equally true of any member of the Western Alliance, including even the United States. Secondly, it surely cannot be argued either that NATO wishes to turn every war into a major one, or to surrender limited objectives for fear of doing so. And it should be remembered that, one day, the possibility of limited objectives may occur in Eastern Europe as well as in the Middle or Far East.

These two assumptions put together imply a wider range of weapon equipment throughout the alliance as a whole than Britain is aiming at for herself alone. But if the retention of conventional weapons is desirable for complete defense, then defense cannot be cheap. The cost must be higher either in money terms or in the sacrifice of national pride which specialized and limited functions within the alliance may involve in order to make a wide variety of armament possible. The defense of freedom is one and it involves action all over the world in a wide range of conditions. Adequate defense, where ways of life are at stake, is not a matter of priorities. Either we have all, or none. But “all” can be achieved only by such a strengthening of the free alliance that important unilateral decisions, by any government, will no longer be necessary.

About the Author: There have been significant changes in British defense thinking since Professor Gibbs’s byline last appeared in Air Force Magazine. That was in our July ’56 issue, when he analyzed the then-new British defense budget for our readers. Born in London in 1910, Professor Gibbs was graduated in modern history from Oxford Uni-versity in 1931. In 1936 he was elected a Fellow and Tutor in modern history and politics at Merton College, Oxford. In 1939 he was commissioned in the Armored Corps, and in 1943 was assigned to the staff of the War Cabinet Office. He was appointed Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford and a Fellow of All Souls College in 1953. Since that time he was served on the historical staff of the Cabinet Office and has been engaged in preparing a volume of the British Official History of the Second World War.