Conflict: conventional force still has a role
to play

The accumulation of nuclear weapons over the past 60 years has virtually prohibited powerful states from ever going to war with one another again.

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) has made it considerably difficult for a state with nuclear weapons capability to attack another state with similar capabilities and still hope to avoid the ensuing thermonuclear holocaust.

There have been unique situations where nuclear-armed states have tussled and avoided pushing the button. The Sino-Soviet border war of 1969 provided a rare and strange example of conventional thrust and nuclear restraint. But, on the whole, states in possession of nuclear weapons have successfully deterred one another from stirring old rivalries and marching to war.

The situation becomes more complicated when presented with a conflict between a nuclear state and a non-nuclear state or between non-nuclear states. Since the advent of nuclear weapons, war on the ground has become regional, while the major global players face each other coldly.

The Korean War 1950-53 hauled armies from all over the world but fighting was confined to the peninsular and surrounding maritime region. When General MacArthur suggested to President Truman that ‘the bomb’ be dropped on Peking, he was duly dismissed as cooler heads prevailed – even when Red China entered the war with a million fighting souls, pushing UN forces back down the peninsula, the use of a nuclear bomb to blunt Chinese aggression was seen as all too perilous.

Experts knew all too well that by striking the People’s Republic with nuclear weapons, the West would do nothing but foster a future resentment that would eventually turn into Armageddon once Peking obtained its own bomb.

Likewise, during the Vietnam War, the United States poured in over half a million fighting men and confined the ground conflict to South Vietnam, with aerial bombardments and incursions into the North, Cambodia and Laos.

The Soviet Union and China supplied the North Vietnamese with equipment but neither the West nor East could stomach raising the stakes and launching a nuclear missile – maybe because Indochina simply wasn’t worth it.

Not one conflict scenario since the Second World War has been worth the use of nuclear devices. The major global powers recognise that victory in any conflict is superfluous if annihilation becomes the name of the game.

Even in the immediate post-Cold War world, during the age of benevolent United States hegemony, regional wars stayed just that – regional.

The Gulf War drew unanimous global support – in many respects, an unprecedented development in world history, whilst the Second Gulf War in 2003 did not escalate beyond the borders of Iraq. Whilst global opinion was certainly more divided during the latter conflict, not one major power felt the need to utilise their nuclear stockpiles to emphasise their principles.

In fighting terrorism, the war in Afghanistan proved a similar venture. The coming of the drone has made the need for cross-border incursion practically a thing of the past. Sovereignty can be violated by robot. The dawn of the nuclear age has fuelled the evolution of conventional conflict around the globe.

In Libya, European states imposed a no-fly zone to protect the citizens of Benghazi and other rebel strongholds. This method of conventional conflict built on Western tactics in Iraq, Yugoslavia and Korea – as well as other restrictive conventional methods like the 1962 Cuban blockade and the 1982 Falklands exclusion zone.

The moral of the story is that conventional conflict remains the number one means of last resort for resolving disputes and we must not take our conventional strength for granted.

The Coalition government, since its defence spending review in 2010, has embarked on a series of cuts to British Armed forces in order to weather the economic storm. Whilst I agree some changes have been made because certain assets and units no longer hold any tactical purpose, the government must be careful not to irrevocably weaken the United Kingdom’s Army, Navy and Air force.

The British Army has over 91,000 serving personnel, whilst the Navy can muster no more than six destroyers, 13 frigates, seven fleet submarines and a few amphibious ships.

The amphibious transport ship, HMS Bulwark, is currently the flagship of the Royal Navy and until the Elizabeth class aircraft carriers come into service, remains the embodiment of Royal Navy power along with the new Type-45 destroyers. The Royal Air Force consists of 827 aircraft with around 40,000 regular and royal auxiliary personnel. Regular reserve numbers also bolster the force.

We can never hope to match the colossal forces of the United States (c. 1.5 million active personnel), Russia (c. 1 million active personnel) and China (c. 2.3 million active personnel). Building up conventional force shouldn’t be about matching numbers – it should be about being able to meet threats and crises around the world, from piracy and terrorism to drug trafficking and famine.

Indeed, many will argue whether it is in the UK’s interest to police the seas, but I believe, if we can face threats on the seas or assist in times of crisis on land, we stem the risk of letting a problem multiply and prevent it from blowing up in our face in later years and closer to home.

In relation to my other article on the UK independent nuclear deterrent, if we were to cut one submarine we would probably save around £1.5 billion to £2 billion (unit cost alone). Why not tilt the money towards conventional force, making Britain’s already much-valued role in meeting the problems faced by humanity a little bit more valuable?