Tony Blair doesn’t deserve to be allowed aboard one of HM Ships, let alone use one of them to speechify. Some of the press amused themselves by labelling photographs of Devonport Dockyard with the ships awaiting disposal. This wasn’t, perhaps, fair – the two biggest are Fearless and Intrepid, the two assault ships (LPDs) built in the early 1960s and finally used in the Falklands and then to launch Chinooks full of Royal Marines into Afghanistan in 2001, a mission their builders would never have imagined.
They are leaving the Fleet because they have been replaced by three fine ships, Ocean, Bulwark and the one Blair was speaking aboard, Albion. Ocean was laid down before Blair came into office, but the early part of his administration can fairly take credit for the two new LPDs and a gaggle of RFAs that support them. That was way back when the talk was all of the St Malo agreement and shipbuilding to support the ERRF.
Now, half the surface fleet is on the beach to save money in order to fund Afgiraq. Having forced the Navy to accept a large cut in exchange for the approval of the new carriers and SSNs, Admiral Sir Alan West was promised that he would get the carriers and eight Type-45 destroyers for the screen. This is now being battered to cut the T45 order to six, which might not be so bad if the Navy hadn’t already lost its Sea Harrier FA2 aircraft and therefore its fighter capability. The government justification for that was that the T-42 destroyers and T-23 frigates would make up enough layers of defence. The Type 42s couldn’t do it in the Falklands, and the government promptly sold several T-22 and T-23 ships as surplus, the latter in a deal with Romania currently under corruption investigation.
BAE helped, inevitably, with the Astute submarines going massively over budget. Now they are pushing the government to let them buy Vosper Thorneycroft’s shipyards, which would give them a monopoly of naval shipbuilding. Why don’t we rely on Saudi Arabia as our main ally in the Middle East, too? Whoops! On the shore, RAF air transport is hardly functioning and the procurement of new A330 jets is taking forever. The Herks are getting their explosive suppressant foam, but incredibly slowly. Fortunately, the fighter jets are finding it easy enough to defend Lincolnshire, though not cheap. Only the two Gurkha battalions are up to strength out of the whole infantry arm. The FRES vehicle project is going nowhere fast, and the vehicle gap is being filled with a variety of things – modified FV432s out of store, new Viking tracks, Cougar wheeled vehicles. The LIMAWS(G) and (R) light guns are jammed in the pipe. It goes on, and on, and on.
And the best Blair can offer is to whinge about it being “difficult” and tell the soldiers that they have to accept casualties. Interestingly, Blair has seemingly internalised that bloody awful Martin Kettle column I fisked back in October, either that, or Kettle was briefed with the argument, or some such media/political complex threesome. It’s all about finding the right PR strategy to deliver the public. Nothing about aims or means.
He also insists on grossly misrepresenting the concepts of “soft power” and “hard power” – now, I don’t think it was ever the intention of Joseph Nye to portray “soft power” as a dangerous temptation. In fact, Nye argued that soft power – economics, diplomacy, openness, cultural example, technocratic integration – was far more important than hitherto supposed, in fact, it’s the sort of power that lasts. It’s hard to see the difference between soft power and either the EU’s enlargement strategy, a Blair favourite, or Thomas Barnett’s global SysAdmin.
Blair, however, seems to have confused Nye with Robert Kagan (“He Ain’t Surging, He’s My Brother”) and soft power with Kagan’s title “Paradise and Power”, in which he argued that the Europeans were wedded to the idea of a Kantian peace in their backyard and were unwilling to confront security threats. It’s the reasoning of about 2000-2003; the period when it was fashionable to think it would all be better if only the Brits, Americans and a few local-colour allies would just get on with it.
They used to say that the Americans cooked and the Europeans washed up, and I suspect the intellectual DNA of this statement tells us a lot. For a start, if you don’t wash up, first of all, you lose all your friends, and then you get typhoid, which is a rough description of what happened when the theory was tested. At a deeper level, it’s probably significant which gender roles are assigned here. Blair seems to have conceptualised “soft power” as..tempting, corrupting, weakening, decadent, detrimental to the warrior ethos. The Stiftung’s Year of Hating Women is clearly underway.
Further, it’s fucking cheeky of Blair to start going on about “warfighters”, a stupid American notion the British Army doesn’t accept doctrinally, cooked up in the 1990s by US generals who didn’t want to do “peacekeeping” or “operations other than war” when they could be lobbying for something expensive with lasers on. At the same time, we were working on the idea of the “strategic corporal” – that the lowest level of command had to be aware of the political context, rather than being hoo-ah warrior ethos maniacs, because otherwise the context bites you on the arse.