Cuts dictated by the UK defence review give the opportunity to take a fresh look at how we deploy military technology
There has been a lot of sadness surrounding the retirement of the Harrier jets and the aircraft carrier, Ark Royal following the government's defence review. But there is another way to look at this. Since the end of the Cold War, Britain has been safer from conventional military attack than at virtually any other time in its history. So much so that now even a Conservative-led government – which has said it is committed to maintaining Britain as a global military power – feels it is able to cut major weapons systems without compromising security. This represents a significant shift in Britain's military status and should be welcomed.
Indeed the current round of cuts should really be seen as an opportunity to shake off the Cold War mentality, and carry out a fundamental re-evaluation of international security concerns and how Britain should respond to them. A key part of that would be within Britain's manufacturing sector, which provides much of the military hardware, and has come in for so much criticism as the costs of major weapons systems have spiralled.
A hint about the re-evaluation that is needed was given in the government's National Security Strategy. In this, the government drew up a hierarchy of security threats for the next 20 years. The threats considered the greatest priority were terrorist attacks, cyber-attacks, a major accident or natural hazard, and an 'international military crisis, drawing in the UK'. Maintaining Britain as a global military power will be of little benefit in tackling the first three threats. As for the fourth, a military response will effectively be a 'war of choice'. Our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the pitfalls of pursuing this option: a considerable human cost and a failure to significantly improve international security. We need a very different approach.
One option is to redirect more resources into tackling the roots of conflict – often called 'sustainable security'. The main threats to international security are likely to be rooted in climate change, natural resource depletion, marginalisation of the poor, and increasing militarism via the international arms trade. Early preventative action can head off future crises.
As an example, for climate change the focus would be on reducing greenhouse gases, including major expansion of renewable energy technologies and energy conservation. Such action would also help to tackle resource depletion and improve energy security – not least our dependence on dwindling oil reserves. Major reform of the global trading system would help tackle poverty, while measures to reduce militarism would include stronger arms control treaties.
The UK could take a more pro-active role in all of these activities – with a key contribution coming from engineers. Instead of remaining the world's fourth largest military spender – with little security benefit compared with much smaller armed forces – Britain could be a leader in investing in a sustainable economy. Instead of being a major arms exporter, we could champion much stricter arms control treaties.
We have already taken significant steps in these directions, with many using engineering. For example, the UK is now the world leader in the deployment of offshore wind power capacity. Scotland is set to exceed its target of generating 31 per cent of its electricity from renewables this year. The 'Green Deal', a major new energy efficiency initiative, is in the pipeline. The number of jobs in these sectors has passed the shrinking military-industrial sector, and is rising.
But much more is needed. Britain still languishes near the bottom of the EU renewable energy league – with only 3 per cent of its energy production coming from renewable sources.
We need a much greater shift in government spending and how engineers are deployed – one with sustainable security at its heart. This would lead to major benefits in environmental protection, social justice and security.
Dr Stuart Parkinson is executive director of Scientists for Global Responsibility (www.sgr.org.uk).