Often, complaints and worries about the United Kingdom’s diminished military role in world affairs seem a bit of a stretch. This is, after all, a P5 state, one of a handful of nuclear powers, with the fifth-largest defence budget in the world. Other times, however, you begin to think the delusions stretch to the top.
Sending eight fighter jets, a handful of spy planes, and a couple of hundred trainers to Iraq is many things. According to Dave, it makes the UK the second-largest contributor to the war on ISIS. What it probably isn’t, however, is an effort on par with one of the most pivotal air wars in history, a moment where the UK faced a literal existential threat. Comparing the war on ISIS, Operation Shader, to the actual Battle of Britain would be absurd. It would sound like a desperate attempt to clothe today’s conflicts in uncontroversial past glories to shield them from criticism. An actual government minister wouldn’t make that comparison.
“Today, with more warnings of threats to our citizens in Tunisia following the horrific events of two weeks ago, I believe we’re fighting a new Battle of Britain.
Once again, against a fascist enemy, an enemy prepared to kill enemies and opponents alike, our RAF are again spearheading our defence in the counter attack targeting the terror menace in Iraq. Flying missions and launching strikes day and night, using precision weapons including Brimstone for surgical strikes.”
So look, this is kind of very transparent. The coalition strategy in Iraq and Syria is not working as spectacularly as we might have wanted. The USA, which is doing the most, is facing calls to do more, bomb more, send more troops. These calls, as predictable as they are, are at least based on some sort of reality – the USA probably could (but shouldn’t) do loads more, which is just one of the benefits of spending 40% of the world’s entire military budget. Even if this nebulous “do more” weren’t a bit of a non-starter, it isn’t enormously clear how much more the UK could be doing with its limited power projection capacity.
Faced with the awful attack in Tunisia, the need to be seen to be doing more is understandable. Absent this possibility, absurd rhetorical escalation is… also good? Like if pretending we are fighting WW2 again does enough, electorally, to obviate the need for racist and ill-thought out counter-terrorism initiatives then that’d be good, right? Oh.
The only obvious immediate step to take would be authorising the UK to officially join strikes across the Syrian border1 (such at it is). That wouldn’t have much effect but sure. We aren’t doing much, and we’re not likely to do much more, and we probably shouldn’t. Fine.
What I’d like to look at it2 is where this constant demand for us to do more comes from.
As I pointed out earlier, the UK claims to be the second-largest contributor to the war on ISIS. The Defence Select Committee, in its call for us to do more, disagrees:
The Secretary of State for the Defence has insisted that the UK operations in Iraq are ‘major’. The Prime Minister implied that the UK contribution was second only to that of the US:
But, in reality, the UK contribution so far has been—in comparison to actions taken between 2003-06 and even in relation to other coalition partners—surprisingly modest.
Numbers are difficult to find, as the UK government announces data weirdly and periodically, but it is very worth noting that the Select Committee cites the Defence Secretary in early December
“In the House on Monday 12 December, the Defence Secretary announced that only 99 air strikes had been carried out since the UK started flying missions.”
Meanwhile, from the French, probably our closest peer in terms of size and capability:
“In total, then, as of the 1st of July 2015, French aviation carried out 964 sorties over Iraq, and made 162 strikes.” 3
I’m no mathematician, but the numbers here don’t really suggest what the Select Committee imply. The French and British air-strikes started fairly concurrently, across about a week in late September. That leaves the French having conducted about 15-20 a month since September. If in December, after two and a half months, the British had carried out 99, that’s closer to 30 a month. Since then, the Ministry of Defence website appears to indicate about one strike every other day, although some of those entries include more than one mission.
Regardless, if we’re doing similar amounts to France, a country that, depending on who you ask, spends more or less the same as us on defence4 then is there a problem here? Beating the French is a noble pastime if you’re a Top Gear presenter, but unless you want us to compete with the global hegemon in military capacity, which would be silly…
It is, I think, telling, that this was basically the essential justification for the above criticism by the Defence Select Committee:
“This amounted to fewer than one a day. Six days prior, US CENTCOM (which is coordinating strikes) announced that 1,676 strikes have been carried out, meaning that the UK is responsible for just 6% of the strikes carried out so far.”
Basically, “punching above our weight” is a silly ambition. We seem to be punching about as hard as we should be, and that should do. We aren’t going to be able to go toe-to-toe in terms of strike tempo with the US Air Force any time soon because of course we aren’t.
Technically there should be another three paragraphs here to make this a more convincing argument but I’ve already gone over a thousand words and I want to play some Civ 5. x
1 state of this outcry over the embedded pilots taking part in US missions against ISIS as if a) the border means anything b) we aren’t already bombing them elsewhere c) those pilots are anything other than exchange students. and also I’ve just gotten annoyed about the continued misinterpretation of the 2013 Commons vote on airstrikes on Syria again.
2 talk about burying the lede
4 and gets a lot more for it, see my previous work, and also see the fact that the French are conducting missions against ISIS from an actual aircraft carrier