The lack of public understanding about the role of the armed forces represents one of the greatest strategic threats facing the military, MPs have warned.
The Commons Defence Committee said the ending of military operations in Afghanistan combined with a reduced appetite for overseas interventions could lead the public questioning the purpose of the forces.
It expressed concern that defence would be increasingly seen as a matter of ‘discretionary spending’ and warned that any further cuts would result in a ‘disproportionate decline’ in the forces’ fighting power.
It was essential, it said, that future decisions relating to Britain’s ability to deploy forces around the world were based on proper strategic thinking and not simply the political ‘horse-trading’ which accompanies the government’s comprehensive spending review (CSR) process.
The committee called on ministers to develop a proactive communications strategy to bridge the ‘disconnect’ with the public and explain why military force was still needed in the current strategic environment.
‘Explaining the case for defence to the public only becomes harder in the light of public scepticism about both the objectives of recent operations and how success in them might be defined,’ it said.
‘There is a lack of understanding amongst the public of what HM Armed Forces should be for, and this represents one of the greatest strategic threats facing the armed forces.
‘Public sympathy and support for the armed forces is to be welcomed, but it must not obscure or undermine a hard-headed understanding of what they are for.’
The committee said the last Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010 had been driven by the ‘overriding strategic objective of reducing the UK’s budget deficit’ and that any further cuts would have a severe impact on the UK’s military standing.
‘A failure to meet the Ministry of Defence’s budgetary assumptions could lead to a disproportionate decline in the armed forces’ fighting power, which would have a significant impact on the UK’s strategic ambition,’ it said.
‘There is a danger of defence becoming a matter of discretionary spending .... Discretionary decisions about the expeditionary capability that the UK retains must be based on proper strategic decision-making about the UK’s place in the world and not simply flow from the ‘horse-trading’ that surrounds the CSR.’
The committee also highlighted the need for the government to think more strategically about how to cope with the threat of cyber attacks or terrorism carried out by enemies it may not even be able to identify.
‘The absence of a clearly identifiable enemy has very significant implications for the concept of deterrence in security policy,’ it said.
‘The fact that a number of the asymmetric security threats to the UK, such as from terrorism or cyber attack, may not be capable of being deterred in all circumstances requires the government to think more strategically about the resilience of the country’s critical infrastructure and recovery following a successful attack.’