Edinburgh Book Festival: Re-drawing the Military World Map

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Mark Urban with Al Senter in the Chair
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Mark Urban, the Diplomatic Editor of BBC 2 Newsnight was welcomed back to Edinburgh by Al Senter who was chairing the session.

Although the title of his talk was 'Re-drawing the Military World Map' his aim was to introduce his new book The Edge: Is The Military Dominance of the West Coming to an End? which was published this year.

Mark Urban said that he had in fact decided to write the book well before Putin took action in the Crimea, but it was the continued pressures on the defence budget which had triggered this decision. He observed the West becoming weaker and weaker while the Russians and Chinese were becoming very much stronger.

Al Senter interjected that now we have very limited money we can presumably only spend on defence what we can afford. Urban countered by saying that health and welfare are fine, but in the end a decision has to be made on what is the right level of defence spending. No one wants to spend money on defence but freedom has a price.

In a presentation to the audience Mark Urban said that he wanted to take the Spithead Review of June 1977 and contrast what he saw then as the power of the Royal Navy to the present situation. Then the line-up was extremely impressive with aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates, but now we have a pitiful situation with no operational carriers and a hugely reduced fleet which was stretched to the limit.

He said that in the last forty years the pressure to disarm and spend money on more attractive, politically advantageous areas had increased considerably.

At the end of every conflict, the Cold War, Northern Ireland and now Afghanistan the Government of the day had taken a 'peace dividend', so the forces now are in a position where they find themselves almost unable to respond to any crisis and there is a strong aversion to becoming involved in any conflict at a political level.

The worry from our point of view is that the United States is also reducing its spending on defence and has shown itself reluctant to take a lead where one might have expected it to do so. And this is at a time when Russia and China are flexing their muscles - for instance the way China is behaving in the South China Sea where it is extending and developing tiny islands and will then probably claim the full maritime limit of influence.

In many cases the areas of concern are so remote that people do not worry about them. China's claim is that it is only looking after 'her own kind', however, it is developing itself into a position where it will be a 'superpower' and could well be the world 'superpower'.

Mark Urban responded to questions about the sheer incompetence of our procurement system by saying that it seemed incomprehensible that so much money could be wasted time and time again. He gave the example of the Apache helicopters which needed to be replaced yet the order were passed on to Westland, who may have produced a slightly better helicopter in some aspects, but the end result was double the price. This was all because we insisted on 'British specifications' and all this meant was for vast amounts of money to be wasted.

Asked whether Britain should keep Trident he said that at least it was there but should Scotland insist on its removal after independence then it would be found a home.

He added that the Russians regularly hold map exercises where they end with the destruction of a western capital, so would we simply sit back and allow this to happen?

The Russians assume that there would be no response from America or from NATO nations. If we were not a part of the 'nuclear club' then we would be a bystander to these developments. We are in a world where nations, such as Saudi Arabia, are demanding nuclear weapons so why give them up?

On Scottish independence he added that the two countries which spent the most on defence - although they were not intending to attack anyone - were Sweden and Switzerland. So he thought that being a non-nuclear country which wanted a self-defence policy, an independent Scotland would find it very expensive.

Urban suggested that the biggest mistake that the West made was to continue to expand NATO. This was seen as provocation by Russia and it caused the Russians a great deal of discomfort. Had we left things as they were in the mid-90s we might not be in the disturbed state we are today.

(Performance - 60 minutes.)