A crucial year for UK’s future world role

• British military presence in Gulf planned
• further defence cuts expected
• Europe under pressure as US looks East
• West Africa – region of concern

British politics may be dominated now by strictly domestic issues, notably welfare reform.

Yet 2013 will also be a very important year for Britain’s role in the world, its relationship not only with Europe, but with countries further afield where Britain’s security and defence interests are more clearly at stake.

Major shifts in strategy, in the tectonic plates of military alliances, are often barely noticed, as though they were of interest only to pointy-headed academics, not to ministers, MPs, and military chiefs, actually responsible for shaping, and paying for, their country’s armed forces.

“One strategic reality is certain”, says Michael Clarke, director general of the Royal United Services Institute, RUSI, looking ahead to key developments this year. British defence policy will react to the US “pivot” to Asia and away from the Middle East and the Gulf.

This, added Clarke, raised “fundamental geostrategic questions for Britain”. It was signalled by General Sir David Richards, chief of the defence staff, at the end of last year — Britain will have, in effect, a permanent military, naval, and airforce, presence in the Gulf states, the first time it has had such a force East of Suez since the 1960s.

The significance, the implications for the British defence budget and military equipment programme, does not seem to have sunk in. Will the Gulf states simply be training grounds, something for the British army to do after they leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014? A deterrent aimed at Iran or mere platforms to show off Britain’s military hardware to prospective buyers?

What is clear is that the armed forces, and the army in particular, will come under more pressure to make more savings on top of the existing cuts imposed by the government. They are likely to be announced when ministers complete their forthcoming comprehensive spending review later in the year.

Defence ministers, meanwhile, will come under increasing pressure to explain how they can double the number of trained reservists to 30,000 to plug the gap left by cuts in the regular army (to be slashed from 102,000 to 82,000).

The government faces the tough task of persuading firms to lend skilled employees to the army for six months at a time.

The US has told the Europeans to devote more to defence — see the recent article by my colleague, Nick Hopkins. Closer defence cooperation in Europe would save money. It may yet be more politically acceptable than popular opinion suggests.

There is one region of serious concern among European defence, security, and intelligence, chiefs, and which is likely to feature increasingly prominently this year: West Africa.

A lucrative drug trade linked to Latin America, weak governments and ungoverned spaces, make an inflammable, and toxic, mix, a fertile ground for al-Qaeda-inspired forces.

France is now preparing to send military advisers to Mali. Watch that space.

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