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Arms, Economics, and British Strategy: From Dreadnoughts to Hydrogen Bombs

Arms, Economics, and British Strategy: From Dreadnoughts to Hydrogen Bombs by G. C. Peden. Cambridge University Press, 2007, 398 pp.

Dr. George C. Peden is chair of history at the University of Stirling in Scotland and was educated at Dundee and Oxford. He focuses his research interests on twentieth-century British economic and political history and has published several prior books in the field. Peden also serves on the editorial board of the journal Twentieth Century British History.

The connection between economics, technology, and military strategy is hardly new, but Peden takes his analysis to the integration of the three and argues that this integration transformed the manner in which Britain fought her wars from the Edwardian era to the 1960s. He looks at Britain’s decline as a great power and reasons that as innovations in technology transformed the nature of modern war, the cost of weapons grew much more rapidly than did the GNP of the United Kingdom. The consequence was the requirement to adapt British strategy to both the increasing destructiveness of modern weapons and the declining ability of the nation to pay for such weapons.

Peden sets the stage for his argument by discussing Britain’s traditional military strategy. From the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, the strategy pursued was one of blockade and attrition, preferably by avoiding heavy continental commitments of ground forces, but with large subsidies to allies in Europe. This was coupled to the economic ability to sustain herself in relatively long conflicts to achieve a favorable economic outcome. World War I was the largest commitment of ground forces in the country’s history, and it led naturally to a true attrition conflict, something Britain wished to avoid in the Second World War. Peden considers the advent of the nuclear age, when it soon became apparent to Britain that while power rested largely on economic strength, the cost of modern armaments was going to change the way in which the country planned its defense and its strategic options.

He argues that Britain chose to stay on top of the strategic game by careful management of resources, innovation in hardware and strategy, and the choice of professional volunteer armed forces in lieu of the continental choice of conscription. Britain thus had the capability to carry off the Falklands campaign, support the coalition in Iraq, and generally remain more capable than her continental allies well into the late twentieth century.

The author examines the impact on defense of the hydrogen bomb and new technology, changes in the economy, decolonization, and the desire of the British defense establishment to remain innovative. This pushed them increasingly into the arms of their cousins across the pond and growing reliance upon American-developed technology and weapons systems. This case makes an interesting parallel with the United States in the early twenty-first century, as it is confronted by a similar dilemma. The American problem of commitment to multiple theaters of operations and a large deterrent-force presence in others is unlike the British problem in at least one significant way: the United States has no cousin from whom help may be sought.

Peden makes a convincing case that Britain reshaped her strategy to enable her smaller but better-trained and equipped forces to maintain the defense of her interests. At home and abroad—including her maritime and overseas interests, her commitment to NATO, and her support of allies in various conflicts around the globe, most notably in Iraq—were tasks she had to undertake without breaking the bank. This book is an innovative approach to looking at strategy in connection with the economy and the development of technology. It is a case worthy of study as the United States faces the second decade of the new century with a growing anticipation of what the future holds.

The costs to the United States of fielding the types of forces with which we are most comfortable, as well as costs in technology and oil resources, are quickly escalating with the passage of time. These factors must profoundly influence our long-range planning, acquisitions, and the very decisions about going to war. There is much here to be considered by the American military.

James A. Mowbray, PhD

Professor, Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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