- Arms, Economics, and British Strategy: From Dreadnoughts to Hydrogen Bombs
This book surveys British defense policy from 1904 to 1969 in terms of a single theme, namely the attempts by a succession of governments to maximize military, naval, and air capabilities through the adoption of the latest technology. Peden argues that Britain's national leadership chose such a course during this period because they believed it was the best—and indeed perhaps the only—way to provide effective defense of the homeland and an extended empire at an affordable price. "Opportunity cost," he writes, "represented by alternative uses to which resources employed in research and development, or production, or strategic deployment, could be put, and cost-effectiveness of weapons systems and strategies, provide the conceptual bases of this book" (p. 14). Peden's main arguments are three: "First, British defence policy was based upon technological innovation. Second, reductions in the size of the armed forces to accommodate new weapons systems in defence budgets were not evidence of a decline in power. Third, British grand strategy, incorporating economic as well as military responses to external threats, was much more ambitious than is commonly believed" (p. 1).
Peden divides the story of British relative decline in the twentieth century into six periods, each of which is covered by a chapter. These are the dreadnought era (1904–14), the First World War (1914–18), retrenchment and rearmament (1919–39), the Second World War (1939–45), the atomic bomb and the Cold War (1945–54), and the hydrogen bomb and the recognition of Britain's inability to maintain its former world political position (1954–69). "Each chapter," Peden writes, "includes a section on the principal policymakers and the government machinery for taking decisions on an inter-service basis. There follow sections dealing with the development of weapons systems (including their tactical application); the economic resources available for their production; and the strategic choices taken in the period covered by the chapter" (p. 15). The main questions addressed in each chapter, he explains further, are as follows: "were the services conservative in their arms requirements and was British industry backward in developing military technology? Did Britain strike the right balance between building up armed and economic strength? Was strategy optimal from the point of view of making the most of Britain's assets?" (p. 16).
The objectives of Peden's inquiries are worthy and his main arguments sound. Regrettably, however, his command of recent scholarship on British [End Page 1266] defense policy prior to the Cold War is apparently insecure. While much of this literature is cited, the major arguments of leading historians on British naval strategy and policy before 1914, British naval industrial logistics during the First World War, post-1919 British planning for a protracted war of industrial attrition, or Admiral Chatfield's ambitious scheme to build a global fleet in the 1940s, are largely unengaged and even ignored entirely. This is a serious problem because the findings of this body of work could have been used to explicate and amplify Peden's chosen themes. But in the absence of the analytical perspectives offered by recent books and articles, much of his monograph amounts to little more than narrative about policy or operational events seasoned with references to weapons development, technological change, and money. Peden has useful things to say about finance and strategy, about which he has expert knowledge. But he has not succeeded in building upon this base to provide a satisfying synthetic overview of the interconnection of British strategy, directed technological change, and economics.
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