LONDON — LONDON -- With its armed forces severely strained by deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain must commit to major new defense expenditures if it intends to remain one of the world's premier military powers, Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday.
The growing toll on the British military in the anti-terrorism fight, with reports of troops occasionally running low on ammunition, struggling with jammed weapons and going for weeks without hot meals, has put the nation at a crossroads. Britain must decide whether it will remain the global military force it has been since the days of empire, Blair said.
"There is a case for Britain in the early 21st century, with its imperial strength behind it, to slip quietly, even graciously, into a different role," Blair told Royal Navy personnel gathered on the Royal Navy assault ship Albion in southern England. "We become leaders in the fight against climate change, against global poverty, for peace and reconciliation, and leave the demonstration of 'hard' power to others."
"The risk here - and in the U.S., where the future danger is one of isolationism, not adventurism - is that the politicians decide it's all too difficult and default to an unstated, passive disengagement," he added. "That doing the right thing slips almost unconsciously into doing the easy thing."
Instead, Blair outlined an ambitious plan for maintaining top troop levels, embarking on a major new warship-building program and renewing the nation's compact with its undersupplied military forces. The effort would be aimed at maintaining Britain as a key player in combating terrorism around the globe.
Analysts say it will take billions of dollars to upgrade and overhaul the nation's defense network, at a time when the British public is deeply skeptical about the deployment of 9,100 troops in Iraq and 5,600 in Afghanistan. About 8,500 soldiers are stationed in Northern Ireland but are scheduled for withdrawal soon.
The British government had signaled its intention to begin pulling out of southern Iraq by the end of this year, though Blair has since said Britain will not withdraw until Iraqi forces are securely in control in the south.
The prime minister, scheduled to step down this year after a decade in power, did not make any concrete proposals for funding his vision. His probable successor, treasury Chancellor Gordon Brown, has been lukewarm on the Iraq war and on any substantial new funding for defense.
"I think what we're seeing now is Tony Blair staking out his legacy," said Paul Beaver, a London-based independent military analyst. ... I think he now realizes that the armed forces we have in this country have not been configured for the sort of things he has asked them to do."
Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.