In 1919, the British government ordered its military leaders to formulate their war plans “on the assumption that the British Empire would not be engaged in any great war during the next ten years.” This ten year rule remained in force until March, 1932, just a year before Adolph Hitler was elected Germany’s Chancellor. With a ten year horizon, it was argued that Great Britain would have more than enough time to respond to the emergence of any threat, including that of a rearming Germany. So confident were British leaders that they would have sufficient warning of a threat to their security and the will to respond appropriately that no less a person than Winston Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, sought to make the ten year rule a permanent basis for British defense planning.
As a consequence of this fundamental assumption, British defense budgets were repeatedly cut. But even then, it was the growing military might of Japan in Asia and the Pacific and its expansion into China that was the catalyst for terminating the ten year rule. Even so, more than a decade of declining defense spending and deferred modernization left Great Britain ill-equipped to handle even one major conflict much less the world war into which it was soon embroiled.
It should be noted also that under the direction of Chief of Staff General Hans von Seeckt, Germany’s post-World War I military, the Reichswehr, cheated on its disarmament commitments as codified in the Versailles Treaty almost from the time the ten year rule was promulgated. Germany was not allowed an Air Force so it organized glider clubs to develop a cadre of potential pilots. The military developed a secret agreement with another pariah state, the Soviet Union, under which Germany set up laboratories and factories in Russia to develop and field test banned military equipment, including aircraft, tanks, artillery and poison gas. While the size of the Reichswehr was limited to 100,000 men, Seeckt organized and trained this force in such a way as to make it rapidly expandable. He also organized so-called work commandos, paramilitary units that both provided a ready-made cadre to fill an expanding army and also conducted assassinations of leftist leaders.
In the end, Britain didn’t have ten years; there were only a bit more than seven between March 1932 and September 1, 1939. However, in abandoning the rule, the British Cabinet went on to declare that this should not be taken as a reason for increased defense spending, given that the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. The ten year rule had imposed a dangerous mindset on British leaders that caused them to resist even prudent military measures in the run up to World War Two.
This brings us to the current negotiations with Iran over constraints on that country’s nuclear program. The Obama Administration has proposed its version of a ten year rule as in a ten year period in which Teheran’s nuclear program would be in partial suspension. I say partial because Iran would be allowed to keep some 6,500 centrifuges running and hold on to thousands more. It would not have to destroy any of its nuclear sites. It is not clear even if Iran would finally have to come clean to the U.N. regarding its past nuclear weapons activities. It can continue developing and even deploying long-range ballistic missiles.
Mind you, educated observers believe that Iran already has the ability to break out and build a nuclear weapon in about one year. Given the past “misses” by the U.S. and international intelligence community of major military developments by the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Iraq, we could be caught completely unaware. So, there is no reason to have any confidence that such an agreement would even last for ten years.
But if it did, then what. Sanctions would have been lifted years earlier, making the regime in Teheran infinitely richer. Iran could well have used some of these resources to build a conventional/unconventional military capable of dominating the Arabian Gulf and needing only a nuclear umbrella to make it the dominant power in the region. At the same time, a decade of sequestration-mandated defense budget cuts will have gutted the U.S. military much like the ten year rule did to Great Britain.
The Obama Administration argues that this is the best deal they could get and even a bad deal is better than no deal at all. The same thing was said about the Munich Agreement between Great Britain, France and Germany. It was a silly argument then and it is equally silly now. No deal does not mean war. But it does mean continuing, and even stronger, sanctions on Iran. It also means doing more to prepare the region for possible conflict such as in the deployment of advanced missile defense systems. It also means not adopting the same out-of-sight, out-of-mind thinking that dominated British military strategy until almost the eve of war.
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