As Britain heads toward an incredibly hard-to-predict general election, nearly everything about our country seems up for discussion – everything except Britain’s declining level of military spending, our long-term national defence strategy and our commitment to the armed forces we are quick to call heroes but grudgingly slow to fund.
James Forsyth, writing in The Spectator, talks about the bear in the room:
You wouldn’t know from this election campaign, but Europe is in crisis. On its eastern border, the threat from Russia is as great as at any point since the end of the Cold War. Crimea has been annexed and large parts of eastern Ukraine are under control of Russian-backed forces. Russian aircraft have even been taunting the RAF in the English Channel. The Baltic states are increasingly fearful that they will be next to suffer from Vladimir Putin’s attempt to reassert Russian dominance on its doorstep.
On Europe’s southern border, Islamic State continues to cause death and destruction — the recent decapitations in Libya were filmed along the shore to make the point that the jihadis have reached the Mediterranean. More worrying, perhaps, is the number of Europeans fighting for it. Last weekend, Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, warned that the number of Europeans who will have taken up arms with Isis may treble to 10,000 by the end of this year. As these radicalised youths return home, the terrorist threat in Europe will rise exponentially.
But neither of these subjects features with any prominence in the election campaign. Isis and the Russian threat are deeply inconvenient truths that don’t fit into the party leaders’ scripts. The Tories’ six-point long-term economic plan doesn’t have room for foreign entanglements. Labour wants to talk about the National Health Service, not international security.
These are sobering words. There has been a worrying tendency of late in the Tory-friendly press to excuse David Cameron’s various failings and oversights – be it refusing to champion the conservative case in the televised leaders’ debates, or failing to ringfence defence spending during a period of global turmoil – in order to help push the Conservatives across the finish line on 7 May. It is good to see The Spectator taking a firmer stance on the issue of defence, at least.
But other commentators, like the Guardian’s Martin Kettle, are more inclined to criticise the NATO commitment to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence in the first place, accusing those who worry about falling defence spending of “fetishising” an arbitrary target:
For many, this 2% has now become an absurdly totemic figure, proof of old Tory soundness, proof of patriotism, proof of having the right priorities, proof of being sceptical about Cameron. Yet there are at least four things wrong with the 2% figure.
The first is that it is arbitrary. Spending targets only make sense if you are clear about your spending plans, which Britain is not.
The second is that it measures the wrong thing: money inputs – salaries in many European cases – rather than defence outputs or efficiencies.
The third is that different countries count different things in their expenditure figure, including the intelligence spending and pensions with which Cameron would like to bulk up the UK’s figure.
The fourth is that many Nato states are neither willing nor able to implement it. As such, the target simply becomes a stick with which the able can beat the unable – perhaps even a source of division that the Kremlin would try to exploit.
In fairness to the hawks, few serious commentators or defence experts obsess over the 2% NATO target in and of itself. The target just naturally lends itself as an easily-articulated and easily-understood statistic, or a barometer by which to judge a government’s commitment to national defence. It also makes sense in the context of an alliance such as NATO, as agreeing to contribute a set portion of GDP toward national defence means that the burden is shared as “fairly” as possible between nations. The fact that only the United States and Britain currently meet the target shows the extent to which Europe is an ungrateful free-rider, sheltering under the American nuclear umbrella.
Kettle is right, though, to point out that different countries count different things in their defence spending total, and if the current rumours are true and George Osborne and David Cameron are considering the possibility of counting intelligence spending as part of the defence budget then this is quite reprehensible. Britain should prove itself willing and capable of spending 2% of GDP on defence by open and legitimate means, not through devious accounting tricks whereby the sales of remote control toy drones or Super Soaker water pistols are suddenly counted as military hardware in order to push us over the threshold.
But where Martin Kettle and others are wrong is in their assertion that by defending the 2% target and calling for sustained military spending, defence hawks are somehow “stuck in the past” or facing down old threats that have long since been dealt with. Kettle makes this accusation quite specifically at one point:
It isn’t just military planners who seem happier refighting the last war. Politicians are too. David Cameron chooses to stay tactically quiet about defence because he was humbled by losing the Syria vote in 2013. But Ed Miliband, who won that vote, is just as cautious. Labour remains haunted by its own defence ghosts, many dating back to the unilateralist 1980s.
The problem is not that Cameron and Miliband are refighting the last war, the Cold War. The problem is that they are not mentally fighting or anticipating any wars at all. Both leaders came of political age as the Cold War was drawing to a close, and do not have the same appreciation for a long-term, robust defence policy that comes naturally when you grow up in a time and an environment where thermonuclear world war was but one misunderstanding away. When you have not known existential threat, it must be easy as a politician to view defence as a lucrative pot of money to be raided in order to pay for the kind of things that win votes – tax breaks, welfare or “our NHS“, for example.
The truth is that with advances in military hardware and technology, hoping for the best simply doesn’t cut it any more. Even as recently as the Second World War, when Britain was caught short and had to quickly re-arm to face the Nazi threat, it was possible to regain lost ground fairly quickly. When more fighter planes, ships and tanks were needed, we could simply melt down the nation’s iron railings and repurpose suitable wood in order to churn out another few spitfires. In 2015 and beyond, we will not have the luxury of scrambling to make up lost ground in the face of an unexpected new threat because the technologies are more complex and the lead times exponentially longer.
If, say, the worst were to happen and Britain’s two aircraft carriers (when they eventually come into service) were to be sunk or disabled in some future war, that would be our ability to project force gone, done and dusted. The only option left to us would be to write a strongly-worded diplomatic cable to our antagonist, promising revenge in fifteen years’ time when we finished building a replacement. The same goes for military aircraft, infantry equipment even the increasingly specialised skills of our soldier, sailors and airmen. In any future confrontation, we will have to go to war with the armed forces we have available on the day, and woe betide us if these prove to be insufficient.
It is often said that there are no votes in defence. This may or may not be the case. But the mark of a statesman, a good politician, a good leader, is the willingness to tell the difficult truths that people do not want to hear, when the occasion demands.
In the year 2015, in austerity Britain and an uncertain world, few people delight in the idea of protecting defence spending while public services are squeezed and tax cuts deferred. But anyone aspiring to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom must demonstrate a willingness to do the unpopular thing for the greater good of the country.
Britain cannot shut out the world and its problems. Therefore, beware of anyone so wrapped up in domestic political affairs that they consider defence spending to be some kind of unnecessary extravagance.