It is time to reject David Cameron’s lazy, noncommittal approach to our armed forces and national defence
After a rather assured start as Britain’s new prime minister, will Theresa May act to beef up Britain’s flagging and cash-starved armed forces, making them as steely and formidable as her own carefully cultivated image?
Conservative Home makes the case:
The introductions to British defence reports are characterised by assurances of the UK’s continued global relevance and ambitions. By contrast the bodies of most reports are composed of capabilities we allegedly no longer require. At some point rhetoric and reality inevitably collide.
The Royal Navy now has 19 frigates and destroyers where in 1998 it had 34. The UK has fewer tanks than Switzerland. The British MOD leads the world in operating at the extreme edge of the possible.
Our current defence strategy is largely premised on not having to defend ourselves. The lifecycle of the defence systems and equipment procured today is up to 45 years. Forty-five years ago, in 1971, the Iron Curtain was as firm as ever, Deng Xiaoping was yet to take power and introduce China’s transformative market reforms and Osama Bin Laden was merely a wealthy Saudi teenager. By historical standards these strategic shifts are reasonably minor. Nevertheless government strategic analyses generally assume the relative stability of the last 15 years will continue indefinitely; the 2010 and 2015 defence reviews inexplicably argues the UK will no longer need the capability to deploy an expeditionary force of the size sent to Iraq or to conduct two simultaneous medium sized operations as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hopefully the 2020s are indeed an exceptionally peaceful decade, but premising our defence policy on an unstated and unjustifiable assumption they will be appears unwise.
Three illusions aid this approach to defence. Firstly over-dependence on Trident; if we continue to rely so heavily on our nuclear capabilities some scenarios will confront us with a choice between launching an immoral first-strike nuclear attack or doing absolutely nothing. Secondly over-dependence on NATO; the British Army is intended to act as an interoperable auxiliary to a much larger US force. Perhaps the US will remain highly committed to the defence of Europe, but Donald Trump is cheered when he denounces NATO and Newt Gingrich has publicly dubbed Estonia to be “a suburb of St Petersburg”. In 2012 Obama’s (largely rhetorical) pivot to Asia attempted to shift the US’s strategic and economic centre of gravity from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In this political environment, it would be unwise to have no plan for US disengagement from Nato. Finally, British defence planning tends to assume lost capabilities can be regenerated rapidly in the event of a crisis. Given the extraordinary logistical hurdles which confronted the Ministry of Defence in the run-up the Invasion of Iraq, a scenario consistent with defence planning assumptions, wide scale attempts to regenerated lost capabilities would probably be impossible except in the long-term.
Fundamentally only a very few voters have any personal contact with the military. Servicemen and women are constitutionally forbidden from protesting. The Ministry of Defence is therefore at a crucial disadvantage in interdepartmental budgetary warfare. Parliamentarians have a duty to compensate by holding the government to account. Of course there is no shortage of Conservative MPs who would favour higher defence spending but they face the challenge of highlighting less deserving areas of spending to cut instead.
Absolutely. And over-reliance on Trident in particular can only lead to a never-ending series of national humiliations, as adversaries test us and find us continually unwilling or unable to respond with conventional forces.
The military in particular needs to start throwing its weight around more, agitating for lost capabilities to be restored and highlighting the risks to Britain if they are not, rather than their current approach of quietly begging for cash behind the scenes but maintaining a brave face to the world. Sometimes, politicians need to be shamed into doing the right thing, perhaps especially when the government is a lily-livered centrist Conservative administration more concerned about pursuing “social justice” than defending the country. Operation Shame should therefore begin now.
ConHome are also right to point out that very few voters have any personal contact with the military. This is in marked contrast to countries such as the United States, where armed forces veterans are not only more visible, but much more highly honoured too. People visiting America for the first time are often struck by the frequent presence of soldiers in transit at airports, USO lounges set aside for them, and veterans being honoured at public events such as sports games or political rallies, often asked to stand as the crowd show their appreciation. Many restaurants and businesses offer a discount to veterans. In nearly every way, American society is geared to respect and honour the military more than is now the case in Britain.
The effects of the armed force’s diminished role in public life are telling. When the military is so invisible to most people most of the time, it naturally loses out in the endless departmental cash grabs every year when the government announces its budget. The NHS has a dedicated army of online priests and priestesses, endlessly and mindlessly singing the praise of the health service from dawn to dusk. Consequently, politicians terrified of electoral retribution throw more money at the NHS every year while rarely standing up to the many entrenched special interests which corrupt the working of the world’s fifth largest employer.
We need to start taking the defence and security of our country as seriously as many of us seem to take defending the NHS from criticism, reform or privatisation by the “Evil Tories”. That means putting great pressure on Theresa May and her government to show a steely resolve when it comes to protecting and growing the MOD’s share of government spending. Somebody needs to send a memo reminding Cabinet that NATO’s 2% of GDP target is a minimum aspiration, and not a level to be particularly proud of.
And we all need to let this government know that whatever other fiscal and political pressures there may be, doing the bare minimum when it comes to our national defence is simply no longer acceptable.
Top Image: Nicholas Kralev
Bottom Image: Defence Industry Daily
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I have been following the ups and downs of the UK Military Services since becoming particularly interested as a schoolboy in the early 1960s. I have watched the capability of our services diminish inexorably from the TSR2 fiasco and the Wilson and Callaghan government’s decision not to build new fleet carriers, and more. I was heartened during the Thatcher years, and at the time of the Falklands War. It was encouraging when the Thatcher government undertook to increase defence spending by 5% a year. All that has gone of course and the demise gathered speed in the Major years with the so called “Peace Dividend” when the Berlin Wall came down. Now the size of our military is an embarrassment, with barely enough frigates and destroyers for our two carriers, which themselves will carry a pathetic number of F25s, ALL due to self imposed cost constraints. What price National Security in the genuinely increasingly dangerous world!! Does the government and the MOD not understand the concept of attrition in warfare? Ships are sunk in war. Remember the Falklands? I could go on at considerable length reciting the shortcomings of our forces in terms of equipment and manpower! Defence spending not only should, but must be increased very substantially, and immediately and not by the odd £500 million. We should be targeting defence spending of around £50 billion by 2020. Only by doing this, can we expect to increase our Naval capacity towards 35/40 Frigates and Destroyers and add probably double the size of the airforces frontline fighters and bombers. The Army has been cut far far too much and regular combat troops should be maintained around 120,000, and with a substantial Reserve. This is not a ramble by some old buffer. I do know what I’m talking about.
It’s important to note that the Armed Forces struggle these days to find sufficient numbers of recruits to staff even the current limited levels of manpower. There’s doubtless an element that the current strident budget constraints have caused pressures forcing experienced people out early but that won’t be the whole story.
We’d have to define what those new increased force levels are for. The post-Cold War cuts were both excessively heavy (not to mention the enthusiastic glee with which HM Treasury wielded the axe…) and without any coherent thought to the future. In more recent years, the Armed Forces have been under the thumb of ‘use it or lose it’. That unless they could justify immediate and long term retention of a capability, the budget for that capability would be permanently concluded. Being the Military is a tool projected by Government, that perma-justification must be stripped from the Armed Forces. If a particular tactical or strategic capability is lost, it must be for the Politicians who decommissioned it to take the fall for the absence – not the Forces themselves.
If we are to increase force levels, it must be for UK self interest only. Not to plug gaps left by our erstwhile ‘allies’. Nor should these augmented capabilities be used as a rapid reaction measure to unforeseen events to cover the collective backsides of those same allies in some urgent requirement overseas – with only the caveat we might use the capabilities in an evacuation capacity only to save lives. But never to beef up territory that same ‘Ally’ might have neglected to defend properly itself. Within that also lies any obligation to Guerilla warfare. Whilst recent years have seen the Army on asymmetric warfare learning – and relearning – bitter lessons, the primary fault lay with Governments possessed of no competent or comprehensive thought as to the endgame nor to strategic aims. Guerilla warfare invariably comprises a regional politico\religious element and the solution is usually in the politico\religious theatre. Where that politics does not require UK involvement, the UK should consider itself under an obligation to decline involvement. Sensible levels of training of opposing insurgents and support of their politico\religious bedrock should be the most we should commit to.
Equipment procured should, once again, be so for UK self-interest. We should not reward other nations which have aggressively undermined the UK Arms industry, and we should not continue the fetish of ‘joint’ programmes unless there is sufficient forward evidence that there will be unique UK tactical, strategic or industrial advantages for doing so. We should not place too much trust or hope in Drone technology. A good example being Vietnam, where such special weapons were invariably successfully evaded given sufficient learning time. It’s frequently lost on observers that the initiating point for ‘stealth’ technology, and the drone technologies which went in parallel to that, was the public parading of B-52 Bomber crews to the world press when the USAF began to suffer significant losses to their bombers in 1972-73. The technology was to prevent future Governments from suffering political reverses and the unpopularity those losses brought. Projecting the Armed Forces into combat should be the last resort and never be an easy option. There must always be the potential for political defeat which is why human beings still need to be placed at real physical risk. Without that element of risk, then politicians will begin to bypass the tedium and inconvenience of real political footwork.
Finally, in keeping with your piece here, once we have established the new, increased levels, and sorted out the finances and politics behind it, we must then demand of the Service Chiefs that they look after the kit properly. What I mean by that is that when the Treasury comes knocking for ceaseless cuts, that at that point, the military be given the freedom to take to the airwaves and ask pertinent searching questions of Parliament. There’s no point the taxpayer paying for all this kit if the Forces themselves won’t protect its existence properly.
I agree, we could start the increase in defense funding by totally defunding ngo parasites like action on smoking and health, healthy stadia and all the other puritanical fascists who want to interfere in every aspect of peoples lives.
I’d also take a long hard look at where and how and where our foreign aid is being spent, and divert most of that to both defense and veteran funding.
Let’s face it, despite us leaving the EU, we’re definitely going to need to defend the territory in the not too distant future, most of the member states simply won’t be able to defend themselves and regardless of if trump or Clinton wins, the US is going to turn more insular. They’re more interested in finding ways, including paying us, of spying on their own citizens.
I agree with you wholeheartedly. Unfortunately I don’t think reducing the national debt is very high on May’s agenda. If she does increase defence spending I fear it will simply be funded by more borrowing, edging us ever closer to bankruptcy in the future (after she’s gone). There have already been some indications that she is going to take the brakes off “austerity”. She is a fan of Joseph Chamberlain apparently:
I suggest that instead you put your energy into campaigning for increasing the voting age to 21, as you wisely proposed some time ago. This may be the last chance to steer the ship away from eventual disaster.