Theresa May’s Government Should Dramatically Increase Defence Spending

USO lounge airport

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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End The Scandal Of Squalid Army Accommodation

Catterick Garrison


An overlooked article in the Telegraph reveals that serving British soldiers continue to endure crumbling substandard living accommodation at a time when the political elites in London are more focused on averting a tube strike and pandering to the whims of the RMT union and its overpaid train drivers than looking after the welfare of those who do a truly difficult and irreplaceable job.

The article quotes a complaint written to the letter’s page of Soldier Magazine, detailing conditions that should rightly cause many red faces at the Ministry of Defence:

The letter from an unnamed soldier complained: “We are constantly without hot water, have only three showers per platoon and not all of them work.

The rooms at Somme Barracks in Catterick are “falling to bits”, the soldier wrote.

“We have made every attempt to make them bearable to live in, but their poor condition is now starting to affect the lad’s morale.”

The response given to the soldier by the Ministry of Defence spokesman is breathtakingly dismissive and arrogant, and is worth quoting in full:

The accommodation at Somme Barracks is not condemned. The MOD has already invested some £1.2 million in improving the site in 2011 and 2012, redecorating and upgrading a number of areas including flooring, toilet facilities and utilities rooms.

We will continue to invest in the barracks and are replacing boilers supplying hot water to blocks 11 and 12. This work should be finished by May 2, 2014.

Comprehensive maintenance service is provided but occupants must report any problem promptly to the help desk or repair work may be delayed.

Essentially, the government’s response to a serving soldier’s complaint about appalling accommodation is to call him a liar, boast about supposed renovations that clearly delivered no noticeable improvement when they were completed two years ago, and then to blame the squalid conditions on the soldiers themselves, claiming that they did not report the issue to the help desk as one would a malfunctioning BlackBerry.

Compare the serving soldier’s description of substandard British army accommodation with this grim account of army housing in backward-sliding Russia, taken from the excellent book “Putin’s Russia” by the late journalist Anna Politkovskaya:

[The soldier’s] home is a dreadful officers’ hostel with peeling stairwells, half derelict and eery … The windows of many now uninhabited flats are dark … We go up to the second floor, and behind a peeling door is a squalid, spartan room … There is no hot water, and it is cold, draughty and uncomfortable.

It is a much overlooked outrage that some in the British army live in accommodation that can be described in very similar terms to Russian army lodgings, the Russian army being synonymous with mistreatment of its soldiers. The comparison is even more galling when one considers the fact that the Chief of the Defence Staff earns £250,000 per year, and the Permanent Undersecretary of Defence an impressive £185,000 for his bureaucratic skills.

The story has gained very little traction in the media aside from the Daily Telegraph story, and with much of the national media’ attention focused on the upcoming European elections it is unlikely to do so. But even if the Conservative-led coalition government remains committed to its policy of diminishing Britain’s military capability though underinvestment and spending cuts, ministers could at least ensure that all serving personnel have the dignity of adequate housing.