Those in the know say Britain’s global influence is dependent on an increase in defence spending after the next election. But don’t expect anybody to listen. The political class has proven it is incapable of delivering military investment and managing our strategic disposition in peacetime.
One source at the Ministry of Defence summed the post-2010 situation up to me in stark terms, saying the government “cut some areas to the bone” at the last strategic review.
Yes, there are state of the art Type-45 destroyers, Eurofighters in the air and nuclear submarines at Faslane. But Britain, a maritime nation with history stretching from the Armada and Trafalgar, to the Nile and Quiberon Bay, now has fewer warships than Greece, Taiwan, Italy, Finland and seventeen other nations.
Money is so tight that even the new Type-26 frigates will be built on the cheap. Tucked away in the small print of the BAE project is the fact that if costs rise, capability will be sacrificed the keep the ships on budget. Never mind their utility in twenty years time, we must save those pennies.
The question is, why has the government been so willing to slash military capability in some areas, when the authors of the Strategic Defence and Security Review admitted they couldn’t accurately predict what the future threats were likely to be?
So much for the “adaptive posture” that the MoD lauded itself for securing. In less than a year the country was fighting an unexpected war in Libya by flying Tornados from Italy, instead of using the scrapped Harriers and HMS Ark Royal, which the powers that be deemed surplus to requirements. That meant less sorties, less power being projected and even more money being spent on such things as renting air bases.
What’s worse, the same people are set to do it all over again in 2015. After an eight percent real-term fall in defence spending in 2010, the coalition pledged a real-term increase at the start of the next parliament. That has now been ruled out.
So now Britain must rely on its allies. Heaven forbid when the interests of those allies do not match those of our own. One freshly retired Major in the British Army told me he and many of his former colleagues think this reliance poses a “huge risk” to our global clout. Unfortunately, the establishment seems to disagree.
Nearly 70 years since the end of the Second World War, politicians and their military advisors still haven’t decided what our place in the world should be. Suez marked a downturn; the Falklands a renaissance, recent decisions an increasing pace of decline.
Long gone are the days of global supremacy, but still present is the determination of governments to wield some kind of influence abroad. The money required to satisfy that aim, however, is conspicuous by its absence.
One army Brigadier who was part of the team that devised the last Strategic Defence Review made the case to me last year that no department that gets well over £30bn per year can claim to be skint. He may well be right. But the defence of the realm is a core responsibility of Her Majesty’s government. ￡30bn just doesn’t cut it.
The brutal fact is that defence reforms since 2010 have and will leave us weaker, with a part-time army and a pitiful navy. Soldiers, past and present, senior and junior, are rightly questioning the new emphasis on reservists. How can decision makers not realise that if someone does something part-time, they will be worse at it than someone who does it full-time?
The Putins of this world will only listen to Britain on the world stage if we are willing to wield the stick – or even have a stick to wield. The days of being able to send 45,000 troops to Iraq are long gone. We could now send 30,000 for a limited time only.
Of course the country’s economic situation is its primary strategic threat. Any government must concern itself with that first and foremost.
But politicians need to understand the fundamental requirement to invest in defence. They didn’t in 2010 and Britain declined strategically as a result. The same looks set to happen after the next election.
Where will that leave Britain in 2020?
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