Defence demands are unsustainable

It seems there is a major lobbying effort underway for a massive increase in British defence spending. The Tories’ Bernard Jerkin offers a stark set of alternatives:

All political parties must face the choice: either bulk up our armed
forces or opt out of a global role. But if we do opt out, which
friendly nation will step into the breach?
Our armed forces need something like a £15bn (approaching 50%)
increase over the next five years just to maintain present capabilities
and programmes. Over the past 10 years, the government has increased
health and education spending by 66% and 48% in real terms, but defence
by just 12%. Defence has become the Cinderella of the public services. (Comment is Free)

Labour’s Lord Robertson put forward a similar argument last month:

"If we’re going to persuade the new chancellor and
the present prime minister to spend more on defence – or even get the
opposition to commit more money for defence – then all of us have got
to make the case in the general population for saying a bigger share of
the national cake needs to go to defence rather than education, health,
housing – which are infinitely more popular among the voters."

Budget increases, he also warned, had to come hand-in-hand with decisions on how the cash was spent.

"In all of Europe, we spend a lot of money on defence," he added.

"Huge amounts of money are spent on soldiers who can’t
be mobilised, on tanks that will never move, on anti-submarine warfare
assets against an enemy that doesn’t have any submarines." (BBC News)

Is there any other area where admitting to such a huge misallocation of resources (and Robertson doesn’t even mention Trident) would be an argument for a major expansion of funding, in this case from 2.2 per cent of GDP to 3 per cent?

Fraser Nelson’s argument in the Spectator seems to me to be similarly perverse. He takes issue with Des Browne’s claim that British military spending is the second highest in the world:

My inquiries have established that the MoD has used the old accounting
fiddle of using unadjusted (and, therefore, misleading) currency
translations. As any fule kno, the only way to do any meaningful
international comparisons is to use purchasing power parity (PPP)
measures – adjusted for how much arms their money can go. What China
spends, for example, may not buy much more than half a Eurofighter in
Britain. But at home it’s enough for 1.6m troops and 7,100 tanks:
substantially ahead of a British Army which has fewer troops than at
any time since the 19th century. (And did I mention that we’re fighting
two wars?)  (Spectator)

Once again, the fact that Britain is not getting value for money is somehow an argument for spending even more. It’s not as if the MoD can outsource the infantry to the PLA, although it has already resorted to extensive recruiting from the third world.

Perhaps the most interesting and counter-intuitive argument for increased defence spending came from the eminent historian Linda Colley recently:

One of the problems with current debates about "Britishness"
is that they focus too exclusively on domestic identities and values.
Addressing the question of what Britain is, and of how far it can
plausibly function as an independent and united polity, requires a far
more informed and even-handed public discussion than exists at present
about our relations with both America and the rest of Europe.

a discussion might be uncomfortable for more than just the politicians.
Since 1945, Britain – like much of Europe – has been tacitly involved
in a massive bargain. The US has bankrolled large sectors of our
defences, and thus allowed our governments to plough money into various
social programmes instead. The EU – and Miliband was right on this – is
itself not remotely close to possessing the kind of firepower that
would underpin the vast ambitions of its more ardent supporters.

this degree, dependence on the US is inescapable, and is likely to be
so for some time. There has been a reluctance to spell this out, and
even more of a reluctance to address what might happen if US power
recedes in the future to the degree that some American commentators are
now predicting. Would English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish
taxpayers be willing to pay more for defence if this meant being less
entangled with US priorities and pressures? As is true of our foreign
relations generally, public debate on this issue has barely begun. (Comment is Free)

My own view is closer to that of another historian, Corelli Barnett:

"Politicians, civil servants and military chiefs remained mental
prisoners of Britain’s past as a world and imperial power," said Mr
Barnett, opening a public seminar, Overstretched? The making and impact
of the UK’s defence reviews since 1957, which also featured the British
army’s former chief of the general staff, General Sir Mike Jackson.

why the elite retain such nostalgic delusions, he said: "In my belief
the elite remained prisoners of their indoctrination at public school
and Oxbridge. There they had been programmed to be house prefects to
the world. But given Britain’s postwar problems, these Victorian or
Edwardian reflexes were simply obsolete mental kit overdue for

He argued in his address: "Such exaggeration has
remained the besetting sin of British total strategy right up to the
present day and also remained a sure recipe for a discordance between
military commitments and financial resources." (Education Guardian)

One obvious product of this mentality is Trident, which was accurately summed up by Chris Huhne the othe day:

Trident is neither British, nor independent, or
even a deterrent. Our missiles are taken from a pool kept
in America, our submarines are integrated with US nuclear forces and
there is no evidence that they are deterring any state from anything.

Spending £20bn on Trident is not justified and I want LibDems to change policy to reflect that fact. (The Herald)

As Huhne admits, it is currently the SNP which is making the anti-Trident running, and this may well prove to be a decisive factor. The domestic consequences of the kind of military spending increases being lobbied for would only widen the breach between London and Edinburgh, especially given the Scottish Government’s commitment to increasing economic growth.

The essential dilemma facing Britain was well-described by Paul Kennedy twenty years ago:

To be a Great Power – by definition, a state capable of holding its own against any other nation – demands a flourishing economic base. In List’s words, "war or the very possibility makes the establishment of a manufacturing power an indispensable requirement for a nation of the first rank…’  Yet by going to war,  or by devoting a large share of the nation’s ‘manufacturing power’ to expenditures upon ‘unproductive’ armaments, one runs the risk of eroding the national economic base, especially vis-a-vis states which are concentrating a greater share of their income upon productive investment for long-term growth. (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers)

If the generals get their way, the insistence on a global role is likely to prove self-defeating.






2 responses to “Defence demands are unsustainable”

  1. WorldbyStorm avatar

    It’s a fascinating debate, and I was very struck by how Brown was ambushed by the Lords on it. It’s a terribly potent temptation for a PM or indeed a governing party to prove it’s ‘credentials’ by pouring money into the armed forces. The problem as you touch on is that so much of the hardware is next to useless in the current context – except as a vague deterrent, and public opinion won’t stand for serious ground wars with mass casualties. In that context defence becomes quite contentious… On the other hand, I personally don’t belong to the pacifist school of thought on this, or even one which would run military forces down to next to nothing. There are functions that I think require a professional standing army… and they’re going to impact on the Irish debate too…

  2. Tom Griffin avatar

    The level of spending in the pipeline really is quite extraordinary. openDemocracy has a great article on it here:

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