The Defence of the Realm is not Expendable.

The serialisation of Gen Sir Richard Dannet’s memoirs last weekend shed yet more light upon the Blair Government’s double standards wherever the armed forces were concerned.  Whilst his descriptions of the dying days of the Brown administration are eye opening – in particular his revelation that the only way he was able to speak to the prime minister (as Chief of the General Staff) was to corner him on Horse Guards – Gen Dannet’s account of Brown’s refusal to pay for the defence programme called for by the last government’s own Strategic Defence Review (in 1998) is well known and well documented.  Gen Lord Guthrie recently confirmed that Gordon Brown’s evidence to the Chilcot enquiry was misleading at best, dishonest at worst.  In particular, Mr Brown made two assertions that were quite simply untrue.  Firstly, that Defence spending increased in real terms every year of the Blair/Brown governments: in fact “spending was cut in real terms by 1.5 per cent, or £400 million, in 1999-2000; by 2.1 per cent, or £700 million, in 2004-05; and by 0.2 per cent, or £100 million, in 2006-07” (The Times, link above).   Secondly, Gen Guthrie directly contradicted Mr Brown’s assertion that he provided the armed forces with each of the budgetary requirements for which it asked; he was in a position to know, having made the requests to the Chancellor directly as Chief of the Defence Staff. 

What lessons are there for the Coalition; and, particularly, for a Chancellor apparently determined to give inadequate budget protection to armed forces that have suffered huge cuts in their equipment and manpower for two decades?

Firstly, we need to consider the damage done to the armed forces and that it may suffer in the future due to stagnant spending at best.  The above expenditure statistics measure ‘real’ inflation according to the CPI, the government’s preferred inflation indicator (largely because it is consistently lower – and less comprehensive and therefore accurate – than the RPI).  Thus, they ignore the reality of Defence Procurement Inflation.  Professor William Kirkpatrick recently argued in a United Services Institute paper that procurement costs measured in unit price terms for equipment have inflated at a rate of around 7.5 % throughout the modern era.  Prof Kirkpatrick accepts that this measure ignores the increase in the performance of equipment – Spitfires to Typhoons, Dreadnoughts to stealth Destroyers, etc – but justifies this by arguing that the correct relative measure of performance is not historical but multi-lateral; that is to say that our performance will only have increased if the relative advantage of F111s against MiGs was greater than that of Spitfires against Messerschmitts.   It has been argued by Professor Malcolm Chalmers that his figures are misleading, on the grounds that the expenditure of potential rivals has equally failed to keep pace with unit price inflation.  Whilst this argument has some superficial attraction, it has severe limitations, as Prof Chalmers acknowledges.  For example, regardless of their potential increased power over rival aircraft, a similar number will be required to protect UK airspace.  Likewise, even if future aircraft carriers are larger than the Invincible Class (and aircraft carriers have shrunk as well as grown in size over the past century), the UK will suffer decreased capability unless it is able to sustain the same number of aircraft carrier groups. 

Examples used in both USI papers are largely historical or hypothetical, yet the Army’s current major engagement is an important illustration of the flaws in Prof Chalmers’s analysis.  In Afghanistan, allied troops fight against unsophisticated and relatively poorly armed non-state adversaries.  Yet the use by the Taliban of Improvised Explosive Devises (IEDs) has led to appalling casualty rates on a scale not seen since the Falkland’s Conflict, where the United Kingdom faced the most militarily sophisticated enemy of the past 30 years save Serbia.  There are two means by which this casualty rate could be decreased.  The first and most effective is by an increase in the number of helicopters enabling evacuations that avoid the IED risk.  Whilst the Taliban has some anti-aircraft capacity, the extremely short time span of helicopter evacuations, combined with the limits to this (Taliban) capacity, explains the greatly reduced risk.  The second means of reducing the threat is by supplying the troops with more effective armoured vehicles to replace the tired Land Rovers developed to police Northern Ireland during the Troubles.  Yet the United Kingdom has failed to increase the supply of this essential equipment due to the limitations on its budget and the unwillingness of the Treasury to increase MoD spending to take account of this greater need – unexpected and unaccounted for in previous reviews. Thus, even enemies that have been described as “13th century” can lead to the need for far greater levels of equipment.

The second consequence of recent engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan is one that cannot be measured purely in terms of money.   It is that army units are deployed at ever greater frequency and with ever shorter periods back with their families at home or in Germany.  It is impossible to measure the effect this has had and continues to have on morale amongst all ranks but we surely have a moral obligation, as a nation thankfully increasingly aware and appreciative of the sacrifices made by our soldiers on our behalf, to mitigate these emotional costs of warfare both by adequate expenditure on the equipment they need and by increasing or at least maintaining the size of the army to allow decent breaks between deployment.  In financial terms, though, this is an additional marker of defence inflation of which neither professor took account.

Finally, we must consider our obligations as the only Power in NATO without a semi-detached foreign policy (no prizes for guessing which country) to be able to make a significant contribution to US led military operations.  This is to do no disrespect to Canadian, Polish and Danish troops, who alone amongst NATO allies have joined US/UK troops in serious combat operations in Helmand Province and who have suffered comparable casualty rates to us.  Nevertheless, their respective expenditure on defence is only 1.66, 1.41 and 1.3 per cent of GDP, as opposed to 2.5 and 4.3 per cent by the UK and US respectively.  Those who argue that Britain is no longer a great power and cannot afford to project her interests do not merely ignore the reliance put upon its armed services by the UN in enforcing its Security Council Resolutions in Iraq in 1991 and Afghanistan from 2001 and in preventing genocide in Bosnia in 1999, they belittle British interests that rely upon effective, well equipped and sufficiently large armed forces.  Britain still relies upon Middle Eastern oil, it still relies upon trade routes through the Red Sea, it still has obligations to its citizens in Dependant Territories.  Moreover, Britain cannot expect to retain its privileged status as a Permanent Member of the Security Council without being able to contribute to necessary military action it has the responsibility to enforce.

Of course it is trite to complain that particular policies are not to be implemented in a coalition government.  The synthesis of values and policies coalition government entails will lead to inevitable disappointment on both sides.  Those who make such complaints forget that, for good or ill, David Cameron failed to secure an overall majority and has been forced to accept compromises in some areas.

Yet Britain’s defences and its ability to project its power to protect its interests should never be one of these.  It was deeply alarming that the Conservative Party failed, in opposition, at least to guarantee that Defence expenditure should be immune from cuts.  When combined with its pledge to maintain spending on the NHS –  its own Party research having shown that expenditure on central administration alone had doubled in five years – this policy was difficult to understand.  For the Treasury now to treat Defence almost as any other department (its concession requiring cuts of ‘only’ 10 per cent being derisory) is a direct assault on national interests.  Sadly, the Conservative Party’s history shows that it has all too often failed to appreciate how rapidly Britain’s military needs can change.  John Nott’s Defence Review of 1981 would have led to the scrapping of 20 per cent of the surface fleet and one aircraft carrier but for the Falkland’s War; and it took until 1934 for Baldwin’s National Government to begin rearmament (Correlli Barnett, The Collapse of British Power (London: Methuen, 1972), p. 412).  Will this Government be any different?

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