Leading article

How to fix our defence budget mess

It’s never a good idea to define achievement purely in terms of spending – but it’s a worse one to guarantee aid spending while not doing the same for defence

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

With the exception of 1983, when Michael Foot promised unilateral nuclear disarmament, defence has played little role in modern election campaigns. This is not least because the two main parties appear to have developed a non-aggression pact. They have agreed to heap praise upon the armed forces and commit them to ever more frequent foreign campaigns — while simultaneously nibbling away at the defence budget to fund programmes which offer more instant gratification to the electorate.

This week, as the news emerged of Russia’s plan to lease 12 long-range bombers to Argentina, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, announced the results of the latest review into how we protect the Falkland Islands. He promised to spend £180 million over ten years improving the military base on the islands, including better housing and a new primary school. While that is all welcome, it does not address an underlying deficiency of our armed forces: we are trying to defend the legacy of Britain’s centuries as a great maritime power with a navy that is a shadow of its former self. Our military is shrinking, and our stature along with it.

The task force sent to reclaim the Falklands in 1982 included two aircraft carriers, eight destroyers and 15 frigates. The entire British Navy now comprises one hulk of an aircraft carrier without any aircraft, six destroyers and 13 frigates. Naval bases have been turned into museums and waterfront housing developments. To a cross-channel ferry passenger leaving Portsmouth, it looks all too much as if a cack-handed manoeuvre on the part of the ferry captain could wipe out half the British Navy. True, a properly functioning air base on the Falklands is of more value than an entire flotilla of aircraft carriers 10,000 miles away, as was emphasised in 1982 — when the success of the campaign served to smother criticism of the woeful neglect of the islands’ defences before the invasion.

Nevertheless, the argument that we can get away with lower defence spending because we now have smarter defences, better targeted at the threats we are likely to face, is far from convincing. For 40 years during the Cold War we, along with the rest of Nato, meant what we said when we warned the Soviet Union that an attack on one of us would be treated as an attack on us all. There is considerable doubt that we mean it now, in a Nato whose expansion eastwards in membership has not been matched by an expansion of forces. Vladimir Putin certainly seems disinclined to believe it, to judge by the frequency with which Russian aircraft have started buzzing Europe’s skies.

Current levels of defence spending are still heavily influenced by the decision, in the early 1990s, to draw a ‘peace dividend’ from the end of the Cold War. In 1991/92, the UK was spending 4.1 per cent of GDP on defence. By 2000 that had fallen to 2.4 per cent. It rose a little bit during Tony Blair’s military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan but has since fallen back to that same level: 2.4 per cent of GDP. The government has made no promise to maintain it above 2 per cent — supposedly the minimum required under Nato’s rules — beyond next year.

It is little consolation that other European countries are even more reluctant to spend on defence. Apart from the UK, only Greece and Estonia spent 2 per cent of GDP on defence in 2013. For far too long Europe has been happy to live under the implicit guarantee that the US will defend it. Little consideration has been given to the prospect that US taxpayers may eventually get fed up with this arrangement. They, too, might one day decide they would rather cut back on defence spending in Europe in favour of social spending at home — or even a tax cut.

Moreover, while we can still probably rely on US involvement in the defence of Europe, the same is certainly not true of the Falklands or any other British overseas possessions. Even Ronald Reagan, as staunch an ally as Britain has enjoyed in the White House since 1945, showed little interest in aiding the liberation of the islands.

There is a way out of the budgetary mess in which the government finds itself. As Rory Stewart, chairman of the defence select committee, has argued, some of what goes under ‘defence’ spending — such as peacekeeping missions in developing countries — could equally well go under the aid budget. There is no point in channelling food, medical or other development aid into war zones where it cannot be distributed or where it will be stolen by military forces.

It is never wise for a government to define success purely in terms of money spent — a 2 per cent target for defence spending is no more a guarantee that money will be well spent than is the 0.7 per cent target for aid spending. But it is ludicrous to enshrine in law the duty of governments to spend so much on aid while refusing to guarantee defence spending at a level compatible with the protection of the UK and overseas territories. At least some of the aid budget should be redirected into defence.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Peter Stroud

    It is absolutely idiotic to enshrine in law the 0.7 percent of GDP for overseas aid, yet to fail to spend a legally enshrined sum on the defence of the realm. Forget Putin’s threats, though they are worrying. If the EU wishes to expand Eastward, then leave it to the Euroland states: we should not be involved. Concentrate on defending British interests against Islamic fanatics. The time might come when air strikes are not enough.

    • Bert

      Far far too sensible an opinion I’m afraid.
      Much to the dismay it has to be said of anyone with an ounce of common sense.

  • Frank

    I agree that you cannot define success purely in terms of the amount spent, particularly in respect of the procurement process at the MOD, where billions have been wasted. This incompetence and lack of insight into the right outcome also seems to affect the Department for International Development. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that both Departments recruit the wrong senior staff.

    • John Carins

      Many criticise the procurement process at the MOD. Sometimes this criticism is warranted but the long lead times and technology risks often result in “requirements” changing. This allows contractors to often claim extortionate contract changes. The contractors are part of this game and in the uncertainty of not getting future contracts will extract as much money from the coffers as possible. For them its about short term gain because they cannot guarantee MOD/Government long term support. The other major factor is the meddling politicians who are often the source of “requirements” changing. Just look at the aircraft carrier saga.

  • Seaton

    The government’s defence reviews have been a disaster, from the scapping of the AEW aircraft that helped protect our submarines agains intruding submarines to the scapping of the aircraft carriers, leaving the fleet with no air protection, and the cutting back of the surface fleet. That and Army and other RAF cuts have left us vunerable in an increasingly dangerous world. It is surely unarguable that the overseas aid budget should fund many of the forces deployments (viz Sierra Leone ebola). When is our government going to wake to the fact that defence of the realm is its primary duly ?

  • littleted

    …a properly functioning air base on the Falklands is of more value than an entire flotilla of aircraft carriers 10,000 miles away…


    If we had still had the old HMS Ark Royal with its Phantoms, Buccaneers and AEW Gannets in 1982, its deterrent effect, even from 10,000 miles away, would have prevented the invasion. It’s capability vastly exceeded the little through deck cruisers with its subsonic short-range Harriers

    A few craters in a fixed airfield runway would render it useless for air defence, close air support of ground troops, or reinforcement, just as it is asinine to stake missile air defences on a single ship!

    It is idiotic to stake the security of the islands on such a flimsy basis.

    • salt_peter

      The SAS demonstrated the vulnerability of ground-based aircraft to destruction by special forces during the Falklands War.

  • tjamesjones

    I’m on the right, which is sometimes seen as the obvious place for defence. But, really? Do I want the UK government spending vast sums on military spending? On military adventures? The simple fact is, that unless there is a widely perceived military threat, there can’t and won’t be much support for military spending.

  • David Craig

    A few years ago, while editing a small and now defunct defence magazine I researched the comparative sizes of the French and British defence forces. France then had a similar sized population and similar sized defence forces.
    Why then did France have nearly twice the uniformed manpower than the UK? The answer lay in the ratio of civil servants to uniforms. The French defence forces run with a miniscule proportion suits, the UK, on the other hand, had the largest proportion of civil servants to uniforms in NATO.
    Couple that with the dysfunctional nature of the British MOD and the likelihood of Mr Cockup calling becomes inevitable. Our armed forces deserve better. Only when the MOD is subjected to root and branch reform and reduced to a realistic size (Including the “outsourced” componants,) will we be able to speak of value for money in defence spending.