Before everything was swept aside by the imperatives of combating the Covid-19 pandemic, this Government had placed at the core of its mission the ambition to build a ‘global Britain’. That phrase covers a host of subjects, not least our trading relationships with the EU and the rest of the world. But few things have as much potential to shape the United Kingdom’s role in the world as the upcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).
On paper, the military is an area where Britain continues to punch above its weight and earn itself a hearing in world affairs. The UK is a nuclear-weapon state, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and one of the most important military partners in NATO. It is one of only a few nations to float more than one aircraft carrier and enjoys a strong domestic defence industry.
But beneath this rosy outlook, all is not well. The gap between what the Government expects the Armed Forces to do, and what its prepared to stump up to pay for it, is wide and growing. The Ministry of Defence’s deficit runs to the billions.
This is the result of a combination of factors, not least importing off-the-shelf US products with a weak pound, designing and building all Royal Navy warships domestically, and trying to keep pace with America in terms of technology. But it also stems from a lack of clarity about what Britain’s role in the world actually is, and what role the Armed Forces should play in that.
One vision – perhaps the one which best fits ‘global Britain’ – rests on the UK having the ability to project power around the world, with an expeditionary Army supported by platforms like the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers and bases ‘East of Suez’.
But there is an alternative view which holds that the UK’s primary responsibility ought to be to its immediate theatre: Europe, and specifically the threat posed by a renascent Russia.
A programme centred on this approach would prioritise maintaining a larger Army better equipped for high-intensity warfare, and the logistical support needed for rapid deployment to Eastern Europe. It would mean fewer super-expensive warships in favour of investment in tanks and artillery, as well as potentially expanding the hunter-killer submarine fleet. And it would mean establishing more forward bases in places like Poland – perhaps with the locals sharing the tab, which would help a budget-sensitive MoD.
David Cameron tried to dodge this question. The previous SDSR just tried to get the Armed Forces to do everything they already do, but a bit worse. That wasn’t sustainable, and now the results of decades of muddled thinking are coming home to roost, just as the peaceful world order promised by the ‘end of history’ is coming apart at the seams.
With the Government needing to account for the vast expense of furlough and the other economic interventions of recent months, it is extremely unlikely that the Prime Minister will be able to spend his way out of the problem.
But what is the alternative? Dramatic cost-cutting measures will be fraught with political difficulty. For example, there is already pressure on the MoD to stop putting contracts for Royal Navy support vessels out for international tender – yet buying overseas is not only often more cost-effective but helps to prevent bottlenecks created by capacity issues at British shipyards. Substantial cuts to the Army – recent speculation suggested a reduction of almost 20,000 personnel – would be even more toxic.
Dominic Cummings may be right to point out the huge potential – both in terms of combat efficacy and cost-savings – of things like drone technology. But driving through a major culture change in military procurement will be a major challenge. At present, the different branches compete to win funding for prestige projects, and each service fights its corner very hard. Imposing an overall rationalisation on these warring fiefs will be hard, detailed work, and probably require the sustained attention either of a long-serving Defence Secretary or a suitably-empowered political appointee.
Nor can the Government afford to neglect the social dimension of the Services. In addition to their warfighting role, the Armed Forces are one of the last truly British institutions. They provide a potent rallying point for national pride, and defence investment is one of the most visible ways in which the Union pays dividends to different parts of the country. Military bases create jobs, and regiments maintain local traditions.
Would Cummings’ vision of teenagers piloting drones inspire the same affection? It seems unlikely. Ministers would do well to consider the impact of Thatcher’s (often well-justified) dismantling of other post-war ‘British’ institutions before taking the axe to the Armed Forces. Indeed, with Boris Johnson squaring up for what could be a make-or-break showdown with the Scottish Nationalists, the very last thing he needs is to be presiding over painful cuts to one of the most important anchors of the United Kingdom.
Politically-speaking, then, the least-painful course of action would probably be scaling back British ambitions in the Far East. With politicians loathe to commit to ‘boots on the ground’ after Iraq, the utility of a globally deployable expeditionary force is reduced. Having Royal Navy vessels take part in freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea is not without value, but in a world in which Britain cannot do everything the task of confronting China may best be left to regional allies such as the US, Australia, and Japan.
Instead, the UK may best discharge its global responsibilities by concentrating its strength where its needed most: Europe.
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