Whilst there is a great deal of controversy raging at the moment about resources for operations in Afghanistan we thought we would have a look at the comparative percentage of GDP Defence spending has represented over the last forty-odd years.
The data is from the official Treasury figures and obtained from ukpublicspending.co.uk
The additional information on the graphic does not show permanent overseas deployments like Germany, Kenya and Canada, nor does it show RN or RAF operations except where the Army is involved, for example, the Iraq no-fly zones or anti-piracy operations. These have been omitted for clarity.
It is also worth noting that spending in any given year is usually decided well in advance
Whilst not perfect in many respects the graphic does show that since the end of the fifties defence spending as a percentage of GDP has been falling despite the tempo of operations actually increasing
Given that defence spending is often, especially recently, used as a political football it is worth noting that spending has decreased in both Labour and Conservative governments, the rate of decline greatest with Conservative. The accepted wisdom that the Tories are a ‘friend of Defence’ and that any incoming Conservative government will hugely increase spending, based on recent history, is simply not a belief that has any basis in history.
One can also look back at the Nott Review, Options for Change and Front Line First for exercises in deep defence spending cuts and for those with short memories they might want to revisit the issues of trench foot in the Falklands because of shoddy boots or service personnel crossing the start line in the first Gulf War with 10 rounds of ammunition and green combats.
That said, we are where we are. There is no doubt that the recent Labour governments have been quite willing to commit our armed forces but have singularly failed to provide the resources to do so.
So on one hand we have increasing deployments and the other a flattening or reduction in spending.
But that is not the end of it;
Making things infinitely worse are the corrosive effects of other factors. The UK is not alone here, major equipment everywhere, for example, a destroyer, armoured vehicle or fighter jet, have ballooned in cost in comparative terms over the period in question. Reducing numbers diminish economies of scale which results in fewer numbers and on and on. This is the so-called procurement death spiral where increasing sophistication means a higher price but increasingly small numbers.
This is fine to some extent but a ship or jet can only be in one place at a time. Technological advantages are vital to maintaining effectiveness but it is worth noting that in 1939 we were equipped with the Hurricane, six years later a twin-engine jet fighter was in service. Roll forward and despite the project being started in the late eighties the Eurofighter Typhoon still isn’t engaged in operations in Afghanistan. This is not confined to the RAF, the other services have the same problem but are used to demonstrate that when faced with a significant threat there is very little scope for rushing equipment into service.
Despite any number of best practice reforms, external consultancy reviews and endless reorganisations the MoD has been unable to constrain cost growth on new projects. It is hard to give any benefit of the doubt to the MoD when the figures speak for themselves and are highlighted by the NAO and Defence Select Committee.
Pick almost any major project and you will find huge cost overruns and lengthening of ‘in service’ estimates. In practical terms, this is exacerbated by the tendency of the MoD to constrain costs by de-specifying (as in fitted for but not with) or as we have mentioned, simply decreasing the quantity purchased. The omissions are often added back in whilst in service at much greater costs.
The desire if the UK to maintain sovereign design manufacture and maintenance capabilities in many areas, as defined by the Defence Industrial Strategy, means in blunt terms, we will pay more. Whilst buying off someone else’s shelf can have benefits it is not without its pitfalls both short and long term.
Finally, even with these pressures, the UK insists on maintaining a balanced capability in order to meet any eventuality. If one examines the nature of the operations undertaken by the armed forces in the same period you will find everything from aid to civilian powers, large scale combined arms operations, low-intensity counter-insurgency operations and everything in between.
The world is an uncertain and unpredictable place, even more so now than on the Cold War and whilst it is ‘likely that the kind of operation characterised by Afghanistan will be the most common type in the future, do you want to make a bet on that?
When David Cameron or any of the other assorted bandwagon-jumping politicians get on their soapboxes about funding for ‘our boys’ they would do well to remember the reason we are where we are in the toxic mix of Increasing Commitments, Reducing Funding, Defence Inflation, Cost Overruns, defence industrial concerns and maintenance of a balanced capability, most of which have been a more or less common feature of all governments in the last 40 years.
Add in the odd fiasco like FRES SV and the Chinook HC3 and you see a bigger picture that is much more significant than the cheap party politics and media bandwagon that is so evident today.
It is undoubtedly the duty of the opposition to press the government of the day but perhaps a little less hubris and an acknowledgement that it is a broad issue with no simple solutions might be both more appropriate and actually useful to those that count, the young toms currently fighting in Afghanistan.
The service personnel being killed and injured today and those that have gone before deserve better.
Evidently, if we are to continue with the existing level of commitments we need a basic no-nonsense sustained increase in funding but we also need to address the other issues as well, as we say, its not just more money but better spending
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