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It might be worth posting Robert Gates’ entirely accurate comments on Radio 4 this morning with regard to Britain now being a much diminished military power.



That is not what he said at all.



Gates did not say it was by accident, and his point was and has always been that this is an issue afflicting Europe as a whole. His point stands though, the UK is a much diminished force and therefore has much less to offer to it’s alliance with the US, and whether people here like it or not it means the UK has much less global influence.

It would be a useful exercise to compare the 1998 SDR with the intended outcome of the 2010 SDSR- the difference is incredibly stark in terms of scale. The salami slicing nature of the 1998-10 cuts combined with the small print nature of part of the 2010 SDSR seems to have masked reality from some: putting the two side-by-side brings things into the light and may provoke some useful debate beyond the usual “but, but, but” that the MoD publicity team engages in.

The other point TD is that we may be able to bring the same proportion of force to the Western Alliance becasue the other members are shrinking for the same reasons.

But that does not equal the same degree of influence in the world, where the Far Eastern powers are tooling up fast and others are managing to acheive a steady state or making plans to grow slowly as they can afford it.


Peter Elliot,



That comment misses the point. The question should not be “are we pulling our weight?” but “what weight should we be pulling?” and the fact is that the UK is currently spending 2% of GDP to maintain an ever shrinking ability to project power. If you compare the 1998 SDR with the 2010 SDSR you will see just how bad things have become, especially when put next to what has been happening outside Europe. For example:

1998 cut the escort fleet to 32 units, 2010 cut it to 19
1998 cut the SSN fleet to 12, 2010 confirmed it’s cut to 7
1998 cut fast jet squadrons to 18, 2010 cut them to 7
The 2010 SDSR also stated clearly that the maximum one-off effort under the defence planning assumptions is now just two thirds of what was done in Iraq in 2003.

That happened in just twelve years, effectively reductions of 40% or more. There appears to have been no major strategic re-evaluation to accompany this contraction and the MoD keeps hiding behind statements about how much money it is going to spend or how well trained it thinks the UK forces are.


When the USAF is able to defend against the threat of a very large, very visible unarmed aircraft flying slowly towards its capital city, with an hour’s notice to respond; and when the US armed forces are able to wage wars on their own without immediately calling for help from NATO allies and throwing embarrassing fits of rage when some of them (eg France) say they’d rather not get involved; when, indeed, the US armed forces actually manage to decisively win a war, somewhere, anywhere; then I may be inclined to listen to the opinions of US politicians about what the UK’s armed forces should look like.
Not till then, though.


Its no point people with an interest in defence arguing for more money, its the electorate you need to persuade and without defining a credible threat they will not want to increase defence if they believe it will be used for more Iraq and Afghan campaigns.



It should not just be about more money, it should be about ambition. And as “a” demonstrates in his post too many people don’t want to have that discussion, they would rather shout down any comment that they don’t like rather than engage with the substance of it.



I agree it is also about ambition, but that ambition has to be backed by the will of the tax payer and unless people other than the ones with ties to defence start to argue the same then the money will not be forthcoming.

The last thing the British public want to hear after our last two outings is an ex American secretary of state for defence telling us to spend more money on defence.


Money. Someone should write a song about it.

But I think there’s a point being missed. Its not how many pound notes or dollars are spent. Its not what proportion of GDP is spent. The important point is what capability is bought for the cash available. By this measure UK is none too good – look at the continuous streams of reports into defence project overspends – that on top of the original high price agreed by MOD for stuff to meet their UK specific unique requirement. So while UK might have a reasonable budget by international standards, it manages to find significantly inefficient ways to spend it.

I have for some time been trying to persuade MOD to engage in the procurement of armoured vehicles offering much greater value for money. They thus far have shown no interest. Continued spending of vast amounts of money of FRES/Scout is their only priority in the Land domain.

So I am sure for the MOD budget a great deal of capability could be bought. Its not a small amount of money. But I fear both for their desire to buy only extremely high spec UK specific materiel in small numbers from blue-chip manufacturers, allied to the apparently high cost of MOD itself*, means that for the budget the armed forces will get less than they ought.

* refers – I note it was marked down without any explanation, presumably someone in MOD embarrassed their internal costs are available in public.


There in lies the dilemma, the tax payer will not want to increase the budget if it feels the current budget is not well managed.

Plus the average tax payer sees no benefit personally to defence spending, now if someone from DFiD was to publicly come out and state that the aircraft carriers are a national asset just look at the sterling work done by the Navy in the Philipines, or a member of the environment agency publicly thanking the Army for the construction of a temporary bridge over a river that had broke its banks and flooded, or thank you to the crews of the Chinooks who delivered food to live stock cut off from their farmers during this spell of blizzards etc, then it might be different.

The agencies in question are keen to use the assets buts not so quick to point out that they had. And until defence is seen as an enabler for the good of the entire country then it will be of lower interest to the general public.


Some of Mr. Gates’ comments are on the ball, while others beg questions about our national interest as opposed to that of the US. It’s true that the range and depth of our military capability is much reduced, but there is nothing like the clear and present threat to our borders from other European powers that there was for most of the 20th century. Given that and the huge cost of modern military kit (not to mention the desirability of decent pay and housing for the personnel), there’s no good reason to attempt restoration of our previous capabilities.

Mr. Gates doesn’t see it that way because he wants the diplomatic, financial and military benefit of foreign support for his country’s global ambitions. Fair enough and we might too, in his shoes. But that shouldn’t stop us from thinking about the military we need, and I’d suggest that doesn’t include a large army capable of sustaining intensive operations in far-flung parts of the world. The failure to think about this has encouraged successive governments to salami-slice the capability, rather than focus the budget where it can best be used. The present government has got the message about army size, but it’s taken so long that our navy and air force have serious capability gaps that won’t be fixed overnight; and that fix needs clear, strategic purpose that can be sold to politicians and electorate if it’s to happen.

Ace Rimmer

Despite being a great believer in strong defence, my thoughts recently have focussed on Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund which is projected to hit $1 trillion by 2020, not bad for a country with a population of just over 5 million. Compare this to the UK where our Government squandered our North Sea oil revenues on low taxes (election bribery) and being a major global military power.

Norwegian pensioners have their future somewhat catered for, what age will my children and grandchildren have to work until to pay for the excesses of my generation in being a ‘major partner’ of the US?

Is it time to curb our global aspirations and save up for the future?

It is easy to dismiss such comments as just political spin by a US politician.
Unfortunately for our egos, whilst most of US commentators are political appointees, Robert “Bob” Gates famous for being a (frankly, “the”,) non-political expert who actually knows what he is talking about.

You might disagree with him, (I know I do at times,) but he is always worth listening to, and I would strongly advise anyone not to just dismiss what he has to say.

Our high unit cost becuase of UK specific requirments is not in iteself an indicator of waste. It is an indicator that a lot of our local procurement partners have been falling off the curve in terms of specifying capable kit that they actually expect to use against serious opposition. So we have been forced to buy in boutique quantities – which obviously costs.

What we need to do is partner with countries that have a similar outlook in terms of ‘fightyness’ and who will place value on the high end technology that we can bring to the table. In this context the industrial partnership with Japan is excellent news. And the interest being shown by various (non European) navies in Seaceptor also points the way. Remember that seaceptor shares much of its functionality with Seaviper which was the ‘gold plated’ UK requirement that caused us to leave the Franco-Italian Destroyer project.

If we can only get an Astute Class into front line service I am sure we could at least have a serious conversation with the Australians about leasing a couple down there to help them keep an eye on the Chinese subs. And could the South Koreans be persuaded to try a similar deal? That’s maybe a batch of 6-8 Astutes to keep Barrow busy either before, after or instead of Successor.

So its not all bad. But we need to raise our eyes from the tired old european perspective and look further afield. Strategic alliance with Embraer to develop our next Fast Jet maybe? Or at least an STO-SRVL utility plane. To go on the QEC class carrier we sell them (hopefully #3 not #2 but you never know).

Our next armoured vehicle needs to be a medium weight 8×8 for the Adaptable Force but next time we replace our heavy armour shouldn’t we be partnering with the most innovative desinger out there? Israel? I can hear the howls of outrage from the Gruniad readers already but why re-invent the wheel when you can get big economies of scale by co-operating?


I don’t think anyone is dismissing what he has to say, it’s just that the general public do not see him the say way as defence or political commentators do.


Also, we’re in this mess thanks to being a major partner of the US….


“Our next armoured vehicle needs to be a medium weight 8×8 for the Adaptable Force but next time we replace our heavy armour shouldn’t we be partnering with the most innovative desinger out there? Israel?”

Considering one of our best export markets has always been Arab countries in the Middle East, is this really a wise idea?


@PE – You make excellent point about looking further afield than Europe for defence industrial partners.

That said, I think ideas of selling Astutus to Australia and South Korea are unlikely. Australia doesn’t have the budget or the national infrastructure to support (even leased) SSNs. South Koreas needs are better served by SSKs (it’s rather a shame we stopped trying to build them).


Back on topic, Chris blog post cover many good points. The biggest threat is undoubtedly further reductions in the defence budget – Are we reaching a point that we need to deliberately prioritise some parts of the forces over others?

The Americans manage to sell to both the Israelis and the Arabs.

Besides we won’t be shopping for Challenger and Warrior replacements any time soon so its a bit accademic at the moment. The Middle East could look very different in 15 months time, never mind 15 years!

The point is that our budget probably does allow us to operate as a world power, but to do that we need to think as a world power and not as only an appendix to NATO or the EU.

The British public would be more inclined to pay for defence if thay saw us out in the wider world branded as Team GB and not just engaged in normal jogging next to Uncle Sam or blowing large sums on Grand Projets with Airbus and Finnmechanica.


Are we reaching a point that we need to deliberately prioritise some parts of the forces over others?

Isn’t that what the defence reviews are supposed to do. Assess and manage threats and decide a policy to meet them?


There’s quite a difference between flogging standard kit to both the Israeli’s and the Arabs, and teaming up with the Israeli’s on the development work. The lessons of Georgia will stick in the memory.

FRES is set to eventually replace the Mastiff in the armoured brigades. Warrior will be the next stage. And eventually Challenger will go to.

Gloomy Northern Boy

@Mike Wheatley – I agree – I heard the interview, and thought Bob Gates both measured, and friendly towards the UK…although concerned for the future, especially of the Royal Navy as I understood him: I could find little to object to in what he said, although he might of been a little hyperbolic (although nothing like as much as some of the alphabet soup are sometimes!)

Turning to the slight anti-American tinge of some of these comments I can’t help observing that at least as many peoples and countries out there hate us and would do us harm as they would the Cousins…and not because of anything we have done in the last twenty or thirty years; more because of what we have done on our own account since about 1500…how exactly do we backtrack on our entire post-medieval history? Answers on a post-card please!

The world at large mostly views us with an odd mixture of envy, loathing and grudging respect…and it is in our own interest to keep up that last, not least by keeping up our ability to deploy extreme and remorseless violence from time to time…




‘Turning to the slight anti-American tinge of some of these comments’

Was there?


Robert “Bob” Gates famous for being a (frankly, “the”,) non-political expert who actually knows what he is talking about.

Only thus famous among people who don’t remember his completely wrongheaded analysis of Gorbachev’s glasnost policy (short form: Gorbachev was a hardline Communist, the whole glasnost reform was a trap to fool the West into disarming, upon which Gorbachev would declare war, etc.)

It’s true that the range and depth of our military capability is much reduced, but there is nothing like the clear and present threat to our borders from other European powers that there was for most of the 20th century.

A good point. The UK defence budget in 1980 – in the middle of the Cold War – was £11.4 billion. That’s about £37 billion today, adjusted for inflation. Making the case for defence spending now really requires one to have a very good answer for why, despite the fact that the Warsaw Pact no longer exists and there is apparently no conventional threat to the UK at all, defence spending has dropped only very slightly, to £33.4 billion.
Now it’s true that other department budgets have risen a lot in real terms – but you’d expect them too. The population is bigger. There are more people getting sick, more kids to educate and so forth. But Britain hasn’t changed size, and the threat that we need to defend against has diminished hugely. So…


“1998 cut the escort fleet to 32 units, 2010 cut it to 19
1998 cut the SSN fleet to 12, 2010 confirmed it’s cut to 7
1998 cut fast jet squadrons to 18, 2010 cut them to 7
The 2010 SDSR also stated clearly that the maximum one-off effort under the defence planning assumptions is now just two thirds of what was done in Iraq in 2003.”

But we have two carriers three times the size of their predecessors on the stocks, the SSNs are a third larger, the escorts are significantly larger and much more capable, the fast jets and PGMs light-years more capable, the ISTAR fleet went from 10 to 25+ platforms, the amphibious capability was completely regenerated, we have both strategic air and sealift for the first time since the mid-70s, we have transformed (mostly through UORs) infantry firepower and protected mobility – and probably a lot more.

Oh and we fought two long and expensive wars, mostly at the behest of uncle Sam.



So have everybody else’s. That line gets trotted out on a regular basis but force structures have not declined anywhere near as fast outside western Europe and in many places they are now expanding.

So how are we threatened by this – you mean China, India – emerging economies? Are we in an Edwardian arms race with these guys? The Pacific is another issue, and its perhaps inevitable that an economically empowered China will want to achieve regional hegemony, as the US did in the Americas. Its a big issue for Pacific rim states. In the Middle East and Africa we are not in a conventional arms race, we are dealing with an Islamic revival who’s main weapon apart from a potentially nuclear Iran is terrorism. Europe is not on the front line of an imminent conflict any longer. It needs to project force, but also recognize that the world has changes – economic power is much more evenly distributed globally than even 20 years ago and some sort of European arms race with the BRICs is unwarranted in security terms, would be economically suicidal and probably politically dangerous.

Nuclear deterrent is critical, and very much a brilliant economy for the very worst case ‘world turned upon its head in a moment’ contingencies. Right now our preoccupation must be radical Islamism on our doorstep and along Europe’s borders, and where it threatens our trade and energy security, with a weather eye on helping out if things do go wrong far away – i.e. being able to chip in at intercontinental ranges. I worry about an ISIS run Iraq and Syria, not the Chinese fleet sailing up the Thames estuary, at least not yet ;).


Mike Wheatley wrote:

“Bob” Gates famous for being a (frankly, “the”,) non-political expert who actually knows what he is talking about.

Yes, he knows whereof he speaks, but some of his conclusions are formed by assumptions that are in US interests but not ours – no more than the interests of Cuba were identical with those of the USSR (cf Angola). Military action is costly in lives and material; we should only prepare for it with that in mind and in our own interests.

There’s nothing anti-American about this observation (GNB). It’s about national interest, in as hard-headed a manner as that employed by US foreign policy.


It’s in the US interest that the UK has certain military capabilities.

It is not in the US interest if the UK, or anyone else in Europe, has too much in the way of certain military capabilities.

It is always in the US domestic interest to moan about either of the above and the contribution of US allies to ensuring global freedom.


a. The UK was spending 4% GDP on defence in the 1980s. That’s about £65 billion today.



UK defence has not been based on “threats” since 1990, it is now based on influence, global power, our place in the world etc etc. The problem is that the ability to generate force has not kept up with either the rhetoric or the strategy derived from the rhetoric. Worse than that the threat has actually escalated since 1998- Russia is rearming at impressive pace and large tracts of the middle east are either ablaze or close to it.

Claiming that the “threat” has diminished when the policy is one of power projection is just facile denial.

Finally, the continuing approach of some here of attacking the person and his country rather engaging with the point of his argument (and the facts I posted earlier which back it up) is very depressing indeed and just underscores why the UK can not have a rational and productive debate about it’s defence policy.


I think they use the risk assessment jargon now, rather than threats (the US still conducts an annual Global Threat Assessment) – but they mean the same thing… The SDSR underpinned by a National Security Risk Assessment (a threat assessment, in other words) – you can read it here Fact Sheet 2: National Security Risk Assessment [PDF] – Gov.UK



At the moment the UK is apparantly tentatively recovering from a recession, the cost of living is a problem for the average household so is finding a school place for their children and quality care for their older relatives.

We are just about to withdraw our armed forces from Afghanistan after just over a decade of involvement in the Middle East which began with a war that split the public opinion, this then tainted the involvement in Afghanistan in the public eye as they just viewed them as one of the same, regardless of the fact that Afghanistan had legal UN backing.

The public in general do not see any benefit for the blood and treasure spent in those to campaigns, coupled with the perception of armed forces being under equipped for the tasks asked of them. There is also a general war weariness within the country and the belief by some that we were riding on the coat tails of the Americans.

If I was a politician on News Night with the brief of getting the UK public to buy into defence, I would not want Gates sat beside me arguing the same using terms like ‘military power’ and ‘reliable ally’. especially when our defence posture is that of intervention and power projection.

You are preaching to the converted on this site, unfortunately we do not club together to pay for the defence budget and set the policy.



That is a quaint opinion you hold. However, SDSR10 was driven by finance and nothing else.


Yes, I agree with you there. The SDSR theoretical process inevitably gets overturned by political expediency.


The UK was spending 4% GDP on defence in the 1980s. That’s about £65 billion today.

Yes, but that may not be the right comparison to use. Why should defence spending be compared to economic size rather than to the size of the threat? If there was a sudden increase in the threat, wouldn’t we want to increase defence spending?

UK defence has not been based on “threats” since 1990, it is now based on influence, global power, our place in the world etc etc

We should probably stop calling it defence spending then.



Certainly should stop calling it defence spending. “Global Influence” spending or “Justification of UNSC veto seat” spending would be more appropriate.

Mike W


“Things may be bad Derek, but they are not that bad”


“but I still maintain things are not as bad as some would have us believe either.”

Really, TD?

Even when you consider that during the Libyan conflict in 2011, RAF fast jets (Tornadoes and Typhoons) were forced to make a 3,000-mile round trip from the UK in order to intervene against Gadaffi’s forces? Not to mention that awful Heath-Robinson we had to cobble together involving Apaches on board HMS Ocean. What a lash-up! All simply because of an absence of ships from which to launch planes. Things not that bad?



The issue is not whether to UK completes the tasks it is able to undertake, it is whether it is able to complete a sufficient range of tasks so as to justify its claims of military might. It is the contraction of military force that limits the options of politicians. Stating that, only through some rather shambolic arrangements as Mike W pointed out, the UK was able to complete a relatively simple task only acts to mask reality. Especially as it is clear that without US support Britain and France would have seriously struggled.

I would also dispute the “Britain has been diminishing for decades claim”, there was certainly a period of sharp contraction through to the mid-60s but things were actually quite stable after that until the 90s (arguably picking up in the 80s). The last 15-20 years have seen incredible contraction. As I pointed out earlier, 40-45% since 1998 alone. The UK Force Structure is becoming small by global standards, the RAF for instance is now not much larger than the RAAF.

There is also a difference between ‘contraction’ and “realignment”. Some capabilities have contracted, especially if you want to play a numbers game rather than capability (i.e. measures of military effectiveness by how many men and bits of kit we have, rather than by what they can do). Just like John Nott’s infamous defence spending review in 1979, in 2010 – faced with a financial black hole and the need to balance the books – Hammond made precisely the wrong call at the wrong moment – and chopped Harrier and carriers.

However, there has also been a lot of realignment that has shifted the emphasis and explains some of the contraction in ‘traditional’ capabilities – fast jets, heavy metal, escorts etc. We have had to get up to speed on ISTAR, and that has taken a lot of resources, we have had to get more strategic lift, and have an entire infantry force that than continuously field at very high end readiness with the best quality equipment and weaponry, we have had to massively improve defensive aids, ECM and EOD and protective mobility/air mobility capabilities to meet modern threats, and invest in upgrading SF and many more and better PGMs. You could not have put any of our 1998 RAF fleet into Afghanistan without huge spends on targeting upgrades, PGMs, ISTAR, ECM and other defensive aids.

Inevitably the costs of going from low-level to very high tempo operational mode has moved the emphasis from having ‘numbers’ in non-theater ready mode to making sure that those people and systems are actually up to the task. There will also be a lull after such an intense period of combat operations while we regroup – even the US has to take a breather after Vietnam and set budgets settle down before it embarked on a major expansion and re-equipment programme in the 1980s.

I’m not sure that thinking about ‘military might’ as sort of national prestige argument – really cuts the mustard. Its economic might that it is the determinant, and we need to get that on track whilst maintaining a capacity to meet imminent threats to our security, defend our national interests overseas and meet our international commitments (in that order).

Mike W

Surely, the point is, TD, as Chris.B states:

“The best defence against such problems is to hedge your bets and retain at least a strong core of military capability. In the UKs case, that core has rapidly declined since the end of the cold war. It is still capable of slotting into an alliance and providing a significant contribution, but even that contribution is gradually dwindling and will dwindle even more when the impending cuts kick in.

This, in a roundabout way, probably represents the biggest threat to the UK going forward; being caught short when something big kicks off. We have allies, including the most powerful military in the world, but even allies have their limit.”


“The last 15-20 years have seen incredible contraction. As I pointed out earlier, 40-45% since 1998 alone.”

Yes, quite, Derek, and I find that a frightening contraction.



I find that the most depressing part of the whole thing. Instead of an admission and then rational debate of the reality of the situation we get denial and whataboutery from the MoD and defence reviews that hide the true consequences of their cuts in small print and ambiguity whilst not taking any serious look at UK strategy.



You are flogging the same dead horse you were earlier. Outside of Europe effectiveness has gone up at the same rate (if not faster) but without such a rapid contraction in force structure. The idea that there has been a massive realignment towards ISTAR is something of mirage, two squadrons of Reapers and the 6 shadows in No.14 squadron hardly cover the loss of 1 of 7 E-3s (and not fully upgrading the remainder) and the entire MPA fleet- for instance. Air mobility is also declining with the A400M now the replacement for the C-130J rather than a supplement, the list goes on and on and on. And then there is the MoD’s own hidden admission from SDSR10, the maximum UK effort under the new defence planning assumptions is just two thirds of the 2003 effort for Iraq.

We also need to understand that many economies have been growing faster than ours. Not just China, Russia and India and Brazil, but Canada and Australia and the Mexican, Turkish, Indonesian and African economies have been on a growth surge (albeit driven by an extractives boom). Europe and the USA have been in economic deep freeze. Its that growth that has allowed those countries to spend more upon defence. Now China and the extractive industry led economies are cooling down, and the USA and UK, at least, beginning to recover. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure we have to get used to a world where their are far more players in the future.



That is the point. The UK is falling down the global economic tables, and that is eating into Britain’s ability to maintain the global power that it’s political class crave which is precisely why a genuine debate needs to be had.


I agree, reality is a harsh steward, So what do you mean by a genuine debate? That we either spend our way into a great power status, by either cutting social spending and investment in UK infrastructure or by running a massive deficit that will impair economic growth, or get used to being Sweden?

Not a Boffin

James F – just as a point of order, I’m reasonably sure it was Dr Fox who made the call on withdrawal of Ark Royal and more importantly the Harriers. It wasn’t “carriers” per se that were withdrawn, it was the f/w aircraft which made them “aircraft” rather than “helicopter” carriers. Had the two-fleet fast jet decision not been made and/or Harrier retained, then I suspect you’d have seen Ocean withdrawn vice Ark, albeit at the penalty of an increased op cost.

NaB – yes, you are correct of course.

On ISTAR, I make it 6 shadow, 3 Airseeker, 5+5 reaper, 5 sentinel, 57 Watchkeeper (soon), 14 scaneagle and a lot of Desert Hawk and Black Hornet and other micro odds and sods. There are also around 5 UK based CT platforms – Defender etc.

Yes, the trade off has been replacing Army Gazelle and nimrod R1, loosing the type 22s and cancelling the MRA4 – but its a whole lot more capable of supporting the actual operations we have been engaged in and monitoring real and persistent threats – terrorists and insurgents.


Has Dr Fox been executed for his shambolic running of our defence yet?
Wasn’t he the chap that took poor advice from his Australian friend?
Isn’t that treason?



I too am a bit confused by the genuine debate statement, do you mean we should have the capability to defend our interests? or to have the capability of global policeman?

I Personally believe a lot of ‘our interests’ would not need defending if we spent money on resilience and energy security/efficiency.

If someone wants to block trade to Britain then by default they would be harming someone else as well, we are a global economy.


You are a bit confused there jamesf,

Airseeker, Sentinel, and Watchkeeper are all direct replacements for legacy (Cold War) systems or are from Cold War requirements. They are not additions. All the other stuff is a very small investment.

re debate, that is precisely the debate the UK needs.


@ Derek We are focusing on reductions and size of force but what could we have done pre 1998 that we can not do now, and what can we do now that we couldnt do in 1998 and what will we be able to do in 2020 that we cant do now or pre 1998. If we speant more money what would we be able to do. looking at iraq, sure we could send less jets, but was there any point in sending any of our fast jets in 2003? Why the hell did we have tornado f3s out there! In kosovo could we do more now with typhoon and storm shadow than we could of done at the time. In libya pre 1998 what would could we have sent? If we had not reduced forces since 1998 would it have helped us in afganistain?



Correct, the RAF had to lose an aircraft type and the Navy had to effectively half it’s flat-top fleet so it was just a question of whether those flat-tops would fly Harriers or just rotary. The Navy argued that Harrier could fly from Carriers and the RAF argued that Tornado was a far more capable strike and ISR platform- the RAF won.


‘re debate, that is precisely the debate the UK needs’

We have enough to defend our interests now, are you saying we should have more? and for what reason?

I should shut up now, too much posting and need to get on with the real world… but on the debate, isn’t that a version of the same debate we have been having as a nation since 1945, our declining place in the world, and I have seen much of that world and been grateful and gratified to be British in it. I’m 53 and old enough to have done my basic training at BRNC when we had to switch off the power for 2 hours a day to save electricity during the winter of discontent in the late ’70s and Seacat was still randomly taking up useful space on most of Her Majesties ships. The world has changed rapidly in the past 15 years and a lot of powers have caught up, but I don’t think we are ready to switch the lights off on UK PLC again just yet.



Except that is not how it works. As explained multiple times above UK defence is not really defence at all. It is really closer to offence and is intended to make Britain look like a great power. Clearly it is increasingly incapable of doing that. The debate should thus be about what Britain’s “interests” actually are and how much it really wants to be a great power.



I think the days of the UK strutting about looking like a great power are coming to a close. Too many economies of the world are beginning to catch up, and as Iraq showed us looking like a great power and being capable of supporting the window dressing are two very different things.

You also need to carry the public with you and there is not many of the gun boat diplomacy generation left who took it as a given that the UK was a great power within the world and therefore did not begrudge paying for the privilege.

I would much prefer to be capable of supporting a well equiped and trained battlegroup than a hollow brigade that struggles to get out of the barracks.


The Daily Mash contributes to the debate:

“UK defence secretary Philip Hammond insisted the cuts would make the armed forces more efficient at a wide range of utterly stupid and pointless things. He added: “When America invades China, Britain will be there with the helicopter, Tank 1 and Tank 2 and, of course, HMS Ship.””


Class, absolute class.


‘It is really closer to offence and is intended to make Britain look like a great power.’

But isn’t looking like great power and not being able to back up the window dressing what got us into trouble in Iraq? sooner or later someone will call your bluff. I would rather the world know that we can deploy a well equipped and trained brigade and support it for a very long time than say on paper that we can deploy a division but in reality it struggles to get out of the barracks.

The generation of buying into gun boat diplomacy are nearly gone and the generations that have followed no longer see the real need for it, plus there are a lot more countries out there that are no longer scared of the white mans magic.

In addition the concept of intervention and reach has only been our policy since the end of the first Gulf war before that we were a completely defencive force structured to fight an invasion of Europe ( we did have some expeditionary capability but that was a much smaller percentage of the armed forces )


David Niven,

And that is precisely why we need a debate, it seems to have passed you by but I have not actually taken a position on this topic- merely pointing out that the UK needs to have the conversation and make some hard choices. You appear to be assigning me a position I have not taken.

Also, gunboat diplomacy over? You should send that memo to the Chinese, Japanese, Americans, Phillipines, Syria etc. It would probably come as something of a surprise to Gaddafi and Bin Laden too if they were not so dead.


Except that is not how it works. As explained multiple times above UK defence is not really defence at all. It is really closer to offence and is intended to make Britain look like a great power.

Of course it’s defence! Our economy is global, this demands global engagement. Simple as that – there is no getting away from it at all.

Absolutely nothing has changed for the UK since we were kicked out of France in the 1400s. Scales are different but that’s it. To say that defence is not defence because we operate away from our shores is a myopic argument in the extreme.


‘You appear to be assigning me a position I have not taken.’

That appears to be true, I apologise. What is your position?

Gun boat diplomacy was just referring to the position that we are no longer able to just rock up somewhere and our mere presence is enough to change the situation, a credible use of force requires us to be able and willing. Gaddafi and Bin Laden would probably say ‘you only got me with help from your mates’

I forget who offense was the best form of defence – probably had something to do with American football.

Hackers in Shanghai, AQ cells in Lahore, Iranian’s buggering with our oil supply – they all need to be defended against.


In addition the concept of intervention and reach has only been our policy since the end of the first Gulf war before that we were a completely defencive force structured to fight an invasion of Europe ( we did have some expeditionary capability but that was a much smaller percentage of the armed forces )

I should really clarify that I was referring to our recent history after the pulling back from empire in the years following the second world war.

Gloomy Northern Boy

I’m a simple-minded sort of chap and I formed most of my opinions about human nature knocking about various rather lively (although remorselessly Gloomy) northern towns over the years, and my unshakeable conclusion was that if you do not retain the ability to piss on the other blokes chips he will most assuredly piss on yours…and if you have any previous form on chip pissing contests, announcing that you have withdrawn from the contest and are now a herbivore keen to enjoy a quiet life you will have wet chips, a pint occupied by the contents of other peoples sinuses, and a neat turd on your bar(stool!)…

We spent the better part of 500 years spoiling other people’s post pub supper, and need to remain realistic about the consequences of our reputation…



I don’t think that any one is arguing for disarmament just an acknowledgement that we are not quite as powerful as we once were.

The defence budget is adequate to provide pretty decent armed forces, with a strategic reach. It’s just not been spent/managed too wisely in the past.


GNB – ref reputations – other nations’ perceptions of our ability to project power will undoubtedly have an effect. Our seat on the UN Security Council being earned by our reputation as a militarily strong but tempered nation. In latter years CASD has upheld to a greater degree the reputation for massive military capability wielded with extreme restraint, even while the conventional force is shrunk to three gliders, a couple of trawlers with shotguns in the wheelhouse and a platoon of the Home Guard. Our reputation as a seriously credible military opponent is hanging on a very thin thread.

Up until the 1980s, from your favourite period of British history onwards, the British military have been as fighty as the best of nations. The Navy was able to put up credible force against the Spanish Armada and the French fleet at the Nile and Trafalgar, and was still equal to the task against Germany in both World Wars. The Army had always been strong; their battle honours ranging from Crécy to the Falklands via Agincourt, Poitiers, Waterloo, the Western Front, Normandy. The RAF in its short history had shown itself capable of meeting and beating its enemy forces in the most difficult of times.

Once the Iron Curtain crumbled though, our politicians have been revelling in the fact they could rape the defence budget for vote buying; oh – sorry, social care programmes. The voting public had been told that the threats had gone, there was finally going to be peace sweetness & light, no need for the military budget to be so large, the peace dividend would pay for better healthcare, better schooling, better benefits, (more votes). With the exception of CASD the military has been paired and squeezed and downsized and made ‘more efficient’ – although for efficiency read cheaper as politicians have such tiny narrow minds they only understand the cost of things, not their value. Without CASD I fear the UK forces would be seen as a local defence militia with a once great history.

But what effect on international standing and our nation’s security? Clearly from the outside looking in, the ability to defend ourselves, our allies and our interests is a significant part of the nation’s status. There is no doubt Britain will be becoming less Great in the eyes of others. But the effect on national security is not simply proportionate to the strength of the military – do we see Denmark, Portugal, Albania all being taken by foreign military? On the other hand we do see military action sporadically against Israel and against Russia, neither noted for their military weakness. The risk to the nation of a reduced military is that if military action is needed then we may do badly. The entire problem circles around that ‘if’. If the nation can find alternate ways to ensure we are under no military threat, to ensure we can support our allies, to ensure British interests around the globe are secure, then a viable military may be seen to be unnecessary. Thus far I determine no such alternate measures being constructed. So I am in agreement – the continued underfunding of the military (and considerable inefficiency of the use of the funds) has reduced our ability to defend that which we value.

As this is a serious website devoted to serious discussion of serious matters, I will use as an analogy a nursery tale (which might be at a level even politicians can understand): Remember the three little piggies? Building their houses of straw and sticks and brick? When the bad wolf came and huffed and puffed they all ran to the well defended brick house to keep safe. Western Europe has for a long time reduced its military capability – some more and faster than others – each pointing to their neighbours and using the neighbour’s ever smaller expenditure to justify their own reduction in spend & capability. UK, France and to a lesser extent Germany & Italy had dragged behind this race to the bottom – so while much of Europe was busy creating straw houses out of their military (looked like a military but would withstand little), those with slightly more military capability were seen as guarantors of European security – the timber houses of defence, someone to run to when the straw defence nations felt in need of allies. Ultimately through NATO the US Brick Outhouse of a defence machine was tacitly assumed to be on hand to defend little Europe when things turned really ugly. What now though? Our timber house defence is little stronger than the straw defences of Europe minor, and there are clear signs the US brick house is neither as strong as we knew it once to be, nor will it remain unerringly available for Europe to rely on for defence. What will happen now when the big bad wolf comes?

Gloomy Northern Boy

Time for a TD Storybook – with lovely pictures of big grey ships (RIP @X)…


All Politicians are the Same
All Politicians are the Same

@ Chris

Luckily the World has a huge shortage of Wolves then.


@ Chris,

One thing worth remembering is that our military size has fluctuated greatly over the years. It expanded and shrank as the threat from abroad did so. The army and Navy that defeated France and Spain in the early 1800’s cost a lot of money and as soon as the threat passed the spending went down. Large, manpower intensive ships like Victory would often find themselves laid alongside during times of peace (which was a little easier then thanks to the “commonality” of ships, both miliitary and marine).

It’s been this way for centuries.

My understanding of why the defence budget has been slashed in recent years is that we spent trillions buying bankrupt banks and printing money to prop up the western economy and avoid (quite successfully) 1930s-style mass unemployment – or am I missing something?

Mike W


You are right in essence but I am going to make some (quite serious) qualifiers.

If you are implying that the defence cuts have been made for immediate (short-term) economic or financial reasons rather than because of a dimunition of the threats, then of course you are are absolutely right. If it had not been for the economic crisis, we would have made few (if any) cuts.

However, if you are exonerating the last administration from the entire blame and rationalising it all by apportioning the blame wholly to bankers (as immoral as some of them were), then you are sadly wrong. That was the Government which raised public spending by 60% over a decade, when we growing at a rate of less that a third of that. Hence a large reason for the problems.


@MikeW: I think you mean @Jamesf :-)


@Mike W link to data please!

Mike W


Yes, apologies to you, wf. I was trying to write the comment quickly, as I am hellishly busy today. Sorry!

Religion and politics – generally off limits for me. But no, I was not exonerating anyone – it was a global clusterfuck.

The point is that the current malaise is more a product of recent events than the so-called ‘peace dividend’ post Cold War.

Our economy and the level of threat are the primary political factors that make up defence budgets. When both are low, then its not surprising its hard to get funds allocated.

What is interesting (and very gratifying) is that this government had upped investment in core infrastructure – rail especially, and I can only think that this is targeted at longer term sustained economic growth. Some think tank suggested that our economy would outstrip Germany by 2030 recently (albeit largely due to greater population growth in the UK).

Times will change, the key is to maintain core capabilities to regenerate if required. If we were walking into the next world war with ours eyes shut I would be the first to demand more defence spending. But for me, its the fragility of our economy that is the main threat just now, then we can be in a position to do more globally.


@Jamesf @mikew @zaitsev

Hello I’m a regular (non-specialist) reader here, but this is the first time I’ve posted.

As ever in politics there are lies and damn lies and statistics which politicians love to use to obscure the “truth”. Government spending levels. take a look at this graph (created from government data)

The real picture isn’t nearly as clear as commentators tend to state it is. It seems to me Defence spending has been cut as the Government has higher priorities (right now) in terms of things its spending on than Defence, while simultaneously trying to cut the amount we borrow (compared to the amount taxation generates) in the middle of a long (5+ years and going) period of negative and low growth in GDP.

The economic situation now doesn’t appear any worse in terms of Government spending and tax revenue as a % of GDP today than it was in middle of the early 1980’s recession (which I think was a much harder recession than the current one). In fact if you were to plot this graph in terms of GBP amounts, it would be clear that we have nationally held government spending in GBP amount at a similar level to in 2007, but that the total value of the economy has got smaller due to the recession.

Actually, I think there’s a pretty good case to argue that its the 1990s (with high North Sea Oil tax revenue) which are the anomalous years and that the economy has now reverted back to pre-oil days in terms of the gap between spending and tax revenue.


MikeW – was not a party political point I was making (religion and politics being private matters, for me at least), more that its a long time since the end of the Cold War, and harking back to that era (or even pre-9/11) is not really useful. In 2008 we had enormous but probably poorly thought out overseas commitments (I was posted to the Embassy in Kabul and can testify to strategic incoherence), and then the economy melted. That’s where we are.

Defense budgets have gone up and down under both main political parties since 1945 – suggesting its more a function of the threat, our economic status and our ambitions to do stuff overseas. Obviously there was a downward trend as a proportion of GDP in the immediate post-war period, which accelerated during the sterling crisis in the late ’60s early ’70, and again since 1990, and again since 2008. But proportionally defence spending went up after Korea and the Falklands and in the late 1990s/early 2000s too.

Mike W


Ah, have finally found a few moments to reply.

You could choose from quite a few data sources to discover by just how much public expenditure grew under Labour between 1997 and 2010.

How about the Institute for Fiscal Studies document “Public Spending under Labour” – 2010 Briefing Note No 5, (published by the Nuffield Foundation), which states:

“Spending on public services has increased by an average of 4.4% a year in real terms under Labour, significantly faster than the 0.7% a year average seen under the Conservatives from 1979 to 1997.”

and referring to a graph, says,

“The spending line shows how much spending on public services (measured here by General Government Final Consumption Expenditure) has risen in real terms (specifically after economy-wide inflation): 54.3% between 1997 and 2007– an average increase of 4.4% a year.” (This is pre-the great economic crisis!)

Or look at: “Government-spending-taxation-and-deficits-under-labour-1997-2010” (from ‘In Defence of Liberty’), which states:

“Under Labour, spending on public services increased in real terms an average 4.4% per year, compared to the Conservative’s constrained 0.7%.”

No, the only point that I was making was that if it had not been for an immediate and very serious economic crisis (from which we are still recovering), defence spending would not have been slashed in such a draconian fashion. Do people really feel that the MOD and the Armed Services wanted to lose a carrier, 80 Harrier jump jets, Nimrod MPAs and see the Army diminished by a tenth (more recently a fifth)? It has had little to do with threats.

Many thanks for the other comments. Interesting!


@ Mike W,

While I agree that Labour over spent in government, not least all the borrowing that is hidden inside department budgets thanks to PFIs, I’m not sure quoting think tanks with a well noted conservative bias is the best way of proving that Labour were in the wrong.

This is a bit of fun, so don’t take it too seriously, but to show how our view of the world changes quite quickly, take a look at these two articles – one from 2002 (height of the tech-boom) and one from last year (bust, man, bust)

P.S apols for the grauniad, not an indication of political bias – just the first review of this very good book that came up on Google ;).

Mike W


Surely the real question to ask, Chris, is whether their figures are accurate or inaccurate. Can they be disputed?


@ Mike W,

Figures can always be disputed. Namely because most organisations have a habit of being very selective about the way they choose and present their figures.


Simon – its bad enough hooking a modem to the web (but sort of necessary) to read clever stuff or write inconsequential blah. But why on earth would you ever want to hook your fridge – worse still your house doorlocks – to the web where every Tom Dick or Huawei can fiddle with them? Imagine coming home to find all your locks recoded so your fancy e-key no longer allows you in? Or your local e-murderer having pass-codes for any property he chooses? Not for me – Luddite I may be, but idiot I’m not.