What if the UK spent less money on defence instead of more?


In the loosely themed SDSR 2015 series of posts I started with a look at the depressing inevitably of leaks, service-centric opinion pieces and general jockeying for position that has characterised every single defence review because the other inevitable result is a reduction in funding.

So begins the ritual of talking about the lack of fat and cutting into the bone, unsustainable cuts, the collapse of capability and the end of the world as we know it.

The reason for all this pain is simple, politicians and service chiefs are simply unable to reconcile their politically expedient resources with their vanity fueled desire to strut their stuff on ‘the world stage’.

This inability to make any big decisions means the time honoured method of a little haircut will be the outcome. Politicians can ride out the short term backbench displeasure about a percent of GDP here or there, throw the service chiefs a few shiny baubles like carriers or stealth jets and pretend all is well. Meanwhile, those Service Chiefs will continue to hollow out their services and kid themselves all is well as they progress towards their retirement Directorships.

The world turns and somewhere a British soldier, airman or sailor will die because of it.

I enjoy talking about defence priorities as much as the next man but a couple of nights ago I thought maybe we should stop arguing about slivers of a percentage point get back to some first principles and think out aloud whether the UK would actually benefit from less defence spending than more or even the same.

Now this might seem completely insane in light of the current belligerence from Russian and Islamic civil war across large parts of the Middle East and Africa but what threats do they actually pose, I mean really. What would be lost because of a perceived lack of prestige and influence derived from our world famous fifth largest defence budget in the world?

If we look back at what advantages accrued from our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq it is hard to put a great deal of value in the benefits column, the costs are pretty clear and service personnel and their families will be paying the price for decades to come. It might be easy to be wise after the event but looking back is supposed to support the learning of lessons. Keeping ones noses out of other peoples business might seem like some to be moral cowardice but others might see the same as prudent, wise and considered behaviour.

The 1998 SDR more or less moved the armed forces to an expeditionary stance, defence at a distance or nipping problems in the bud before they become region-wide conflagrations that threatened world stability, like, err, exactly what is happening now. It was on this basis that the F35, QE carriers, A400M, FRES and various other projects were established. The theory is sound, but it all falls apart when one looks at UK scale and the political realities of intervening without the comfort blanket of a UN resolution. Afghanistan and Iraq have dealt a massive blow to British credibility and our hard-won reputation for foreign policy adroitness and military prowess.

This is not a pacifists charter but a suggestion that a more isolationist defence policy for a period could serve this country better than the expeditionary strategy we continue to kid ourselves about.

The political consequences would no doubt be serious but so what, is this fear of a loss of prestige, status and influence more than the geopolitical and economic reality?

What would minimal self-defence look like?

First on the shopping list would be Trident, that is non-negotiable, it provides the ultimate in defence capability. Everything else would be open for debate but one could envisage a reformed defence capability consisting of a much reduced Army built around an air/sea deployable medium weight rapid response Brigade, MCM/Patrol and enough frigates to secure the SSBN’s, Typhoon and E3. Building from this baseline could be selective capabilities to provide contributions to collective defence agreements and enough to maintain the security of overseas territories.

The money left over from this significant reduction could ensure a number of things;

First; effect the change, reducing at such a radical scale would entail all manner of charges, costs, contract renegotiations, personnel and re-organisation costs.

Second; ensure that the resultant force was sustainable, well equipped and supported enough to ensure it has credibility, even at a much smaller scale.

Finally; spend it on something else, paying down the national debt, building tidal power lagoons, funding a proper apprentice scheme, investing in research & development or keeping within the security domain, improve policing, cyber security and intelligence capabilities

Not sure what percent of GDP or actual spending this would equate to, am not in the business of creating a set of figures from out of my behind, but it would be significantly less that currently, at least after the change costs have been absorbed.

Would the UK achieve greater real security from spending less on the armed forces and more on intelligence and long-term economic investments like education, alternative energy and research and development?

I honestly don’t know.

But it is worth thinking about.

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