So, Gordon Brown has finally admitted what every man and women in the Army, Navy, and Air Force has known for the last eight years at least – our Forces have been suffering real-terms cuts. They have been grossly underfunded.
Sir Kevin Tebbit has already said that as Permanent Secretary he was operating the Ministry of Defence under a permanent crisis budget. Geoff Hoon has admitted that the last Strategic Defence Review was not fully funded. And the Conservative Party has been arguing as much for years.
Where do we go from here?
I believe that despite the straitened financial circumstances, Britain must retain current levels of defence spending over the next parliament. There are three good reasons.
Firstly, if we do not, our military standing in the world will decline further than it already has. For centuries, our forces have been the foundation of Britain’s place as a pre-eminent power in world affairs. Over the last few years, that reputation has been slowly strangled through political neglect. Twenty years ago defence spending was 4% of GNP, now it has fallen to 2.6%. Underfunding of our armed forces has left a skeleton of what was once a feared and formidable force. We do not have enough troops. As of late 2008, the British armed forces were 3.2% below the official requirement. At various points in the last few years, many battalions are as much as 42% under strength.
This has consequences. Many in the upper echelons of the US foreign policy establishment have noted our relative decline, and fear we are losing our stomach for fighting wars. Our refusal to respond to President Obama’s call to send any more than 700 troops to Afghanistan did not help in that regard. The real-terms defence cuts have hastened our decline. It will continue, unless defence spending is ring-fenced.
Secondly, the real-terms cuts compromise our safety. Our standard of living depends in large part on our ability to defend the sea passages on which our global trade and standard of living depends. We also have to continue to be able to secure our energy and food supplies. Defence funding is more important than other departmental spending because it is about safety and guarding against dangers to our way of life; we have to identify the potential threats, and then spend to guard against them. If money can be found for bank bailouts, it can be found to pay for the continued security of our energy supplies, food supplies, and international trade. The Taleban will not fight less hard because our budget is lower than last year’s. Rather they will be encouraged to step up their pressure as they perceive us weakening.
Thirdly, real-terms cuts compromise our ability to combat unforeseen threats. Deciding defence funding based on only foreseeable threats is a dangerous mistake. The belief that spending on defence should be based only on foreseeable threats is the most dangerous kind of short-termism. Few of the wars Britain has ever engaged in, and none of the five wars since 1997, were foreseen. Nobody in 1981 expected to be fighting the Falklands war in 1982, nobody in 1989 expected to be fighting the Iraq war in 1990, and before the Second World War, Britain’s low defence budget was justified on the basis that so long as a major conflict could not be envisaged within ten years, defence spending could be kept low. When the Second World War broke out, this short-sightedness nearly resulted in catastrophic defeat and caused Britain to need to borrow heavily from the United States, as defence spending shot up to 60% of GDP. It was the falsest of false economies.
Long-term defence expenditure is an insurance policy. Just because we had no accident last year does not mean we have no need to pay it this year. The only way to ensure Britain’s safety against unforeseen threats will may arise over the life of Britain’s next Strategic Defence Review, is to ring-fence defence spending.
To argue that we can find cost-savings from procurement reforms is not good enough. They are likely, in practice, to be a drawn-out process with uncertain results. They should be factored into the Defence budget only after they are proven to be available in practice. This means not cutting the defence budget in the short-term in the hope of finding cost-savings from reform to the procurement process at some future date. If a new Strategic Defence Review is implemented within the first six months of the election, as it should be, any savings resulting from such reforms will come too late.
What is at stake is no less than the following choice. If we continue to accept real-terms cuts to the defence budget, we will experience a slow slide down to the second division of nations, and excessive risk to our national safety.
But if defence spending is ring-fenced, we may be able to continue to exercise our powerful beneficial world role, maintain our influence and respect, and above all, assure the future safety of the nation. Nothing less is at stake.