David Davis is a former Shadow Home Secretary, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.
“Let him who desires peace prepare for war.” This motto is as true today as it was 15 centuries ago when it was coined by the Roman Vegetius.
It was on this principle that the Prime Minister called on our NATO allies to meet their two per cent of GDP defence spending requirements at the recent summit. He was right then and the Government is wrong now to consider cutting defence. Such a course of action would be catastrophic for Britain’s defence, for our foreign policy, and for our national prestige.
Vladimir Putin, following his annexation of the Crimea and his progress in Ukraine, will know the second half of Vegetius’s maxim: “No one dares to offend or insult a power of known superiority in action.” He will be viewing the weakness of the West with scorn, as we speak loudly while carrying a very small stick.
Just as Britain is more influential, as NATO’s leading member in Europe, than our size would dictate, so our weakness will be commensurately symbolic. The simple fact is that our armed forces need greater funding, greater political support and thorough reform merely to maintain our current military capabilities. Even Philip Hammond’s promise that we will not cut the size of the army any further is not good enough: we need as a minimum to reverse the cuts already made this Parliament.
The world is as dangerous as it has ever been. The failed foreign policies of the Western nations, especially the US, have resulted in widespread Islamic insurgency in the Middle East, a belligerent Russia flexing her muscles on the borders of Europe, and China pressing her territorial claims in Southeast Asia.
Our armed forces, starved of funds since the early 1990s and war-weary after long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, are as vulnerable as they have been for generations. Our ability to fight a conventional war, rather than the anti-insurgency asymmetrical conflicts which have become the norm over the last two decades, is minimal. And worst of all, our ability to even operate independently in support of an ally is on the verge of disappearing.
As General Raymond Odierno, the US army Chief of Staff, recently stated, it has been a long-standing assumption of US military planning that Britain could deploy troops with accompanying fighter aircraft and naval vessels without relying on American forces. However, the current state of our armed forces suggests that such operations may be beyond us.
Even our operations in Iraq were just a small cog in the American machine, with tasking decisions being US-dependent.
Regular forces across all three branches have fallen below 160,000. The number of army regulars is due to fall to 80,000. We can now field fewer main battle tanks than Switzerland, and have fewer active RAF squadrons than at any time throughout the Cold War, at a time when Russia is making near daily incursions towards our airspace.
The Royal Navy, the senior service, is a shadow of its former glory with surface ships cut to a fraction of their former number. Britannia struggles to police the Channel, let alone rule the waves. The attempt to correct this with the new over-sized carriers is now stripping the defence budget to the bone.
This is part of a more general problem: high-end technology stretching the defence budget to breaking point. By absorbing resources from other areas, the procurement of cutting-edge technology has had the effect of limiting, rather than expanding, our armed forces’ operational capabilities. It is compounded by our “national champion” attitude to our defence industry.
The fact is that military procurement has been a farce for years. Whether it is our aircraft carriers, Type 45 destroyers, Astute-class submarines or the Eurofighter, almost every major MoD procurement project over the last few decades has been subject to lengthy delays and massive cost overruns.
We even mess up the relatively straightforward purchase of whole systems because we seem incapable of buying them off the shelf without complex and costly modifications. And we have allowed ourselves to be locked into the F-35 stealth fighter, the most expensive pork-barrel project in American history.
The MoD seems to be unable to procure even the most basic equipment within budget; the SA80, the basic rifle of the British Army, had to be redesigned by Heckler & Koch (a German defence manufacturing company) at a cost of £400 each after its “appalling” performance in the Gulf War.
We cannot continue with such extravagance. There is little point in purchasing top of the range equipment if we can’t afford enough trained personnel to deploy it. And if we have to decide between continuing to subsidise our defence industry, or maintaining the nation’s defences, then it is a simple choice. It may not be in the interests of the shareholders of BAE, but it is in the interests of the country.
It is true that budgets are being squeezed and the deficit is still the greatest political challenge. But while fiscal balance is important, it should not be necessary to remind our leaders that defence of the realm is any government’s first duty.
To maintain the operational capabilities we require it will be necessary to have a larger, but also far more flexible military force, one that can be called up on short notice if necessary, but is not maintained full time. In short, we need to dramatically expand our reserve forces. I would propose that an army size of 100,000, with the same again in fully trained reserves, should be the target.
The Government has recognised this to an extent, but has been insufficiently ambitious in scope and implementation. Under current plans reserves will account for just 35,000 troops in the Army. And even with this modest target recruitment for the reserves, and for the regulars for that matter, is far below what is projected and what is required.
The only way to realistically increase the number of reserves is to revisit what it means to be a reservist; to make it fun and convenient. The emphasis needs to be on the adventure of serving in the armed forces, appealing to those who already enjoy the sort of physical and mental challenges that military life offers.
Training for the reserves needs be far more local, using local reserves depots, rather than travelling hundreds of miles. Local reserve forces, made up of groups of friends, training together, learning together, and if necessary serving together, will be a far more effective force than disparate groups of strangers who occasionally train together.
The training required for so many troops need not be prohibitively expensive. Currently, a significant cost for the armed forces is keeping units trained – pilots need to fly, tankers need to drive. This cost could be dramatically reduced, and in many ways the quality of training improved, through much more extensive use of simulation technology. The US is starting to adopt this technology on a major scale to train its troops, and we should follow their lead.
Such reforms will help the armed forces in their ability to conduct large overseas operations independently as and when required. But we are going to have to face up to the role our armed forces need to fulfil in the future. If we want a military force that can engage abroad, then we have to fund it. That will be expensive, but nowhere near as costly as the alternative.
Many years ago I used to flinch when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, politicians would talk of the ‘peace dividend’ – as though they could raid military budgets like some piggy bank. They forgot that it was those military budgets that had delivered the years of stability, and the largely bloodless victory over the Soviets. They forgot that the real ‘peace dividend’ is peace itself.