Alexander Temerko is an industrialist and a Conservative Party donor and activist.
Russia is testing NATO’s resolve in the Baltic region and has increased submarine and air patrols in the North Sea to levels not seen since the Cold War. In 2014, it invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and continues to stoke a war in the eastern part of the country.
The latest ballistic missile launched by North Korea places London in striking distance. Iran continues to destabilize the Middle East, and it is questionable whether the landmark deal signed in 2015 with Tehran will truly keep it from developing a nuclear bomb.
While ISIS 1.0 seems to be on the ropes, we need to be ready for the inevitable emergence of ISIS 2.0. North Africa is increasingly destabilised and al-Qaeda is enjoying a resurgence there.
After years of defence cuts, with even more to come according to recent reports, there is a legitimate need to question the ability of the Armed Forces to keep Britain safe in this dangerous era. Are we prepared? Just as Churchill recognised before the second world war, Gavin Williamson knows the UK needs to increase spending.
Don’t get me wrong. Even with the drastic cuts in defence spending, the UK Armed Forces remain some of the most capable and respected in the world. From the fields of Helmand to the waters of the Persian Gulf to the skies above Syria, the British soldier, sailor, airman and marine has continuously shown pluck and skill under difficult circumstances.
But it takes more than the professionalism and fighting spirit of our armed forces to keep us safe: they must be backed up with the required funding and the best equipment. Right now, the defence situation in the UK is hardly ideal. If the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) cut into the flesh of the armed forces, then the 2015 SDSR cut into bone. The current spending debate could bring even more cuts to the forces.
Serious discussions are taking place about cutting or merging the Royal Marines and the Paras. Questions are being asked about the need for us—a sea-going island nation— to maintain an amphibious assault capability. Army numbers could fall even lower, making it almost impossible for the UK to field and sustain the same size force that it did in Helmand Province during the peak of the Afghan war.
Then there are the less visible, but equally important, impact of defence cuts: service accommodation remains unsatisfactory for many military families and there are fewer resources available for veterans, for example. Recruitment and retention are verging on a crisis. More service members are leaving the armed forces than are being recruited.
Yes, the UK is one of only five countries in NATO that meets the two per cent of GDP defence spending target, but this is only because NATO’s generous definition of defence spending includes items of dubious military value, such as civil service pensions.
An important aspect in the debate about defence spending that is often overlooked is the important role of the UK defence and security industrial sectors. It is time we start thinking long-term and strategically about our defence needs. Fighter jets and submarines, for example, can take years, sometimes decades, to go from drawing board to reality. I do not know what the next war will bring. But what I do know is that we’d better have the kit needed to win when it happens. This means investment now.
Not only does the defence and security industry help keep us safe, it provides significant benefits to the UK economy too. The industry directly accounts for 242,000 jobs, 7,100 apprenticeships, and a combined £36 billion in annual turnover. A strong defence and security industry also helps to improve training and skills across the UK workforce, and pushes engineering and scientific advancements to new limits. This can have a major impact outside of the defence world, too. Things we take for granted today like GPS, the internet, and major advancements in commercial aviation are technologies that first began the defence sector.
Of course, defence procurement programmes must deliver value for money for the taxpayer. Not everything for our armed forces must be produced in the UK. Sometimes, we may have to buy “of-the-shelf” military equipment from elsewhere. This is why our defence relationship with the United States is so important. As we leave the EU, and restore our sovereign ability to sign our own free trade deals, it is important that a future UK-USA trade deal includes the defence and security industry.
Additionally, investment in the defence sector, especially arms production, secures unique high-tech production capabilities, supports research and development, improves employment options and boosts the economy to the tune on twelve billion pounds a year. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute we are currently the most effective arms exporter in the world proportionally to the military costs of national budgets, and only behind USA, China and Russia in terms of the export volume.
In today’s uncertain world, this market is stable as ever and growing. If we stop being an active player, such countries as France and Germany will overtake us and, by doing so, reduce our political influence in other places such as the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
As the implications of Brexit unfold, we must not forget that after Europe our next biggest trade partner is the United States. It requires an ally with a strong military capability. If we stop investing in our military forces, we may lose America as our strategic partner and with that – after a successful Brexit – our respected position in the world.
By contrast, Russia has been keeping military spending at around ten per cent of GDP financed by a hydrocarbon budget, and it is not doing so just to show-off during V-Day Parades. Currently, its military capabilities stand at two million on-duty soliders and officers.
We know that “the nation that is unwilling to feed an army of its own will feed someone else’s”, It is also often said that the defence of the realm is the number one job of the Government, but until real money is provided to develop real capabilities, these are merely empty words bouncing around the Westminster echo chamber.
The size and capabilities of our armed forces cannot be driven solely by financial considerations. The Government has a duty to ensure that it pays proper heed and attention to the strategic circumstances facing the UK now and well into the future. Now is the time to get it right – before it is too late.