Earlier this week, Gavin Williamson signalled a major shift in Britain’s defence thinking when he told MPs that Russia now beats terrorism to the top of the national threat list.
This follows a similar move by the US where – allegations of Donald Trump’s colluding with the Kremlin notwithstanding – James Mattis, the Defence Secretary, has likewise shifted focus onto the challenges posed Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang.
Given that only a few years ago individual countries weren’t even being mentioned in Britain’s strategic defence assessments, the speed of this pivot is rather remarkable. Mitt Romney’s 2012 warning about Russia, then derided by Barack Obama, looks more prescient by the month.
As Mark Francois noted in Committee, if Williamson’s comments reflect Government thinking then that will have significant implications for future British defence spending. Meeting “the challenge of state-on-state conflict”, as the Times puts it, will require building up capabilities rather different from those needed to tackle terrorists and non-state actors. Said terrorists will still need handling, too.
Turning the Defence Secretary’s reasoning into policy would require a major shift in how the Government handles defence spending. Here is how Williamson’s approach is described in the paper: “Mr Williamson has instructed his officials to consider the threats and list the capabilities required to meet them. He would then deal with the question of how to pay for it.”
Such an approach would make shibboleths such as the two per cent NATO spending commitment redundant. Outcomes-based defence commitments would cost what they cost – if an economic slowdown led to a smaller pie, the Ministry of Defence would simply need a larger slice of what’s left.
Has the Government got the will to see such an approach through? As I wrote last month, being ‘strong on defence’ is not the vote-winner it was during the Cold War, and any public funding will be competing with feel-good electoral bribes such as a tuition fees cut. Williamson has his work cut out.
If anything, this 2018 re-think highlights the foolishness of trying to find short-term dividends from slashing defence budgets, as many Western nations did after the Cold War. A nation’s strategic capabilities can be auctioned away in short order, but take much longer to re-acquire.