Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon’s declaration that the Government should ‘aim to do better’ than its current target of spending two per cent of GDP on defence was one of the most welcome statements heard at the Conservative Conference this year. The amount of our money that should be spent on defending ourselves has been a source of heated argument throughout history, and with mixed outcomes. Had the 1981 Defence Review been implemented more speedily, retaking the Falklands would have been impossible. The ‘peace dividend’ at the end of the Cold War meant that the UK sent just one under-strength armoured division to Kuwait in 1990, achieving this only by cannibalising equipment from the other three divisions.
Under-spending is a false economy. When war looms, equipment and trained personnel cannot be conjured out of thin air. It takes time, and a great deal of money to make up the shortfall – usually considerably more money than the savings made as a result of pie-in-the-sky false assumptions. Yet our armed forces are even now bracing themselves for cuts in amphibious ships, aircraft, helicopters, and people. This at a time when, in the words of the House of Commons Defence Committee, ‘the world today is at its most dangerous and unstable since the end of the Second World War’.
Where did the figure of two per cent originate? Actually, it was not based on any scientific, strategic or economic analysis. It was dreamed up at a Nato meeting in 2006, on the basis of ‘What is the least we can get away with spending?’ Of course this ignores the fact that the defence you need is dictated by your potential enemies, not by economics. It then took eight years, until another Nato meeting in 2014, for European member nations to endorse this goal, but introduced, among other things, a ten-year deadline to meet it. No wonder the US, which contributes some 75 per cent of the cost of our mutual defence, finds its European allies so perverse.
Veterans for Britain (VfB) have always said that two per cent was not enough. So how much is enough, and how should some of it be spent? The first thing to do is immediately shift to a real two per cent, which should not include the cost of our nuclear deterrent. This used to be funded separately as a strategic asset rather than part of one of the service budgets. From this position the aim should be to achieve three per cent by the end of the next Parliament, the target being to cancel disposal of amphibious ships, provide anti-ship missiles, increase manpower, provide maritime surveillance aircraft and sufficient aircraft for the new carriers.
Protecting the North Sea and UK airspace has suffered because of budget cuts. This has allowed the Russians to penetrate our airspace and monitor our nuclear submarines as they leave the Clyde for their patrol stations. At the other end of the scale of threats, once the UK regains its fishing rights on leaving the EU, we will need to police our waters to keep would-be interlopers out. This will need more small ships for fishery protection, and more men and women to crew them – an increase in the maritime personnel budget.
We should buy British and American. Buying British supports jobs, maintains leadership in research and development, and in our strategic production capability. Buying from the US would be in the interest of securing equipment that for a number of reasons we do not/cannot produce. We could also manufacture US equipment under licence in the UK, as happened in the past in the case of helicopters. We should be wary of entering into defence procurement agreements with the EU, except when it suits us.
We realise that the UK has an excessive national debt. But defence is the first duty of any government, and cutting defence expenditure in the hope that our forces will not be in harm’s way in the foreseeable future is irresponsible. This is why we applaud Sir Michael Fallon for saying so publicly.
We are blessed with highly professional armed forces, with a ‘can do’ attitude. We have also been luckier than some of our planners deserve. Within living memory, we have escaped by the skin of our teeth from disasters such as the falls of France and Singapore, and Suez. We cannot always be that lucky. We cannot spend all our resources on health care and the wellbeing of our citizens. We need to keep them safe. We need to remember the words of Pericles: ‘Prosperity can only be for the free, and that freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.’ To which we would add, ‘and possess the means to do so’.