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Memo to the PM: Investing in defence is more important than ever


SINCE the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe has enjoyed a halcyon period of unrivalled American supremacy, but the tectonic plates of global power are shifting. America grows increasingly frustrated at Europe’s lethargy in buttressing its own borders, while China’s meteoric rise as an economic and military power has seen it assuming an ever-growing global presence. The sobering truth is we can no longer rely on the unconditional aegis of American military might to guarantee global security.   

When Bill Clinton made his speech welcoming China to the WTO in March 2000 his rhetoric brimmed with the hope that free trade would catalyse a transition from a socialist autocracy to a nation reborn with Western values: ‘The WTO agreement will move China in the right direction. It will advance the goals America has worked for in China for the past three decades . . . it is likely to have a profound impact on human rights and political liberty.’ 

Since that time, China’s one-party state has not liberalised. In fact, its incursion upon the liberties of Hong Kong is merely the latest episode in a troubling pattern of behaviour from intellectual property theft and currency manipulation to human rights abuses. Alarm bells are ringing for Western governments which are finally waking from their comfortable slumber. The Chinese Communist Party is a sophisticated state actor and one of its great advantages is the longevity of vision that autocracy affords. By contrast, Western defence priorities are often subservient to electoral pressures. 

As the spectre of China grows, the threat of Russia has not dissipated. It is true that declining oil revenues, stagnant population growth and increasingly disillusioned citizens have diminished Russia’s standing in the world. But, as a hunter in the Urals could tell you, a wounded bear is more dangerous than a healthy one. As America becomes increasingly impatient with Europe’s leaders, Vladimir Putin is unlikely to be indolent.

Finally, the persistent threat of rogue states and Islamist extremism has not gone away. The instability of debt-laden developing nations will present opportunities for terrorist networks and their state partners. The impact of Covid-19 has significantly accentuated this threat.

To complicate matters, the character of warfare itself is also shifting. Clausewitz’s famous dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means has never been more true. Hybrid warfare is not a novel phenomenon, as Elizabethan privateers and spymasters attest, but the transformation of technology means that cyber warfare, disinformation campaigns and artificial intelligence has given potential adversaries fresh avenues of attack, which they are at liberty to pursue without overtly engaging in acts of conventional warfare.

There are then a broader array of threats than ever before, which will require the full spectrum of military capabilities to guard against. What does this mean for our armed forces and how should the government approach an Integrated Review that is setting their trajectory for the coming years?

At the top of the government’s list of priorities will likely be investment in cyber warfare, satellite technology, artificial intelligence and the full suite of technologies that a nation state requires in the 21st century. This investment is undeniably necessary; cyber threats are not hypothetical but current and active. 

While addressing the exigency of the cyber threat is crucial, there is a risk of becoming too fixated upon hybrid threats and forgetting that wars, above all, are averted through overwhelming conventional capability. The Emperor Hadrian is said to have coined the maxim ‘peace through strength’; it has been adopted by leaders from Palmerston to Reagan. The cohesion of NATO, centred upon its shared values, has constituted the bedrock of global peace for over seventy years. If European nations are to reinvigorate the goodwill of the United States and restore the fabric of a fraying alliance, then we must invest in our kinetic capabilities so that potential adversaries know we present a united front with the military strength and the moral resolve to defend our shared values.

Britain’s Integrated Review must therefore ask hard questions about our ability to project force at reach into an Asia-Pacific theatre of operations. It is likely that we will see a continued investment in British carrier strike capabilities and missile technologies, as well as sub-surface capabilities. In budget terms, maritime and air are likely to be winners.

If China must know that NATO remains a strong and united alliance, then it is no less important that Russia knows this too. The British Army currently has only one fully deployable warfighting division. If we diminish this baseline capability our land forces will cease to be meaningfully useful to NATO in the context of a conventional land conflict. Rumours that regular troop numbers may be cut as low as 60,000 are equally concerning. As the world remains fixated upon Covid-19 and tensions in the East, it is more important than ever that NATO retains its vigilance in defending Europe’s eastern flank. When considering cuts to the British Army, the government needs to seriously reflect on the continued threat Russia poses. If the spectre of T-14 battle tanks rolling across the Baltic plains sounds like hawkish fantasy, we have short memories indeed. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and annexed Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Two invasions (and plenty of expeditionary activity) in just over twelve years should give us pause for thought. Given that we are bound by NATO Article 5 to respond if a NATO ally is attacked, our defence spending must underscore our shared resolve as a military alliance. It is important that Russia is in no doubt that a land grab would be a catastrophic decision.

When a broader array of capabilities needs to be created with a limited budget, something has to give. To compound competing priorities within defence, post Covid-19 debt will likely push defence spending down the list of government priorities. While the government has reiterated its NATO commitment to maintain 2 per cent of GDP on defence spending, this could still translate to severe budget cuts given a sharp drop in 2020 GDP, depending on whether the Government maintains its pledge of an annual defence increase of 0.5 per cent above inflation.

While military budgets are a perennial dilemma, a cognisance of contemporary threats has never been more important than in the Integrated Review 2020. There will inevitably be tough decisions to be made and some capabilities will be sacrificed.  But if the government desires to set out its stall as a world leading nation post-Brexit then it needs to sufficiently resource its military. In peacetime it is all too easy to forget that military power is the enduring dam between us and a torrent which could sweep away all the other goods that our nation enjoys. The dam has been dilapidated for some time. We ignore its creaking at our peril, no matter how pressing domestic budget constraints may seem.

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