Spend on defence now or pay for it later

by Lee Rotherham

One of the little con tricks of politics is to call any type of public spending “investment”. Far too often, taxpayers’ money – whether splashed at some grand projet or sprinkled on some passing fad – turns out to lack credible analysis about what returns the spending might bring. The inflated optimism over HS2 rail is merely the latest in an ancient tradition that goes back to Nero fruitlessly scouring out the topsoil of the Corinth isthmus two millennia before any final canal.

Defence, on the other hand, is an insurance policy. It exists to deter, and to be able to smother crises if they do emerge. Like any premium, you can choose to live your life on the cheap, and gamble on never having to call your broker. But it is a high stakes approach, especially if dodgy neighbours have had plenty of time to watch you habitually leaving the doors unlocked. Of course, you can save the money and throw it all at bread and games instead – but cave panem.

This is precisely why the latest announcement from the Boris government is such good news. The 2019 Conservative manifesto already pledged to keep spending on defence at 0.5 per cent above inflation (which works out as less generous than it first appears), but the latest cash injection appears set to push the funding up to 2.2 per cent of GDP. The NATO target is 2 per cent, which few states meet: the ones that come closest tend to either sit on the Russian frontier, or share a border with a neighbour with whom they have still-simmering territorial disputes.

Even France has dipped under the threshold in recent years. To be fair, so too has the UK, once you consider some suspicious budget fiddling over the strategic deterrent and the number crunching of pensions. A further hindrance has been continued procurement mismanagement, and the fact that capability gaps have been allowed to develop that now need plugging from scratch.

So, 2.2 per cent merely gets UK defence back with its head above the water. A more secure footing ought to see that roll gradually further upwards to 3.0 per cent. Our age is one of cyber, genetics, novichok and polonium, state buy-ups and tech theft, establishment subversion, fortress building in the South China Sea, proxy agents, hostile military expansion, abrogated basic human rights, double dealing, revanchism, and asymmetry as the new norm.

Nevertheless, the UK will now enter 2021 with a pledge to expand the capability of its military, particularly the Royal Navy. This is particularly to be welcomed, given our nation’s historic global interests, role, and strategy.

Churchill’s infamous dictum about the Army being the Navy’s projectile has not been completely superseded by the fact of aviation: indeed current defence doctrine already emphasises the large proportion of global population that is littoral.

A finite number of assets even with extended reach can only physically be present in any one location at any one time, as the Iranian seizure of the Stena Impero reminded us. Vessels taken out of circulation for repairs or refits (or indeed manpower gaps) exacerbate gaps exponentially. It is unfortunate that the commitment did not come earlier, generating extra maritime presence during the Brexit transition with the UK’s increased control over its EEZ and the prospect of local challenge by illegal trawling.

Even so, the discussions that arose from how best to manage that shift, including repurposing of civilian vessels, will hopefully now stir the intellectual pot on what capacity and capabilities are needed and where in the world, from prioritising anti-submarine work in the North Atlantic GIUK gap to supporting key allies in the Pacific. That latter aspect obviously includes our core CANZUK allies, and there are fundamental geostrategic questions that arise from that conversation.

None of these observations are particularly surprising or insightful. What is remarkable is simply that these arguments have had to be so persistently, indeed stubbornly, made over the past decade merely to get back to this point. That is particularly unfortunate given that the cuts that these funds are now restoring were only ever meant to be temporary, and were recognised as being taken at risk. Let us hope that the Treasury remains educated on the many loose threads that remain.

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