With the forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review, or SDSR, coming up in December, Jack Mountford takes a look at the many issues surrounding UK defence spending, and how these problems can be resolved.
British troops deployed in Afghanistan: British defence spending is high enough, but the problem is, too much of it is wasted. (Photo: British Army)
Let’s be clear from the start: the United Kingdom spends a hell of a lot on defence; $61.8 billion dollars to be precise. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a respected think tank, military expenditure accounts for 2.1% of the UK’s GDP this year, placing the UK at fifth in the world for defence spending. Many, myself included, would argue that this is a perfectly reasonable amount, which need not be increased nor decreased. We are able to maintain professional and well-trained armed forces, whilst leading the world in defence research and development. As shown, this requires billions of pounds.
However, the way we spend those billions is in need of urgent reform.
According to a report published in June by the think tank Civitas, spending is not in line with newly slimmed-down budgets. Describing Britain’s defence spending as “an impossible mess”, it argues that a modern and flexible military capability “cannot be delivered by depending first and foremost on large and expensive equipment”. Case in point: the F-35 Lightning II. This jack-of-all-trades stealth jet, designed to strike at ground targets and shoot down enemy aircraft whilst evading enemy radar is being procured for use by the RAF and for the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers. The only problem is that it may well be fundamentally flawed. Burdened by an ever-growing list of requirements from each of the nine nations buying it, and with its design seemingly in conflict with the laws of physics themselves, costs have ballooned to over $400 billion. And don’t forget the extra $1 trillion required for operation over its expected five decade lifetime.
Bearing in mind that it has been defeated in mock aerial battles by 1970s-vintage aircraft, and won’t be able to fire its gun until 2019 due to software problems, I would argue that this “stealth” jet might not be the best choice for the UK. Let’s not forget as well that the aircraft carriers designed to embark these aircraft, the new Queen Elizabeth-class, will be unable to carry any jets upon delivery because the F-35 won’t be ready for service; essentially we will have a fleet of giant, empty floating airports. You could argue that this represents something of a slight issue with our defence investment.
The F-35 is emblematic with one of the core problems facing our defence procurement: a complete lack of focus.
“A process of reducing forces to support ever-smaller quantities of ever higher-performance equipment… has brought us ever diminishing returns over the last 20 years,” argues the Civitas report. In order to revitalise Britain’s armed forces, and to maintain what Defence Secretary Michael Fallon describes as a “global punch”, we must invest our money much more intelligently. Many argue that Britain spends too much on foreign aid, at the expense of our national defence. However, this need not be true. Regardless of the fact that foreign aid, which accounts for just 0.7% of our GDP, is an important moral commitment, our defence could be much more effective if we simply spent our money smartly.
As General Lord David Richards, former chief of defence staff often lamented: “We have £1bn destroyers trying to sort out pirates in a little dhow [a small boat] with RPGs [rocket propelled grenades] costing $50, with an outboard motor [costing] $100”. In a world with constantly changing and evolving threats, is it wise to diminish our armed forces with increasingly smaller numbers of expensive equipment? Civitas advocates a more attuned and tailored approach, which responds to specific threats upon their emergence. If we invest our money in this way, we will be able to more effectively combat more “asymmetric” security threats, such as fundamentalist groups like so-called Daesh (aka Islamic State). Of course, a more flexible and dynamic approach to situations such as these could be seen as more effective than dropping massive bombs on whole areas. And this flexibility would also keep us prepared for more traditional threats, such as other nations.
What Britain needs before the next SDSR is a calm and rational debate about our defence, and what we really need to perform it. Let’s hope that the government will be a bit smarter about procurement in the future.
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