Ending the warfare state: time to slash defence spending


Over the past several weeks the country has had to endure the terrible return of the kind of rhetoric we became used to under the Blair administration. Regarding the recent troubles in Mali and the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism in the region David Cameron declared with self indulgent pomposity:

‘We are in the midst of a generational struggle, we must beat them militarily, we must close down the ungoverned space in which they thrive.’

This hyperbole refers to a few thousand extremists spread across North Africa who pose absolutely no fundamental threat to the existence of the British state. 330 British military personnel are to be sent to this area of the planet which is deemed to be so vital to our national security. This comes shortly after more than a decade of wars In Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, and recently Libya. Why is it that the British state feels it so necessary to use military force all over the world so frequently despite there being no fundamental threats to its survival?

Could it be that as we are often told with pride by various government officials that our military spending – which is fourth in the world – in fact leads governments to the situation where because of the capabilities available to it, find it irresistible to search for demons to slay across the world regardless of whether the UK is facing a significant threat?

The relative ease with which the British state is prepared to intervene may also come from an undue reverence for the institution that is the military. This attitude was expressed by the former head of the army Lord Dannat when he spoke to Dermot Murnaghan:

‘What our military do around the world is in the name of you, it’s in the name of me, it’s in the name of the British people.’

This will come as news to the majority of people in this country, who opposed the Iraq war, believe we should withdraw from Afghanistan, and oppose the intervention in Mali.

Our foreign policy over the past decade has been highly counterproductive radicalising people at home and creating resentment abroad. This has not made us safer and neither will an increase in military spending after 2015.

The Strategic Defence and Security Review carried out after the coalition government came to power concluded that:

‘We face no major state threat at present and no existential threat to our security, freedom or prosperity’

Proponents of military spending attempt to justify the status quo or even increase based on the fact that the world is an uncertain place. Or worse we hear the rhetoric of our ‘global responsibilities’ quite what these responsibilities are, where they came from and how long they are supposed to last is ambiguous at best.

Another excuse often used is to ‘maintain our place in the world’. The essence of this is to spend billions of pounds for UK politicians to show off to other world leaders how quickly they could invade another country and how many people they could kill in the shortest possible time. This does nothing to improve the lives of ordinary British people unless one takes seriously the absurd arguments about the contribution this spending makes to the economy, nothing more than military Keynesianism.

The UK military is facing an 8% real terms cut in its budget over the lifetime of this parliament.  For all the howls of shame from generals and the military establishment this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of cuts that should be made to its budget.

In the Institute of Economic Affairs excellent Monograph ‘Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes Big Steps to a Smaller State’ Paul Robinson outlines how the UK’s military spending could be slashed by almost 50%.

Mr. Robinson highlights how substantial cuts could be made whilst retaining the capabilities to defend the UK from genuine threats.

Trident should be scrapped. Trident is wildly unnecessary for the UK and from a Libertarian perspective should be rejected on the grounds that its only purpose can be the destruction of vast amounts of innocent life.  The seven Astute class submarines called for in the SDSR and the fourteen mine-counter measures vessels which are largely to protect the nuclear deterrent can be scrapped saving £10-20 billion.

Cancelling the Joint Strike Fighter would save £10 billion over the next 10 years. The navy could be reduced by 20,000 sailors, the army by 40,000 soldiers and the RAF by 15-20,000 personnel. These are among the many sensible proposals made in the monograph.

Libertarians in the UK are most often heard calling for cuts in welfare programmes and other state services. Whilst entirely correct, Libertarians should be at the forefront of calling for massive cuts in an institution which has gone far beyond protecting UK citizens from aggression and terrorist threats and in the process has been responsible for deaths of thousands of innocent people and scandalous waste money.



  1. Well said Bob. Hit the nail on the head.
    This is a well written piece, Guy, but it is yet another expamle of an ideological wish list vs cold hard facts.
    As Bob has pointed out, the idea that we don’t need a strong militray any more has been tried before, and has consistently been shown to be shortsighted, and outright dangeous. For example the Argentinian Govt had planned to occupy the Falklands in 1978, but the UK reversed a previous cost cutting exercise and kept our two Strike Carriers. The Argentine Govt backed down. We then got rid of them, and Argentina attacked. This is a clear example of a strong defence maintaining peace, and of defence cuts encouraging hostility.
    We have global commitments that need to be defended. We are depended on oceanic trade. It is ridiculous to assume that these are never going to be threatend.
    Too many libertarians start with an ideological end goal, base that as their reality, then go about finding evidence to support it. This is a dogmatic as the Neocons, who also start with an end goal then try to find evidence to support it.

  2. Sorry, Guy, but I disagree.

    First of all, you believe that the reason for high defence spending is our adventurous foreign policy, and that if we stopped intervening around the world then defence spending could be slashed. This simply isn’t the case. Yes, there would be savings from ending operations in Afghanistan, however the United Kingdom still has interests overseas that could, in future, require military protection. Not only do we have our overseas territories in Gibraltar and the Falklands, but being an island nation we also rely on the sea for much of our trade. Even if we were to refocus our military strategy on a purely defensive basis, slashing the defence budget would be extremely unwise.

    You are right that the SDSR states that we face no existential threat. Roughly translated, they can see no direct threat from one state against our state. Interestingly, that same assessment was made a several points both in the run-up to WW1 and WW2. You also appear to dismiss the view that the world is an uncertain place. Well I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it is. When Big Ben rang in the New Year in 1982, how many people in the UK Government could say with absolute certainty that the Argentine junta would invade the Falkland Islands? On the contrary, many believed with absolute certainty that they would not, and so major cuts were both planned and implemented to both the Royal Navy. We all know what happened next. There are countless other examples of the world’s uncertainty throughout history, from Pearl Harbor, the Korean War and 9/11 right up to the Arab Spring in 2011. No, we shouldn’t be going around invading other countries, but that doesn’t mean that we will suddenly have lots of money that we can cut from the defence budget because we still have interests abroad in territories and trade, and we need to ensure that we are able to protect them.

    You mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how they have led to people becoming radicalised both at home and abroad. While it is true that our actions have led to people becoming radicalised, the increasingly fashionable view that our actions have led to Islamic radicalism is patently false. The embassy bombings in Kenya, the bombing of the USS Cole and the attacks on September 11 2001 all occurred before most people in the West had even heard of Afghanistan. While our actions certainly haven’t helped, it is clear that this kind of radicalism has its origins elsewhere.

    You talk of “safely” reducing the Navy by 20,000 personnel, the Army by 40,000 personnel, and the RAF by 15-20,000 personnel. How? What units would you scrap? What capabilities would you eliminate? How do you or Paul Robinson know that it is safe to eliminate these personnel and capabilities? More importantly, how would you replace them and the equipment should the need arise? The SDSR stated that we didn’t need Nimrod and that it could “safely” be scrapped. Within 12 months a Russian Navy carrier task force was anchored 30 miles off the coast of Scotland. This is ignoring the vital search and rescue role that was performed by the Nimrod, a role that had saved thousands of lives over the years. That capability no longer exists, because a bean-counter decided that it was “safe” to scrap it as a cost-saving measure.

    You talk of scrapping Trident because it is unnecessary for the UK. You also mention that from a “libertarian perspective” it is unacceptable because its only purpose is to destroy millions of innocent lives. I’m sorry, but you have fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of a nuclear deterrent. We do not have nuclear weapons to annihilate millions of people, we have nuclear weapons to dissuade others from trying to annihilate millions of people here with the threat that we can destroy them in response. Mutually Assured Destruction sounds like an insane policy, but it prevented a Third World War for the 40 years+ of the Cold War. It is a policy that continues to this day. No, there are not massed ranks of Soviet tanks waiting to pour over the border into Western Europe, but Russia is still there as is China, and both of them have their own agendas and interests that may or may not align with our own. Russia continues to probe our airspace and our waters, and they both still have several thousand nuclear missiles aimed at the UK and the US. This is before you get into the subject of hostile rogue states that are developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them over long distances. I’m not arguing for invading these countries, but we can and should keep a deterrent in order to persuade them not to use their weapons against us or our interests.

    Finally, you assert that by scrapping Trident we could scrap Astute and all of our Minesweepers because those are “largely to protect the nuclear deterrent”. I’m sorry, but you have no idea what you are talking about. Attack submarines perform a vital role in protecting maritime trade routes into and out of the UK and our overseas territories. Not only that, but in the event of a confrontation (such as the Falklands War in 1982) they are vital to ensure we have command of the seas in order to conduct our operations without fear of harassment by the enemy. Their role in protecting our nuclear deterrent and monitoring the nuclear submarines of other nations is in addition to these other tasks. As for Minesweepers, these are used in all sorts of roles around the UK and the world. I’ve mentioned before about our trade interests and our reliance on the sea. Like it or not, we rely on oil from the Middle East, and that oil has to pass through the Straits of Hormuz. Iran could very easily mine those straits to prevent oil traffic. Indeed they have done so in the past and have threatened to do so again. Our Minesweepers are essential in keeping those sea lanes clear. The same goes for any number of other trade routes. We also need to keep our trade routes safe from mines left over from old conflicts. There are thousands of sea mines left in the seas around the UK, plus mines around the Falklands from the 1982 war. This isn’t a task that can be performed by any type of ship, it’s why we have Minesweepers.

    All that being said, there are definitely savings that can be made in the Defence Budget. Slashing budgets, cutting personnel and scrapping equipment is not the answer, but hundreds of millions of pounds are wasted every year in bureaucracy. Programmes are delayed and costs escalated because the Ministry of Defence keeps meddling with projects, changing requirements and adding delays to get short-term savings without considering the long-term effect on cost. Serious reform is needed, and if implemented properly it will allow us to do significantly more with less.


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