Defence spending is never popular, but that doesn’t mean its not important.
As anybody with more than a passing interest in politics will tell you, defence is way down the list of priorities. Health, schools, crime and the economy are all, understandably, more pressing concerns for the average member of the public. Politicians are aware of this. As a result, defence is always the last to receive a boost when times are good, and always the first to be cut when times are tough.The MoD is the equivalent of a marketing department in a large business.
Circumstances have helped Europeans get away with the woeful neglect of their militaries. For the past half century we’ve lived under the protection of the incomparable might of the American colossus. Well into the 1960’s the US even went as far as to pay West Germany’s defence budget in full. For the smaller Western European nations, militaries were there to show the flag during NATO exercises, and little else.
The Soviet Union’s collapse only furthered the view among European democracies that defence was an expensive hobby. My generation has grown up with no obvious existential threat. The idea of countries actually going to war with each other seems remote.
We have grown up in an era when international terrorism is the salient threat. Accordingly, the argument goes, we’ll only need Special Forces and a handful of drones. Right?
Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but no. State on state war is as alive and kicking as it’s ever been. Since the end of the Cold War, Panama, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya have all been invaded by a hostile power. I’m even being generous by not including South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Kenya, or Eretria. The Philippines, Japan and Vietnam are boosting their militaries for fear of an expansionist China.
Think Europe is immune? Try telling that to Georgia. Russia didn’t seem to think rolling tanks over the border was out of vogue. And this is the danger. European policy makers seem to exist in a self-created post-modern reality of their own. To them, nation states themselves are on the way out. National interests are a thing of the past. Militaries are a relic of a bygone era. In short, power is passé.
Unfortunately this is also a view shared by some libertarians.And that would be lovely if only it weren’t so dangerously naïve. As the Russian crushing of Georgia and subsequent annexations showed, Europe’s neighbours are not squeamish about the use of force in pursuit of national interests. And with the US about to pivot away from Europe and towards Asia, Europe needs to snap out of its cosseted, conflict-free dream world.
The case is even more acute for Britain. It shouldn’t have escaped your notice that we are an island. We are dependent on sea borne trade for pretty much everything. Oil, food, gas, tools, equipment, cement, coal, cars, electrical goods, the list goes on. One statistic should keep you up at night; we have about two weeks worth of fuel in the country. Then the lights go out…no, really.
Yet a generation has grown up with the idea that all trade passes freely across the sea lanes all the time, simply as a matter of course. This is a false assumption. The US Navy and the good will of other countries are the only things that keep the shops full and the lights on.
It doesn’t even need to be a hostile country that cripples us. An up-tick in pirating off the Horn of Africa last year highlighted our vulnerability. If the Straits of Hormuz were closed by force, we’d better hope the US has a battle group in the region because there would be nothing we could do about it.
Not a problem, you might say, when the time comes we just build some ships and planes. Right? Again, I’m afraid not. A warship takes at least three years to build. From conception to deployment, a jet fighter can take well over a decade. This is before you even start to re-build the infrastructure that supports a military. You cannot simply snap your fingers and magic up a military.
Britain is the only power that operates on the same just-in-time economy that supermarkets use to stack their shelves. Forget visions of vast warehouses and bunkers stacked with armaments. They don’t exist. Even the limited air campaign in Libya came close to exhausting our supply munitions.
The good news is we don’t even need to spend much more on defence. Far too much of the MoD budget is currently wasted. There is one Civil Servant for every two men in uniform. There are approximately 23,000 people involved in British military procurement. Israel does it with 400.
For decades our leaders have neglected their defence responsibilities. And we as the electorate have let them. Our national security is dependent of the whim and favour of foreign powers. Our interests are global, yet we could barley retake the Isle of Wight if it was occupied.
Russian submarines brazenly sit off of our ports, while their bombers shamelessly violate our airspace on a weekly basis. Argentina claims tutelage over British territory. Iran threatens to cut off our access to Gulf oil. North East Asia could descend into conflict at any moment, and China could make good its claims to most of the South China Seas. These are not war game scenarios, they are happening as you read this.
A nation that cannot unilaterally defend its interests cannot be truly called independent.
Defence is expensive, but being defenceless comes with an even higher cost.