Leading article

In this election, won't someone please weaponise defence?

Nato must be a defensive alliance, not a welfare state with bombs

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

Britain is forfeiting its position on the world stage. With no national debate, we are surrendering our claim to be a major player in international affairs and undermining the Atlantic alliance that has kept Britain and Europe secure for 65 years. In these circumstances, it is easy to understand why Barack Obama has felt obliged to warn David Cameron of the damage he would be doing to the special relationship and to Nato if he failed to commit Britain to spending the bare minimum on defence.

The Prime Minister has given several spending pledges — on education, health and overseas aid — so his silence on defence speaks volumes. It fits a trend: European defence spending has fallen by 8 per cent over the last six years despite threats to it increasing dramatically in that period, with the rise of Islamic State and the rise of Russian revanchism. Is it any wonder that the Americans, who find themselves contributing almost 70 per cent of Nato spending, are becoming fed up? What was intended as an Atlantic alliance is becoming a defence welfare state: Uncle Sam pays, European countries benefit.

With the honourable exception of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, no party wants to talk about defence spending in this election campaign. As Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon and Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham argue in a Spectator article published online, there has been plenty of talk of ‘weaponising’ the NHS, but the public service which really needs weapons is being steadily divested. Since 2010, the overall fighting power of the military has been reduced by half. Britain no longer has any maritime patrol aircraft, we have just three squadrons of Tornados to defend the country, and the army is suffering a serious manpower shortage.

The cuts have hardly begun. A strategic defence and security review this year will almost certainly lead to further reductions in firepower, because whoever wins the election will be forced to reduce the deficit and will hit upon defence as the target which will provoke the least public protest. Observers of defence policy believe that within three years UK defence spending could fall as low as 1.7 per cent of GDP — lower than the 2 per cent minimum set by Nato for its -members.

The main parties feel that they can get away with cuts to military spending because the public is weary of what many see as unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet this assumes that the importance of national security is akin to that of fighting wars against insurgents in the Middle East. It is not.

Moreover, the military is being cut back at a time of heightened need for self-defence. On several occasions over the past few months, Russian aircraft have been sent to test western European air defences, a display of military brinkmanship not seen since the Cold War. Vladimir Putin has already seized Crimea and is sponsoring separatist forces in Ukraine. Twenty-five years ago, it was fashionable to speak of the Cold War bringing a ‘peace dividend’ — switching money from military to public services. Cold War-style hostilities are returning, but the armed forces are still being cut.

It is difficult to tell exactly what David Cameron believes about foreign policy and defence. His premiership has been punctuated by rallying cries, followed by inaction. Last June, when Isis was beginning to threaten Iraq, David Cameron spoke of his will to ‘close down ungoverned spaces’ in the -Sahara. The Prime Minister and Chancellor are not wholly ignorant of the region — George Osborne travelled there during his gap year — but given that our military could not win in Basra or Afghanistan, Cameron is unlikely to be closing down anything other than RAF bases.

Cameron also led the calls for bombing raids to help rebels overthrow the Gaddafi regime — which proved successful in that limited purpose — but then left Libya alone to become one of those ‘ungoverned spaces’. As democracy failed to take hold, arsenals of Gaddafi’s weapons were abandoned for the taking. As Libya’s former prime minister Ali Zaidan warned this week, Isis may be only a couple of months away from extending its caliphate to the country. Cameron rattled his sabre against the Assad regime in Syria; then, having failed to win parliamentary approval, went quiet until, like Orwell’s Oceania, he proposed fighting Assad’s enemies instead. There is no decipherable strategy.

It is not as if the Prime Minister has excelled in exercising soft power, either. This week, Angela Merkel and François Hollande will be meeting Putin and the Ukrainian government. Cameron will not be there. Nor will he follow Barack Obama in considering arming the Ukrainian government. Britain has become a non-player in the crisis.

Over the next few months we will hear endless promises on the NHS and schools, whose budgets have been ring-fenced, yet nothing on defence. If the main parties have an unspoken consensus to turn Britain into Denmark, a country which prides itself on public services, but with little in the way of armed forces or international influence, we should know about it.

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Show comments
  • Seaton

    Thank goodness defence has been mengioned at last. Will anybody take note?

  • Adam Sinclair

    Brilliant article that exactly underlines the dangerous complacency of our Prime Minister and Hammond when he was Secretary of State for Defence. These “we know best” politicians ignore the lessons of history and the old dictum “If you want peace, prepare for war”. Throughout the ages diplomatic clout has come with military strength. If this article is correct about further major defence cuts after the May election Cameron can expect to be only a bit-part player in international affairs if he gets another term as Prime Minister – which I sincerely hope does not happen.

    • scott01634

      he wont dave is gone

  • John Carins

    Vote UKIP – the only party that will strengthen our Armed Forces.

  • trace9

    There’s another column, about the humour of soldiers – now the whole Armed Forces are a joke. But it’s our enemies who’re laughing .. Tut.

  • David Paxton

    I don’t see the contradiction in wanting to punish Assad for using Chemical Weapons, especially after talk of red ones in Washington and then fighting his enemies when they expand in Iraq.

    • Kennie

      There is no real evidence that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons.
      There is some evidence that some terrorists (rebels) used some, possibly at the behest of some other arab states (who sell a lot of oïl to us)

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Assad used chemical weapons? You still buying into the Authorised version?

  • Malcolm Stevas

    I loved this bit especially: “..the Sahara. The Prime Minister and Chancellor are not wholly ignorant of the region — George Osborne travelled there during his gap year..”
    Wonderfully Pooterish! Osborne went there in his gap year, forsooth, prior to being indentured as an apprentice politico with someone his father knew, or whatever. That was just a couple of years ago, wasn’t it? DC and Osborne wouldn’t even know which end of a rifle to point at the enemy, let alone make sound judgements on defence.

    • Kennie

      Might be helpful if they point the wrong end at the enemy and then pull the trigger.

  • global city

    I have felt for years that all governments have been shaping British defence ‘capability’ in a fashion decided with their ‘European partners’. It is a fix, decided many years ago, to make us incapable of independent action or defending ourselves. That way lies the Euroforce…..and we’re headed that way with them.

  • Molly NooNar

    “because whoever wins the election will be forced to reduce the deficit.”

    Forced by whom? I thought this was a democracy were the government served the demands of the public …

  • Kennie

    There is no such thing as a “Special Relationship” with that less-than-friendly and less-than-honest nation across the Atlantic.

  • Icebow

    Tornado GR-4s are not defensive; Typhoons are.

  • Perseus Slade

    Politicians only know how to get themselves elected.
    The rest they make up as they go along,

    The bargain between the state and the person
    is that the state will provide protection in return for the tax it takes.

    Defence begins on other states` territory and the UK needs to have the capability.