How to fix the defense of Britain
BRITAIN ARMY forces have much to be proud of. The Royal Navy is engaged in some of the most intense naval combat since the Falklands war, knocking Houthi missiles out of the skies over the Red Sea. Royal Air Force (RAF) still flying over Iraq and Syria to keep the Islamic State under control. The army has trained more than 60,000 Ukrainian soldiers in the past ten years and helps defend Estonia.
But there is something rotten in the British defence. Even though the country is the sixth largest military spender in the world and the largest in Europe, it is not always clear where the money goes. The navy operates fewer frigates and destroyers than Japan, South Korea or France. It would be difficult for the army, at its smallest level in centuries, to use one heavy division. Britain has largely emptied its cupboard to supply weapons to Ukraine, but its meager arms holdings are now a cause for concern. What went wrong?
The first problem is money. In 2020 the government boasted the biggest sustained increase in defense spending for 30 years. It spends just over £50bn ($64bn) on defence, an amount that exceeds NATOand a threshold of 2% of GDP. But a fifth of the budget goes on nuclear weapons. The conventional forces Britain needs are being deployed to pay for nuclear costs. Eliminate the nuclear fragments and the cost of defense is about 1.75% of GDP, in the middle of the European pack.
The second problem is lack of manpower. In 2010, when the Conservative Party entered government, the British Army was over 100,000 strong. It is now expected to fall to 72,500. The government says that technology means that fewer people are needed than before. This is casuistry. The Royal Navy is decommissioning ships for lack of sailors. New technology often requires more staff to maintain and operate, not less. Even on a smaller scale, the army is struggling to recruit; it would be one way to help up the military reserve.
Britain’s defense cannot be fixed without more money and more men. But the country’s defense woes are also rooted in deeper problems of culture, attitude and process. Too often, penny pinching and short-termism have led to Britain buying high-end equipment and then skimping on the things that make it work.
The Department of Finance bears some responsibility for this situation. It has encouraged services to delay expensive projects. That balances the books in the short term but causes costs to balloon in general. Its tension can have absurd results. Reducing the Wedgetail air order aircraft order from five to three means that the RAF one may not be available in an emergency.
But the services also deserve much of the blame, having again seized several large projects. That is hardly unique to the armed forces or to Britain. But if Britain is serious about rearmament, it may need to buy more off-the-shelf foreign equipment rather than requiring new features and requiring domestic design and manufacture. The ill-fated Ajax armored vehicle – which had too much deafening crew vibration – was supposed to be based on a former Austro-Spanish platform. After the army added 1,200 requirements rudely, it was mostly special.
The Tories have had 13 years in office and four defense reviews. They will not, as an election approaches, solve problems that have existed for years. But with Ukraine under threat and Russia rapidly rebuilding, defense is once again too important to be neglected. Like one of Britain’s fleet of armored vehicles, the country’s defense system is no longer good enough. The next government should act quickly and boldly to fix it. ■