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The United Kingdom is facing "a multiplicity of threats" to our security, and we need to take "a clear and honest view of our ambitions and obligations for today and the future." This is the message from the UK National Defence Association (UKNDA) which on 11th March published a major new report on"Funding Defence" co-authored by a group of retired senior military officers including Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, General Sir Michael Rose and Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham. Nick Watts has been looking at it.
Governments of all hues regularly state that their first priority is the defence of the realm; or the security of British interests. Apart from the Thatcher era this has patently not been the case. This is for several reasons.
The end of the Cold War saw a "peace dividend" as the threat from the malign intent of the Soviet Union disappeared. The appearance of Jihadist terrorism at first seemed to be the province of the Security Services and the Home Office. Defence thinking and planning was still trying to recover from the demise of the Warsaw Pact, so its equipment and funding needs began to languish.
In politics it is the "squeaky wheel" that gets the oil. This work by the UKNDA does a good job of squeaking, and reminding politicians and commentators that we live in an increasingly uncertain world. The political reality is that in an era of austerity government departments must "contribute to deficit reduction" as the government puts it. It does seem that defence has done more than its fair share over the years since the end of the Cold War to ensure that the government's books are balanced.
Part of the problem with defence funding is that it is concentrated on areas which are big and expensive; equipment and personnel. Only the NHS has a similar problem; big hospitals full of expensive equipment; costly pharmaceutical bills and a large payroll. In a changing climate Defence must remain relevant to the needs of the UK's national security interests in the 21st century. Too many people see numbers of tanks and fast jets as a national virility symbol. The experience of the US in Iraq shows that this does not always translate into effect.
The government needs to clearly articulate what it wants its defence and security arms to achieve, or to be capable of. The current government has made a start by establishing the National Security Committee, but Whitehall has been criticized for its inability to address questions of how to implement strategic direction.
This brings us back to the squeaky wheel. Defence must continue to make its case and also prove to the bean counters that it represents a good investment. This paper does this well. Moreover it serves as a reminder that the US is also reducing expenditure and embarking on a strategic re-adjustment. The peace and prosperity Europe has enjoyed since the end of World War two was underwritten by the US nuclear umbrella and large conventional forces. The former will remain through NATO, but the latter will have other things to do. Europe including the UK will have to be capable of meeting threats which affect its common interests.
As we await next week's budget and embark on the departmental wrangling over the next Comprehensive Spending Review, which will take us into the next parliament; this work is a useful primer for those who want to make the case in Westminster and Whitehall.
The UKNDA itself says the report endorses the recent call by the Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond MP, for a halt to further cuts in the Defence budget. "Defence needs steady and predictable funding", say the report's authors. Furthermore it is "a sound investment" for the taxpayer, "an excellent economic stimulus" that can create and sustain employment in industries and communities throughout Britain.
Defence spending is both a strategic and political imperative. "Europe, already weak, is disarming further", says UKNDA. European nations have "sheltered under the US blanket" for many years, the report states, but the American commitment is "rapidly reducing" due to the Obama Administration's budget cuts, and with very little appetite in the US for continuing to "pick up the European defence bill".
Present economic circumstances and the Government's aim of reducing the national deficit should not mean imposing further restrictions on Defence funding. Defence is "the essential guarantor of the nation's freedom". Unlike other areas of public expenditure, it has to be shaped by external factors and cannot be dictated by purely domestic political concerns.
With threats to the UK and international security growing, this is not the time to shrink Britain's military. The loyalty and service of Britain's military "cannot be assumed for ever", the report adds. "It has to be earned by the Government through a long term commitment to the careers and well-being of the personnel of the Armed Forces."