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Mark Allatt: Time to invest in our armed forces before it's too late

Allattmark Mark Allatt, General Secretary of Conservative Way Forward which recently published a report from Bernard Jenkin MP calling for the doubling of defence spending, says that all the factors in the international situation point to the need for the UK to significantly boost its defence spending.

It was Machiavelli who advised his prince, “Before all else, be armed.”  It’s about time the UK had a government that would observe this first law of statecraft.

Labour’s attempt to subcontract UK foreign policy to international institutions has failed.  A British foreign policy based on the notion that it is unethical to pursue the national interest is unsustainable as British governments are elected by the British people to serve the British people.   

The UK is the sixth (recently fallen from fifth) largest economy in the world; we have strong historic connections with the US and with the emerging powers of China and India, along with the old Commonwealth; and English has become the de facto global language.      

When we look in detail at the trends for global security for the next 30 years the outlook is not very rosy.  Conflict and terrorism, particularly Islamist terrorism, will continue to increase.  The growing assertiveness of states like China, India and Iran, alongside a decoupling of the US and the EU, and the continued decline of the UN will contribute to greater trans-national and inter-communal conflict. So, if anything, demands on our Armed Forces are likely to increase.

Nobody should have any illusions about our ‘special relationship’ with the USA. Why should the US take a different view of her interests when talking to the UK?  To exercise leverage with the US, the UK needs ‘hard power’ as well as ‘soft power’, involving as much military capacity as we can afford. 

NATO primacy is being steadily undermined by EU defence policy.  A European military alliance which deliberately excludes the US is clearly not in UK interests.  The EU defence policy has hugely complicated defence relationships in Europe and wastefully duplicates what NATO already does. The more European nations talk about defence, the less they seem prepared to spend and to use what little capability they have!  It is time that we re-visited the membership of NATO due to its increasingly global role and opened it up to those out of area but willing partners like Australia.

Military capability can take many years to build up yet only one misguided decision (such as the premature withdrawal of the Sea Harrier) to destroy.   Even if we were not as heavily deployed as now, and when the prospect of a conventional military threat to the UK is assessed as low, the Armed Forces must still be able to undertake the full spectrum of expeditionary warfare.  This inevitably means both supporting them at a critical mass and continuing spending on the essential equipment which has long lead times.

The Armed Forces are rightly committed to large and expensive equipment programmes such as Typhoon, the Aircraft Carriers and the Astute submarines but the cost of technology and equipment are going up faster than inflation.  With ‘defence costs inflation’ in excess of 8 per cent, a 1.5 per cent real-terms budget increase means invidious choices about the equipment and manpower programmes.   It is estimated that the latest spending round leaves a shortfall over the next three years of around £1 billion.  In order to maintain vital long-term capabilities, the service chiefs are forced to continue the downward pressure on personnel numbers, making the problems of overstretch worse.   

Moreover, the forward costs of the desperately needed extra helicopters or armoured vehicles must be squeezed out of future manpower, the mothballing of yet more ships, and the delay, cancellation or continual trimming in numbers of major items in the equipment programme.   

While the UK has increased defence spending by less than ten per cent since 1999, many of our key allies and potential rivals increased theirs:  the USA up 60 per cent; Australia by 30 per cent; Russia by 148 per cent; and China by 129 per cent.  Labour’s increases in spending on Education and Health far outstrip increases for defence over the same period. Defence’s share of GDP has actually fallen, from 2.9 per cent to 2.3 per cent over the last ten years and latest plans will see defence fall to only 2 per cent of GDP by 2011, whereas in the US it is almost double, at 3.8 per cent.   

Informed opinion favours an increase in defence spending of at least £3 billion per annum over five years – up by around 50% on current expenditure over the lifetime of a parliament.  Even former Labour defence secretary Lord Robertson recently called for a £25 billion increase.  A future Conservative Government must fund at least such increases as part of the sharing of the proceeds of economic growth.    

The time has come to stop dithering and once again anchor our defence policy in the realities of our foreign policy. We must bulk up our Armed Forces to support our global role; otherwise they will be unable to do the job we as a nation ask them to do.


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