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Bernard Jenkin MP: Can the UK afford to play a global defence role?


Bernard Jenkin is Conservative MP for North Essex and a member of the Defence Select Committee.

David Cameron’s decision to protect the defence budget for the first year of a Conservative government will not dominate the election, but it indicates that he does not seek to become prime minister of a declining world power.  The ugly choices he will face in defence over the next twelve months will define what sort of country we are for decades to come.  Public spending choices in the next Parliament will be the toughest since the 1930s. We must not repeat the mistakes with defence that our grandfathers made then. Can we afford our global role? The question we should be asking is: can we afford to lose it?

Protecting the budget for the first year will not even provide temporary respite.  As Ronald Reagan quipped, "status quo is Latin for the mess we are in".  An attempt merely to stand still financially beyond year one will have dramatic consequences for the forthcoming review.  If defence spending were to flatline for the next decade, the informed view is that the MOD would be unable to afford any new equipment orders for 10 years.

So why not just write off the whole mess, junk the expense of our global role, and accept that the UK is now just another European country?  Because for British prosperity and security, the UK's global role is not a lifestyle choice.  It is an imperative.

In today's world, overpopulation, shortage of food, competition for resources, the risk of environmental catastrophe, mass migration, accelerating technological change, nationalism and extremism are all on the rise.  These are factors now aggravated by global recession. Is this the moment to substitute effective hard power for the myth of soft power?  Advocates of soft power are those who have decided to rely on a free ride on the hard power of others, including our own. 

Can we, too, risk opting out of a global role?  Which nation would fill the space as America's most influential and enduring ally?  Are we actually to encourage the US to become unilateralist?  Who would protect our shipping from the Somalian pirates?  Who would win the friendship of the oil-rich Gulf States if we abandon them – and get their defence equipment orders?  Who would invest in NATO if we disinvest? Which other nation or nations would gain from our retreat? 

We cannot afford to fight so many wars as we have in recent years, but we must always remain able to deter them (cheaper than fighting them) and to be prepared for the unexpected.  We need the new smaller surface warships to patrol the many parts of the world where we need to deter aggression or give humanitarian aid.  The great strength of the Royal Navy is its ability to loiter, perhaps unseen over the horizon, but still exerting a UK presence nevertheless. 

We need more drones to track terrorists, to support ground troops and to provide intelligence.  (The idea that a low-tech insurgency can be met by low-tech armed forces in response is simply rubbish.)  Fast jets do not just protect our own airspace, but also ground forces.  Flexible, deployable capability gives us that indefinable and indispensable quality that a powerful nation needs – it is called "influence" and it takes decades, not years, to create such capabilities, and it would take decades to recreate them if we gave them up just because of a short-term fiscal crisis.

Defence spending in 2008-09 was 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product, including the costs of operations. With a small increase in that percentage, we could maintain a broad spectrum of capabilities and retain the UK's global role. That would be outstanding value for money for the UK.  That is the choice.


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