In 2016 the British Army is smaller than at any time since the start of the Napoleonic Wars, when the British population was a fraction of what it is today. The Royal Air Force deployed more fighter jets in the 1991 Gulf War than it has altogether today and the Royal Navy has been hollowed out to a similar extent.
Do we live in a peaceful world where warfare is thankfully redundant? Is Britain a small country with no major international commitments, the mythical ‘Belgium with the Bomb’? Neither of these are true and one of the staggering things is how little public outcry there is. In a world becoming much less stable when the old certainties are being pushed to breaking point, it is becoming truer than ever that prosperity can exist only with security, and that national defence is the first priority of any government, above even health and prosperity. So, why then, have successive governments since the 1990s, of both parties, continued this downward spiral in our defence capabilities? The world is hardly becoming more peaceful.
Since the formation of NATO, the USA has underwritten European security. Since the end of the Cold War, many European countries have spent only token amounts on defence, assuming the USA would deal with any major threat to their lands. With the prospect of a Trump presidency coupled with a Russia using strength abroad to hide weakness at home and the USA’s overall pivot towards Japan and South Korea as opposed to Europe, this is an attitude that can no longer exist. A Britain that takes defence and collective defence of Europe seriously, even after Brexit, may do a good deal to encourage the others, especially Germany and Italy, major economies with very low defence spending in relation to their size, to pull their weight. It will also lead to the recouping of prestige lost with our Anglosphere allies during the last round of defence cuts. Europe itself is of course more disunited than ever, with growing Euroscepticism reaching the governments of much of Central Europe, economic stagnation and the ongoing migrant crisis. Things are going to get worse before they get better and it is foolish to neglect our defences with all this in mind. A return to the mass military that existed in the 1950s-70s is of course a fantasy that only exists in the minds of gin-soaked former Brigadiers in Devon, but the cuts of the last two decades are certainly in need of reversal.
But why is this so politically controversial? The electorate generally supports strong defence but there is little clamour for all this. To sum it up in one word, Iraq. New Labour’s military adventurism, followed by Cameron’s love of airstrikes backed up by little else, has given defence spending a bad name, making it a politically easier cut to make than cutting public services or welfare. There is no longer any mention of the times that military action made a situation better, be it preventing genocide in the former Yugoslavia, liberating Kuwait from an unprovoked invasion or defending the right to self-determination of the Falklanders against a fascist regime which had no intention of a peaceful settlement.
Alternatively, when a lack of action from the US, Britain, and France caused a crisis to spiral out of control as in Rwanda, which led to some of the most horrific war crimes since the Second World War. The mindless contrarianism of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour only makes sense if you pretend these events never happened. The fiascos that Iraq and Afghanistan became have undone all of this politically, and fairly enough. More must be done to separate the concepts of a strong defence from that of ‘liberal interventionism’, which all too often in the last decade resulted in an incoherent disaster which we are still paying for in Syria. Strong defence is in effect an insurance policy, nobody wants to use it, but it is there for when you need it, and need it we likely shall in the coming years. It must, however, be coupled with only being used in a considered and coherent manner, rather than the haphazard attitude to Helmand taken in the initial 2006 deployment, let alone Iraq.
The right sort of spending is also important. A 5,000 tonne destroyer chasing pirates in a £200 outboard makes as much sense as cutting those ships altogether because of this fact. An increase in spending should be focused on more flexible and unconventional options, such as special forces, intelligence and cyberwarfare, to reflect that warfare in the 21st century is hardly about numbers of tanks, planes and guns anymore.
Many point to the fact there are only three regiments of heavy tanks in the Army, but does the Army need more than a few in this era? Are there other things that might be in greater need of investment? The Chinese penchant for hacking and the Russian use of political and psychological operations need to be considered more strongly, maybe even imitated. The current government is committed to a good programme in this respect thankfully, but money also needs to be spent on making the forces a respected employer. There are great problems with recruitment and retention, in which often poor working conditions are a major factor. Improving the lot of the average serviceperson will go a long way, a good army practically recruits for itself without needing TV adverts and internet campaigns.
The current government seems to be stepping away from the penny-pinching of the Osborne days in general and hopefully this will be reflected in our defences as the world changes as rapidly as it currently is. Defence is a long-term investment requiring serious planning, it taking several years to build up hardware and trained manpower, and a view towards the long-term is essential here.