With the country’s fleet the smallest it’s been since 1683, Brexit gives Theresa May the opportunity to correct David Cameron’s woeful record on defence, writes Ben Brittain.
There are a few rarities of public policy on which both the Conservatives and Labour have historically agreed need protecting. The NHS is a no-brainer, as is education. But then there is also defence.
In a speech at Lancaster House, Theresa May set out her vision for a ‘Global Britain’ post EU. It was a bold, free trading and positive vision for a truly global Britain. But, there was one thing the Prime Minister failed to mention: the opportunities and challenges that face the UK’s armed forces after Brexit. Previously the main obstacle to UK defence policy has been the excessive cuts implemented first by the coalition government and to a lesser extent the present Conservative government.
David Cameron’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) resulted in a significant reduction in British military strength. An eight per cent real terms cut of the defence budget has led to a 30 per cent reduction in capability. To give a small example of the impact these cuts are having on our defence, the planned Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft was cancelled, leaving UK waters vulnerable to Russian submarines. As a result, the MoD was forced to go cap in hand to the French and Canadians pleading for them to lend their maritime patrol aircraft.
The Royal Navy has borne the brunt of many of the cuts. And what remains of our navy is a stark reminder of how ill sighted the UK’s defence planning process has been. The once-proud Royal Navy, which protected commerce and trade around the world, has been left with a withered skeleton fleet. It possesses no aircraft carriers, whereas Russia, China, France and Italy all have at least one. Our naval fleet of just 19 ships, is the smallest it’s been since 1683.
The British army has not escaped the Treasury’s clutches either. Once the jewel in the crown of our nation’s defences, the army has been cut by one-fifth, with troop numbers down from 102,000 in 2010 to an estimated 82,000 by 2020. These cuts mean the army is now operating at a size not seen since the Napoleonic wars.
One key indicator alone helps reveal why our armed forces are in such a terrible position. In 1953, the UK spent nine per cent of GDP on defence, this fell dramatically to 5.9 per cent in 1963. The end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s saw it plummet to just three per cent. Since then it has hovered only slightly above two per cent. The Conservatives are currently at risk of sacrificing their once reliable reputation for guaranteeing our nations defences.
In the eyes of the electorate, defence has often found itself an easy and palatable budget to cut. But there are signs that this may be changing. Post-Brexit, public polling across the EU has revealed defence and a weak foreign policy is of growing concern to many voters. Some believe this to be an indication that Britain’s departure from the EU puts exacerbates a chasm between the Britain and the continent, which puts in jeopardy our combined security.
And there is a compelling case to support this. The UK has always played a leading role in NATO, supplying troops, equipment, intelligence, and the political will required. With tensions on Europe’s eastern border heightened, the UK has recently taken command of a multinational battlegroup in Estonia, providing 800 troops and 300 tanks and artillery, sending the right signal to our Baltic allies and importantly to a belligerent Russian neighbour. Continued cuts to our defence budget reveals the ongoing spending cuts have strained Britain’s capacity to make continued defence commitments to partnerships like NATO.
There is also evidence some of our European neighbours are hoping to seize upon our departure EU departure. The French are reportedly hoping to seize the role of Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (DSACEUR), a role currently held by General Sir Aidan Bradshaw.
Previous US administrations have roundly criticised the approach by the Coalition Government and many still maintain reservations about Britain’s spending commitments. These reservations are particularly damaging at a crucial juncture in our country’s history as we depart the EU, and prepare to forge new trade relations around the world, particularly with the US.
More must be done if the Government is serious in its ambitions to achieve a ‘Global Britain’. Whilst tempting to anchor defence policy to spending percentages, Britain’s future strategic defence decisions should be made on needs and ambitions and funding should be allocated accordingly. National security is not best met when defence policy is made on financial constraints.
An urgent priority for the Government must be to outline a detailed plan on how it will increase the number of men and women serving in all sections of our armed forces, as well as a large and substantive increase in the number of frigates and destroyers in the Royal Navy. If Global Britain is dependent on forging global trade deals then the Royal Navy has a significant role to play in defending the seas that help keep trade flowing.
But the government should go further. If Britain’s ambitions are global it must think globally. The Royal Navy’s base in Bahrain has been hailed by the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as evidence that Britain is “east of the Suez again”. It must do more, however, to cement and solidify this claim. When the 17,000 British troops presently based in Germany eventually withdraw, they should not be dismissed or retired but redistributed. The UK should strengthen its defence partnership with Gulf Nations, particularly Jordan, by offering to station a persistent (if not permanent) base of 9,000 troops in the Kingdom. This would affirm the Prime Minister’s claim that “Gulf security is our security”, and it would act as a vivid demonstration of Britain’s support in maintaining the security of the Middle East region.
We should look to be ambitious with US procurement and military deals and we should look to enhance defence relationships with India and Japan, both of which will emerge as key partners in the globe’s future security challenges. This is particularly relevant given our country’s refocussing towards a more heavily trade-based approach to foreign policy in the post-Brexit. Discussion of a BAE led joint Anglo-Sino partnership to construct a fighter jet should be turbo charged and form the basis of a key defence export to allied nations.
The government must deliver on the Foreign Sectary’s claim that the UK will always remain the superior military force in Western Europe. It must also put to bed the growing narrative that Britain is a declining power, resigning from the world stage. To restore the credibility of Britain’s defence policy, to truly meet the objectives of a Global Britain, to cement the special relationship, and to reinforce the positive leadership role the UK plays in NATO, Theresa May must agree to spend a substantial amount more on defence.
Fredrick the Great memorably declared that ‘diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments’. Both the Kremlin and Beijing understand this fully and are investing heavily in their armed forces which is fuelling their confidence in shaping the world around them. A Global Britain is surely one that helps promote and defend the values we hold dear. Effective armed forces are essential to this.