The prospect of 'a new Cold War' means that the government must re-examine cuts to defence spending and look to bolster our armed forces as soon as possible, writes John Baron.

One positive response to the 'partygate' furore was the reformation and reinvigoration of the 1922 backbench committees. The Prime Minister made it clear that the Cabinet and No 10 should listen to and engage with these committees, and the 1922 Defence Committee, which I chair, published its first report earlier this month.

The report is the result of discussions at the meetings of the committee as well as an extensive consultation via a 'call for evidence' across the back benches, and I am grateful to all who contributed to the report. It has been submitted to the No 10 Policy Unit and the MoD; the committee had a useful and productive discussion with the Defence Secretary last week, and I look forward to presenting the report to the Policy Unit shortly and Prime Minister thereafter.

The overall conclusion of the report is that the findings of last year's Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper should be revisited, and that the related cuts to military manpower and capabilities should be halted immediately while a threat-based review is carried out to examine the staffing levels and equipment required post-Ukraine. Meanwhile, defence spending should increase in real terms.

The invasion of Ukraine marks a step-change in the security environment of our home area, as shown by the new life breathed into NATO – an organisation which only in November was described by President Macron as 'brain dead'. Sweden and Finland have even abandoned their longstanding opposition to membership.

Such momentous events require a reappraisal of the assumptions in the government's latest strategies to ensure we are fully prepared for a new Cold War and the realistic prospect of war itself. Well-equipped, sizeable and capable armed forces act as a strong deterrent, actually making conflict less likely by raising the costs for the invader and making them all too apparent.

Whatever the findings of these reassessments, there is certainly a need for increased defence spending. There is a wide consensus across the back benches that the Army is too small and lacking key capabilities – the Ukrainian conflict highlights the shortcomings of our own artillery – and protecting even one of our aircraft carriers, even if it had a full complement of aircraft, would probably require a large proportion of the Royal Navy.

The report also concluded that defence spending should not be predicated on a fixed percentage of GDP, which is subject to the ebb and flow of the economy. Instead, Britain should work out what it needs, both in terms of manpower and material, and aim to achieve these capabilities.

Write for us.

We're always on the lookout for talented writers and welcome submissions. Please send your opinion piece or pitch to: editor@commentcentral.co.uk

In addition, the costs of military and MoD civilian pensions should no longer count towards defence spending, and the costs of the nuclear deterrent should once again no longer come out of the defence budget. Nuclear deterrence is less a defence task and more a long-term insurance policy for every life and item of property in the country. It should be treated accordingly, and this would act to boost the resources spent on conventional forces.

We also concluded that the government should take greater steps to support home-grown talent in our defence industry, including through such initiatives as the Clyde Shipbuilding Academy. This will strengthen industry, support jobs and exports, as well as safeguarding sovereign defence capabilities.

Alongside this should go a more developed awareness of the potential threats posed by foreign acquisitions of key British defence companies. Though these companies may be bought by companies headquartered in friendly countries, the tendency is for know-how and intellectual property to eventually move overseas. Amongst other considerations, this may have implications for the security of supply chains which, as the Russians are finding out, are nowadays very international.

The report also noted that the processes around defence procurement are being reviewed, which is welcome given the MoD's bad reputation in this regard – the ongoing problems with the Ajax vehicle being a good example. We concluded the government should give greater thought to buying 'off-the-shelf' equipment rather than going down the route of exquisite and highly-expensive bespoke equipment. A weapons system which is 80 per cent 'perfect' and available at scale and speed is superior to one which is 100 per cent 'perfect' but unavailable.

The war in Ukraine has highlighted how quickly modern warfare can go through advanced weapons. With this in mind, the report concluded that the government should hold sufficient stockpiles of these weapons, similar to the scale of the Cold War arsenals. At a minimum, Britain should ensure a rock-solid supply chain so that these weapons can be produced even in wartime conditions.

The report also focused on the importance of well-motivated personnel. It suggests more importance should be placed on improving pay and accommodation, as well as ensuring greater support is provided to support soldiers' mental health. Further recommendations are that in addition to raising the overall numbers of defence personnel, the number of women and minorities in both military and civilian defence roles should increase to ensure a defence sector which reflects modern Britain. It was also felt that recruitment should be brought back 'in house', as its outsourcing has not been a success.

The report also highlighted that NATO should remain the cornerstone of Europe's defence, and that Britain should use its diplomatic and other strengths to ensure this remains the case. This will involve persuading EU members that an 'EU Army', working in parallel to NATO, is not in our mutual best interests. It will also involve continual efforts to persuade the United States as to NATO's value; the next President may be more equivocal in their support for the Alliance.

These are the broad findings and conclusions of the report, which we trust No 10 will engage with and take on board in a meaningful sense. Having founded these committees and tasked them with providing policy recommendations, the Prime Minister would be well-advised to heed his backbenchers. After all, Ukraine means defence will have a salience at the forthcoming election that it has not had for some time, and defence spending feeds directly into support for industry, 'levelling up' and our union.

2 votes

Sign-up for free to stay up to date with the latest political news, analysis and insight from the Comment Central team.

By entering your email address you are agreeing to Comment Central’s privacy policy