The anticipated cuts in the forthcoming National Security Capability Review risk undermining our armed forces at a time when the threat to our national security is rising argues John Baron MP.

The forthcoming National Security Capability Review has once again focused minds on our defence capabilities, and how much we resource them. If press reports are accurate, the Review will recommend further reductions in defence, including reducing still further the size of the Regular Army, fewer ships for the Royal Navy, and merging elements of the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines. This would be undesirable for many reasons, and would not serve our best interests.

In the first instance, it is surprising that the Government commissioned this review such a short time after its last iteration. It is concerning if those tasked with designing a five-year strategy, an important part of which is ‘horizon scanning’ for emerging challenges, were unable to spot potential problems just two years distant. The need to repeat this exercise so soon, albeit on a smaller scale, surely gives weight to the view that we need to spend more not only on defence, but on our foreign policy apparatus more generally.

Moreover, many countries, some not necessarily friendly to the West, are increasing their defence spending. In 2015, over a third of the increase in global defence spending was accounted for by Russia and China alone – this included a double-digit real increase in the Russian defence budget, bringing Moscow’s share of defence spending to more than 5% of its GDP. With the exception of 2010, China has seen year-on-year double-digit increases in its defence budget since 2000.

Meanwhile, Western defence spending has been shrinking – combined European defence budgets have fallen by around 20% over the last decade, despite interventions in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This has led the Belgian military, perhaps unfairly, being characterised as an ‘unusually well-armed pension fund’, and in recent years the branches of the German military have barely been able to field useable equipment and aircraft.

Britain has already gone too far down this road. The Coalition Government oversaw deep and damaging reductions in defence capabilities, all driven not by a strategic assessment of defence requirements but by the tough spending rules necessary to fix the public finances after Labour’s economic mismanagement.  Yet these rules were not uniformly applied, with some budgets – most notably the international aid budget – being ring-fenced and enlarged, with the result that cuts fell unfairly harshly on unprotected Departments such as the MoD and FCO.

I opposed these defence cuts, including by trying to amend the Defence Reform Act as it was going through Parliament. Amongst others, the cuts saw the disbandment of well-recruited units such as 2nd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, despite 400 ex-Fusiliers marching on Parliament in the first such action since Cromwell.

We were sadly unsuccessful in saving 2nd Battalion, but our campaign highlighted the Coalition’s wrongheaded and cost-driven plans to compensate for the sacking of 20,000 Regular troops by recruiting 30,000 Reservists. On top of this, and in a further attempt to save money, the MoD subsequently opted to let the Regular troops go before training or even recruiting the necessary Reservists to plug the gap.

As many of us warned would happen, these plans have led to real capability gaps as well as concerns over cost-effectiveness. Slow recruitment has required substantial extra spending on advertising campaigns and recruiting staff, as well as millions of pounds on redesigning an IT system.

Despite, this, recruitment still appears to be behind target, perhaps influencing the Army’s decision in October 2016 to class ‘Phase 1’ recruits as part of its ‘trained strength’, rather than when recruits passed their ‘Phase 2’ training as before. Notably the Royal Naval Reserve and RAF Reserve have not chosen to go down this route.

Reducing our defence capabilities sends the wrong messages to allies and potential adversaries alike, and has wider ramifications beyond defence alone. Cutting back on defence spending suggests, however wrongly, that you are retreating from the world stage, and your views are valued less by others as a result – this can also have the effect of emboldening the competition.

We already spend too little on defence. Although Britain is one of the few NATO countries to meet the unofficial threshold of spending at least two per cent of GDP on defence, this is achieved by some fairly generous assessments of what constitutes military spending – the amount spent on MoD civil servants’ pensions, for example, is now also included in the calculations.

Instead, defence spending should be closer to three to four per cent of GDP, in line with what we were spending in the mid-1990s even after the end of the Cold War. This would send a positive message to the world, and provide us with sufficient margin to cope with unexpected challenges. In today’s increasingly unpredictable world, this is both sensible and essential.

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