In addition to my work locally I am also very interested and concerned about defence issues and wrote this article below for Conservative Home but they wont have time to publish until after the General Election. So here is it is.
‘We want eight and we won’t wait’ that was the cry in Parliament in 1909 by a Conservative MP for how many Dreadnought type battleships we should build in response to the perceived German threat. Thanks to public support we built eight battleships that year and went into WW1 with a clear superiority over the Imperial German Navy.
In the recent Conservative Home survey of party member’s, the question “Uphold the NATO commitment to spend at least two per cent of GDP on defence” received the highest support of any policy commitment demonstrating that Conservatives believe in prioritising defence spending.
While the Prime Minister recently made the welcome announcement that defence spending will increase faster than inflation by 0.5% a year, what does that mean in terms of combat effectiveness and is it enough when the latest Treasury Public Spending Statistics report shows a decline in Departmental Expenditure Limits (long term planned expenditure) defence spending from £37,196 million in 2011/12 to £34,424 million in 2015/16 and a decline from 2.4% of GDP to 1.9% over the same period.
But is it right that we now measure our military effectiveness and preparedness through purely financial criteria. Is spending 2% of our GDP on defence or the relative international size of our budget the measure we should be using? And last year the Defence Committee concluded that we had met our 2% commitment “through what appears to be creative (albeit permissible) accounting.” And the recent letter to the Sun newspaper by a wide range of retired military leaders said “Government boasts of spending two per cent of GDP on defence are widely criticised as an accounting deception. Most analysts agree core defence expenditure for hard military power is well below two per cent.”
But what % of GDP we spend tells us nothing about our defence preparedness now or in the future. The real questions should be, are we fully funding the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), do we need to update the SDSR given global changes and how do we ensure that the military units described in the SDSR are deployable and effective.
The SDSR says we should have nineteen destroyers and frigates. Will six Type 45 destroyers, eight Type 26 global combat ships and five Type 31 general purpose frigates be enough? Given that in the Falklands war we lost four destroyers and frigates and had another five badly damaged (we would have lost more had the Argentineans possessed more Exocet missiles and better fused bombs) are fourteen top line warships and five lower capability frigates adequate?
I wrote previously here that those ships won’t have the ability to sink large ships at a safe distance between 2018 and possibly as late as 2030 due to the retirement next year of the Harpoon anti-ship missile. We have announced that the Type 26’s will carry the Mk41 vertical missile launcher which can launch a wide range of offensive weapons including anti-ship, anti-submarine and land strike missiles but even though construction starts this summer we have not yet said what type of weapons will be acquired let alone when. The American, Japanese and Korean Navies all launch a wide range of missile types from their Mk41 launchers. And it has just been announced that we will re-manufacture thirty-eight WAH-64D Apache attack helicopters, last year we said we would manufacture fifty new E versions, we have sixty-six D in the inventory today.
What is also missing is any objective analysis of what the right level of capability should be given the global situation. What core capabilities do we wish to have? Given that it can take decades to design and build new weapons what capability do we want out to the 2040’s? If we do not invest enough in our military the costs of failure are very high, either we lose the ability to deter conflict or if conflict is forced on us we lose. And failure will almost certainly be measured in British dead and injured.
We also need to move away from purely financial measures of defence capability. So, a modern replacement for the “We want eight and we won’t wait” cry could be “We want two fully equipped globally deployable carrier strike groups, more than twenty top line combatants capable of destroying enemy ships, aircraft and submarines at safe distances, two squadrons of search aircraft, silent attack submarines, the ability to land Royal Marines anywhere in the world and the ability to hunt and destroy any mines that threaten our shipping lanes and we won’t wait”
I know that is a mouthful but if we are to be serious about defence that is the kind of detail we need to be discussing rather than stating what % of our GDP we are spending as if that is enough to deter aggression.