Over the past few months, Britain's armed services have been in
You know the drill. The weapons the forces want to buy will bust
the defence budget, so cuts have to be made. The services leak
furiously against each other, each valiantly trying to shove the
others towards the chopping block.
In December, Defence Secretary John Hutton adopted the
time-honoured remedy: cancel nothing, but delay a lot - those new
aircraft carriers will have been talked about for two decades
before they arrive, if they ever do. With delays, of course, come
And all the while, the forces shrink and the Ministry of Defence
proclaims there is no cause for alarm. That's particularly
laughable now that the MoD's been put on the hook by the Treasury
for most of operational costs in Iraq, and also Afghanistan where
Britain suffered its 150th fatality this week since hostilities
began in 2001.
That will turn the Treasury's proclaimed £500m increase on
defence into a £1.2bn cut. Sure, the Treasury always wins,
but for Hutton to do that badly, the forces must have been in an
even deeper hole than he let on.
The Treasury's claw-back is standard stuff. They know how to
work a crisis. But when crises keep on happening, they're not
crises. They're normal, and that's not the same as good. Britain's
forces are in a hole. Here's why.
There are three things you have to get right if you want to have
a sensible defence policy. How much you spend, what you buy with
it, and doctrine, or what you plan to do with what you've
The cure for Britain's forces is not simply more money. It's
true that Labour's taken Britain perilously close to the precipice.
Defence spending now is 2.3 per cent of GDP. The last time Britain
went lower was in 1933. By 1939, that didn't look so smart.
So spending needs to rise. Historically, 4 per cent of GDP is a
reasonable level. Set that as the target, so the forces aren't
nibbled away by demands for peace dividends, and move towards it
gradually, over the next decade.
But just spending more money is no cure. Procurement's broken
too. The Government uses it as a wildly inefficient welfare policy.
It buys at home, even if what it buys is expensive, because it's a
way of paying off the trade unions.
Buying British is not an assertion of sovereignty. That's not a
knock on Britain. But it's a fact that most everything the British
forces use has American or European components in it already.
The US should buy British if it is efficient. And Britain should
buy American when it needs to. Defence should be about defence, not
about showering workers in key constituencies with wasteful
But it's hard to know what you want to buy unless you know what
you're going to use it for. Even the US can't cover every
contingency. Britain certainly can't afford to do so.
But Britain doesn't really think about doctrine. When the
Strategic Defence Review came out in 1998, the big concept in it
was "jointness". All the services would co-operate with each other,
which, conveniently, would both save money and make them
Of course, "jointness" didn't work out as planned. But the real
problem is that "jointness" was a US concept: Britain ripped it off
from the US's Joint Vision 2010, which came out in 1996. Then, in
2003, Labour shifted to emphasising "transformation". That was a US
idea too, associated with then-Secretary of Defence Donald
There are a couple of problems with Britain's relentless copying
of the U.S. First, sometimes the US gets it wrong. And second, even
when the US is right, America's defence budget is 10 times as big
The kind of doctrine you have, the kind of weapons you buy, and
the amount of money you spend are all connected. Or at least they
should be connected. Copying US doctrine without copying the US's
budget means you won't have enough money to go round. And that's
why the British forces are always falling short.
So fixing the problem doesn't start with money. It starts with
recognising why Britain has armed forces. Like any democratic
state, Britain maintains its forces for two reasons: to deter
potential adversaries, and to beat them if they play rough.
This Government has decided that future wars are going to be
light, Afghan-style affairs. Therefore, it doesn't need to buy
anything heavy, like tanks. Conveniently, heavy things are also
expensive. The Government's crystal ball is really all about saving
Even on its own terms, this vision is foolish. No one knows what
the future of war holds. People who are sure they do invariably end
up looking very silly, very dead, or both.
And light forces, no matter what their other merits, are not
good at deterrence. Trident is not the answer: Britain should keep
it, but relying on nuclear weapons alone is not something a liberal
state should get comfortable with.
That means Britain, to deter and to win, needs balanced
conventional forces, ones that don't rely on the magic-wand
victories of "transformation". And that means Britain needs to
raise its defence budget and emphasise efficiency in
The fact that Britain does not connect money, procurement, and
doctrine coherently is not the fault of the forces. The real
problem is that neither the politicians nor the British people take
defence issues as seriously as they used to.
In the most recent list of Cabinet precedence, the Ministry of
Defence was in 10th place, behind the Department of the
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That is a European order of
priorities. The British people are proud of their armed forces,
but, like the continent, they do not appear to want to make a
sustained national commitment to defence.
That will not work. If the defence crises are to end, a firm
commitment of care, money, and above all of sustained thought will
have to be made. And it needs to be made. An under-armed Britain is
not simply failing in its duties to its citizens, to Nato, and to
its men and women in uniform. It is tempting predatory powers to
The world's democracies tried that strategy in the inter-war
years. It failed miserably. There is no reason to try it again.
Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Margaret Thatcher
Centre for Freedom at the Washington-based Heritage