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12th October 2015

Did Britain botch its defence budget?

With the upcoming release of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, Adam Merrill analyses whether or not we really do support our troops

On the 22nd of September 2015, Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary of State, delineated the government’s view of the “strategic context” of the United Kingdom’s defence plan to a packed audience at the Royal United Services Institute. Fallon outlined the basis of the new Strategic Defence and Security Review, one of the most important defence plans since the Falklands conflict, which will summarize how Britain sees itself in the world, along with any potential threats to the United Kingdom.

In this speech he emphasized the UK’s commitment to annually spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence until the end of the present Parliament, which would allow the development of new capabilities along with the sustaining existing levels of manpower and capability. Fallon also mentioned that the SDSR would look ahead “ten years and beyond” with a properly funded equipment plan, and “multi-national solutions” in terms of defence equipment procurement and operational commitment.

The speech was succinct, but not particularly revealing. However, with close to 40 wars around the globe, and British troops currently deployed in 80 countries for one security/peacekeeping capacity or another, it is perhaps wise to have some sort of plan on Britain’s place in the world as a middling global power. Only last week, David Cameron announced that up to 300 UK soldiers would soon be deployed in South Sudan and a further 70 in Somalia to aid the United Nations peacekeeping forces.

With several regional wars in the Middle East; large parts of the African continent being subject to conflict and repression; an increasing militarization of territorial disputes in the South China Sea and conflicts in Eastern Europe involving a resurgent Russia, the case for an urgent defence review has never been clearer.

In reality, the 2 per cent of GDP commitment means little. Why? The Ministry of Defence is seemingly incapable of procuring equipment that does what it is supposed to do at the price that was supposed to be paid—such as the F35, whose costs have more than doubled (now £154m per plane), and whose arrival is four years late to go onto aircraft carriers that have cost twice the original estimations—there is little to suggest that the 2 per cent GDP will have any effect on sustaining existing levels of manpower, equipment and capability.

Just like the 2010 SDSR, the 2 per cent GDP target tells us that the government is again fixating on an arbitrary objective as a means of measuring defence spending for the simple reason that it becomes the objective of defence policy.

Similar to the NHS targets that saw ‘hello nurses‘ being deployed to treat A&E targets, the danger is that defence policy becomes fixated on meeting a single erratic target that has no relation to actual needs. For example, ethical debate of the Libyan intervention aside, the fact that during the 2011 operation, HMS Westminster was reportedly carrying just four missiles for its Sea Wolf System while operating close to the North African coast, is frankly worrying when considering the fact that this system was the primary self-defence weapon to be used if attacked by the Libyan air force.

Moreover, the RAF used 230 Brimstone missiles and 900 Paveway IV bombs, both of whose stocks came perilously close to running out, which highlights how small the inventories must have been in the first place. To give some perspective, the entire UK inventory of Brimstone and Paveway IV would have been sufficient to destroy the equipment of only one out of the dozens of Iraqi armoured brigade during the liberation of Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War. Those armoured brigades weren’t exactly the modern and efficient fighting formations that we would expect from today’s potential adversaries.

To hit the 2 per cent GDP target, clever sums will be deployed to ensure that the UK meets its aim, and we can already see this with costs being shuffled and elements qualifying as defence when they hadn’t previously—like fuel transfers and facility rental to allies, both of which will be maximized in order to hit the target. Looking at the summer budget of 2015, this can be seen with the shuffling of defence finances, which outlined that, “allowing for all of the public spending that supports the Ministry of Defence and the contribution made by the secret intelligence agencies, this Budget commits the government to meet the properly-measured NATO pledge to spend 2 per cent of national income on defence every year of this decade.”

Many questions can arise here. What do they mean by public spending that “supports” the MoD—is that simply another way of saying the MoD’s budget, or something else? Secondly, “the contribution made by the secret intelligence agencies” raises many problems. Since it is referring to MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, what does “contribution” from them actually mean? Is it inclusive of MI5’s budget on counter-espionage and organized crime, or just a proportion of MI5’s costs, that are devoted to counter-terrorism, to be used to prop up the 2 per cent target?

Even before the summer budget announcements, the MoD was “invited” to save £500m through “efficiency savings,” which resulted in the MoD’s £450m contribution to the joint MoD/FCO/DFiD ‘Conflict Stability and Security Fund’ (previously the Global Conflict Prevention Pool) to be included in the official definition of defence spending. Even the most devout pacifist should be concerned by these unnoticed shifts in definitions of defence equipment spending.

Lastly, in the past decades, British troops have been sent—ill-equipped and underfunded—to myriad warzones, often having to buy their own clothing and equipment to complete their tasks. During the Iraq war in 2003, 55 per cent of soldiers and 42 per cent of officers bought their own combat trousers, jackets, sleeping bags, torches and even boots. More recently in Afghanistan, soldiers have lacked basic equipment during training for operations, including the vital Vallon metal detectors that are used for seeking out improvised explosive devices.

If Britain is to be considered a serious military power, these incredibly basic problems must be addressed before any arbitrary targets to proportions of GDP and commitments to expensive equipment projects are made.

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