Defence: The Tories’ Greatest Shame | Jake Painter
When one thinks about a Conservative government and the issues it should be competent on, what comes to mind? One can be law and order, where the Tories are seen to be tough on crime and keeping law abiding citizens safe from criminality. Another can be immigration, where the Tories would in popular imagination have the ‘draw up the drawbridges at Dover’ type of mentality. You could even mention the Tories historic tendency to be perceived as the party of sound economics and prosperity: delivering or even repairing a damaged economy left to them by an inept opposition. One key issue worth mentioning though is defence and much like the rest of the aforementioned issues that the Tories should in theory be good at, the modern Conservative party has fallen woefully short at delivering on the basics.
Admittedly, many of these issues do date back to before the Tories ascendency into power in 2010 but others fall within the past twelve years of Conservative government. One that falls within both is our nuclear deterrent. The degree to which it can be classed as truly independent must be called into question. To start off with, Britain doesn’t even manufacture its own nuclear missiles, with them being built in the United States; with British subs having to make repairs and maintenance at the USA’s naval base at Kings Bay Georgia. Once more; gas reservoirs, missile body shells, guidance systems, GPS, targeting software, gravitational information, and navigation systems; are all provided by the Americans.
People will retort and say that we have “operational independence” over our nuclear programme but the fact of the matter is that “operational independence” is based off the good will of Washington to a large degree. But this good will has never been put to the test. If the Americans at any time wanted to negate our ability to use our nuclear deterrent, they could very well do so and there is not much we could do about it in the short term. We would be like post-Soviet Ukraine, where we nominally have a potent stockpile of nuclear weapons but no means to actually delivering them. Now, where you fall on the issue of Britain’s nuclear deterrent is immaterial to the point I’m making here, because the Trident issue represents a far deeper fault within our defence policy. In that a lack of an truly independent nuclear deterrent is just one case of many where we cannot act independently on the world stage in any meaningful way and outsource much of our defence to supposed allies. The government could rectify this issue but chooses not to, instead opting to buy the latest version of the American Trident missile; most likely with the same caveats and restrictions that we have now.
Many more examples can be used, such as the F-35 jet, where 85% of the parts that make up the F-35 are not sourced in the UK. Where we are again mostly reliant on the Americans. The fundamental point here is ally or not, the UK should not be at the whim of ANY foreign power for her defence needs. Governments come and go and geo-political realities along with it and when the winds of change arise, we must be able to stand on our own two feet and meet any challenges that come our way. At times – many I’d argue – we need to ditch interdependence and in matters of defence, autarky should be pursued as much as humanly possible.
As an Englishmen it may be heretical for me to say this but one really must admire how the French conduct their defence policy. France has arguably the most capable military in mainland Europe, with the ability to independently defend France proper and her overseas territories but also the ability to project power. Whatever ones moral objections to Françafrique may be and France’s other foreign policy adventures, it’s clear they’re able to conduct themselves on their own terms and in addition to this, have a strong local defence industry to boot. From the FAMAS assault rifle (in the process of being phased out), to the Leclerc MBT, to the Dassault Rafale fighter plane; the French Armed Forces feel ‘French’. Whilst France in recent years has started to move towards a more Eurocentric defence industry: it can be said that they still rely primarily on themselves when it comes to matters of defence.
That being said, an article talking about the shortcomings of our defence policy would not be complete if we didn’t touch upon the complete sham that is military procurement. For that, we turn to the Ajax Armoured Fighting Vehicle.
The Ajax programme was awarded to General Dynamics UK in 2010, with the first deliveries to be made in 2017 and was expected to be deployed by 2020. However, severe issues with the design have arisen, with personnel testing the vehicle needing medical attention because of the vibrations the vehicle produces. Five years after it was supposed to be delivered and with £3.5 billion spent, there’s serious worry that the platform will ever be delivered. Furthermore – arguably most scandalous of all – the MOD has not levied financial damages on General Dynamics UK for none delivery. Instead, General Dynamics continues to receive taxpayer money for a failing project and we don’t get so much as a rebate for their incompetence. The HOC defence committee also commented in 2021 that there is a severe lack of technical know-how in procurement within the MOD.
The story of MOD waste doesn’t end there either. Not only is the procurement policy in tatters, but the MOD also has a problem with what can be described ‘deferred payments’. It works like this. Whenever the MOD is over budget but is procuring a new piece of kit for the Armed Forces, it will defer payments into the next fiscal year, in order to save money in the short-term. This inevitably means however that often the Armed Forces do not get the promised kit they were promised on time and it even increases the costs on the ordered kit overall. This is exactly what happened with the acquisition of the Protector Drone (soon to be in service this year), with the decision to defer the programme estimated to have costed the taxpayer an extra £326 million. A similar story arises with the aforementioned F-35: where we were initially supposed to have 138 F-35’s but have only ordered 48 (only 21 have actually been delivered) due to budgetary issues, and those 48 will have to be shared between the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.
To make matters worse, the extra sixteen billion spending boost to the Armed Forces over the few years will likely go mostly to plug spending blackholes within the MOD. With the 10 year spending blackhole estimated to be around £10 billion.
Now as stated before, many of these issues existed before the Tories came to power, but again these are issues that they’ve had twelve years to fix. Failure to fix such issues in such a long space of time rubbishes Britain’s tangible military capabilities and her credibility along with it. It leaves our servicemen and women short of the capabilities they need to rise to the challenge and not only defend the realm but also to project Britain’s power abroad. The UK nominally spends around £44.6 billion on defence and does spend its 2% of GDP on defence (as required by our NATO membership). However – when one looks beyond the surface level and digs deeper – it is clear that our real capabilities most likely fall far short. The days in which Britain was a global superpower are well and truly over but we should be able to be a medium-sized country that can be expected to exert a great deal of hard power and influence abroad. Instead, Her Majesty’s Armed Forces are continually let down by neglectful policy makers and incompetent MOD Mandarins who can’t get their house in order.
There are however issues with current defence policy that are purely of the Tories’s own making.
Defence was one of the few departments that received nominal and real term decreases in funding during the coalition years. Between 2010-2017, the UK military lost £6.6 billion in real terms, a cut of 14.6% compared to 2010 from 2017. Investment is only just on the road to recovery.
Last year the General Staff introduced its ‘Future Soldier’ programme, as part of the 2021 defence review, and to be fair there are positives about it. There are promises of billions being invested into the Armed Forces, though as mentioned before much will be wasted. There are promises to commit £6.6 billion more to R&D investment and investing in more new equipment; such as the Challenger 3, Ajax, Boxer, AH-64E Apache and so on. The biggest problem with the integrated review is not the investments in new technologies and equipment, but rather the change in doctrine.
As part of the future soldier programme, the government are planning into invest a lot more in cyber warfare and high tech equipment in order to equip our Armed Forces for the “wars of the future”. No doubt these investments need to be made but we are doing so to the detriment of our traditional capabilities. The army by 2025 is to only have 72,500 personnel (down from the 76,325 we currently have), with their only being 19,400 infantrymen by that time. The army will be at its smallest size since 1714 and the other branches of the Armed Forces are not going to fair much better; with the RAF set to lose 24 of its older Typhoon jets and its fleet of Hercules transport aircraft (their replacements not coming in for a few years at least), and the navy having to retire two of its older frigates before they can be replaced.
Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat its mistakes and it’s by no means the first time that military thinkers and governments alike thought a shiny new piece of technology would make traditional military capabilities obsolete. After WW1, there was this widely held belief that an enemy could be destroyed entirely by airpower alone, which would be used to crush an enemy’s military and industrial capabilities. This was known as “the bomber will always get through” mentality (the actual quote attributed to former PM Stanley Baldwin in 1932). As the Second World War showed, you cannot defeat an enemy purely through airpower alone. The Blitz failed to break Britain’s fighting spirit and though the allied bombing of Germany devasted her capacity to wage war, it still took a ground invasion to make Germany capitulate.
As it was during WW2 with bombers, as it is with the current craze with cyber-warfare and the latest technologies. This is not to say that these things are not important and that we should not invest heavily in them, that would be folly. The point being is that you cannot subdue an enemy just launching a cyber-attack against its critical infrastructure: you will always need traditional military capabilities to bring them to heal. You will need infantry to occupy land, you will need airpower to control the skies and hit targets, and where an enemy hugs the sea, you need to be able to control hostile oceans. The government has seemed to have forgotten this entirely and depleted our traditional capabilities in favour of the fanciest new gadgets that again while important, do not and can never replace the bread and butter capabilities of the Armed Forces.
“I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through.”Stanley Baldwin in his ‘Fear for the Future’ speech on the 9th of November 1932
Defence secretary Ben Wallace has even gone so far to say that it is tempting to “use the shield of sentimentality” to protect “outdated capabilities”. Rarely do such comments age so badly as with this one, particularly when one thinks of the current situation in the Ukraine. Ukraine does pose a good point of reference in regards to the capabilities of our Armed Forces, in regards to their ability to oppose any significant military power. Leaving to one side the almost certain nuclear hell storm that would arise from fighting a war against Russia, what conventional means would we have to oppose a hostile power such as Russia?
Using the example of the Battle of Mons during the First World War is the perfect example. When the Germans rolled over Belgium in the August of 1914 as part of the Battle of the Frontiers, they would be met eventually by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the 23rd of August. The BEF – which numbered some 80,000 professional volunteer soldiers – was soldier to soldier far superior in training and skill to the mostly conscript army of the Germans, but that didn’t really matter in the end. The BEF’s puny numbers meant that they could not withstand the full force of the German onslaught and would have to retreat from Mons by the afternoon of the 23rd. By the end of 1914, that initial BEF of highly skilled soldiers had been mostly wiped out and had to have be replaced by volunteers and later conscripts.
I mention this because the same fate would befall our Armed Forces if they were to go up against Russia in Ukraine in a hypothetical scenario (purely hypothetical: I don’t think this will happen, nor do I wish it to). British servicemen and women would be superior in training and in many cases superior in equipment if they faced off against their Russian counterparts, but again that would matter for little. In any prolonged conflict against Russia, our Armed Forces miniscule numbers and degradation in conventional capabilities will show and they would gradually get worn down by attrition. Our ability to defend Britain herself against Russia is very much in doubt, as Russia could very likely cripple our ability to conduct a war within a matter of a couple of days. The examples don’t just stop with Russia either, the uncomfortable truth is that our Armed Forces are unable to wage any war (independently) against any foe that are not Islamist terror groups in the Middle East or war lords in Sierra Leone.
Detractors will say that we can always fall back on NATO for our defensive needs but that’s a big part of the problem. It may be unfashionable to be critical of NATO in the current context but it is both a source of strength through collective security but also one of our biggest weaknesses. It has allowed policy makers in the UK complacent and idle in matters of defence, in the knowledge that NATO (mostly the Americans) will pick up the tab. This situation however is untenable in the long run: who’s to say the Americans and Europe at large will always be there to meet Britain’s security needs? It’s a question we’ve long ignored but one we need to start getting to grips with. Collective security is exactly that, collective; meaning that every nation who is part of the arrangement must be able to contribute and defend their own realms. Whether or not one is in favour of our current security arrangements is immaterial to the fundamental point. Britain needs to get a grip with its defence policy.
They say a week is a long time in politics: so it must be the twelve whole years of Tory government. The Tories have had more than enough time to fix the issues at hand with defence and have in most cases not improved the situation or have even made things worse. It’s time we start holding them to account before the global situation takes such a turn that it is too late. Peace is guaranteed through strength and we have for far too long had peace whilst being weak. This situation cannot possibly last for much longer.