Manifesto Check: Tory defence policy talks tough but cuts deep

Britannia rule the waves – subject to spending priorities. Stefan Rousseau/PA

Welcome to The Conversation’s Manifesto Check, where academics from across the UK subject each party’s manifesto to unbiased, expert scrutiny.

While the hallmark of Labour’s defence manifesto was brevity, the same cannot be said of the Conservative manifesto’s line on defence. Although it contains its fair share of rhetoric as well, the manifesto devotes considerably more space to these issues than its Labour equivalent.

This may not be that surprising given the primacy the Conservatives have traditionally given to these matters, and their disdain for Labour’s record. The party never misses an opportunity to remind the voting public that Labour’s Great Recession (often emphasised with capital letters) weakened Britain on the world stage – and the 2015 manifesto is a case in point.

Fighting talk

The section on defence veers between rhetoric and actual policy, and reads more like a mini-National Security Strategy or Spending Review than a template for five years of government. It notes the “£38 billion black hole in the defence budget” left by the Brown government, and that Labour left a gap of “12 years without conducting a Strategic Defence Review”.

This is somewhat uncharitable. The £38 billion figure (more an overspend or deficit than a “black hole”) is debatable, and while the “12 year gap” is not, long periods between major reviews are historically not uncommon.

And while it’s hard to quantify claims such as “we have strengthened Britain’s place in the world”, many commentators have recently questioned this one in particular.

The Financial Times, hardly a citadel of the left, has noted that “the principal markers of Mr Cameron’s foreign and defence policies have been drift and retreat.” The Economist decried the Foreign Office as “underfunded and demoralised”. When it comes to defence spending in particular, even the other partner in the so-called Special Relationship has signalled that it is “very concerned” with the impact of recent cuts.

The government’s claim to have “balanced the defence budget” is not new, but as RUSI reported in an analysis of defence spending, it also “relies on the assumption that the equipment budget will grow at 1% above inflation every year, and that the rest of the budget is maintained at real 2015/16 levels.”

This has come at a cost to the British Armed Forces. RUSI found that the bulk of real-terms cuts in spending has been “felt in the personnel budget”.

Skeleton crew?

There has been some worry about the size of the British Army after the next spending review. To pay for large capital expenditure equipment costs if you are not willing to increase the defence budget, you have to shrink the force.

Pep talk. Stefan Rousseau/PA

That the army will be cut from 100,000 soldiers to 82,000 by 2020 has been known for some time, but there have been recent warnings that it could be reduced to as few as 50,000 soldiers. So it is striking that the Tory manifesto commits not to reduce the army to below 82,000 soldiers.

Although the manifesto claims that a Conservative government will “maintain our world class Armed Forces”, there is no specific pledge to ring-fence defence spending; the MoD will most likely not be spared the axe.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that the cost of Trident and a large portion of the operational budget comes out of the regular defence budget.

Spend, spend, spend (or don’t)

The manifesto recognises that currently “we are meeting NATO’s two targets” of spending 2% of GDP on defence, and 20% of that on major equipment costs. Never mind the fact that this marker is only achieved by folding some intelligence costs into the MoD budget – there is also no commitment in the manifesto to maintaining the 2% commitment in the future.

When it comes to procurement costs, the manifesto is quite specific, committing to “invest at least £160 billion … over the next decade” on six Type 45 Destroyers, seven Astute submarines, and an undisclosed number of Joint Strike Fighters, Scouts, Type 26 frigates and Apache helicopters. It also commits to put both the new Aircraft Carriers into service so that “we have one available for use at all times”.

But it is not clear how the defence budget will make sure these behemoths are value for money once they’re in service. Budget shortfalls could severely limit both the number of aircraft deployed to the carriers and the duration of their deployments.

It is no surprise that the Conservatives have pledged to “retain the Trident continuous at sea nuclear deterrent” and “four Successor Ballistic Missile Submarines”, both announced prior to the release of the manifesto. But as the RUSI report above notes, this would require serious trade-offs: replacing the Trident submarines is “due to take the largest share of the forward procurement programme” and “if economies have to be made, air, maritime and land systems could all be vulnerable”.

It is difficult to see how a Conservative government could stick to all of these major equipment expenditures, maintain manpower levels and keep the possibility of military operations open without a defence spend of 2% GDP over the next parliament. And given the party’s dogged pledge to eliminate the deficit, it’s hard to imagine it spending that much.

If the Conservatives get the chance to put this defence plan into policy, something will have to give. Ultimately, it looks like there would be be a tremendous gap between the ambition of the National Security Strategy and a Conservative government’s ability to fulfil it.