Should the UK spend more on defence?

Where to? U.S. Army Europe Images/Flickr, CC BY

With three major spending and strategy reviews on the horizon, mounting criticism from international powers, and an austerity budget looming, the UK’s defence forces are facing a crunch over the next few months.

The UK’s defence strategy is guided by three key processes: the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). Each of these documents plays a crucial role in determining how much is spent on defence, how that spending is allocated and what role the UK will play on the international stage. All three processes are due to be completed by the end of this year: the NSS will come first, driving the SDSR, which will then be followed by the CSR.

The NSS is the key strategy document: its purpose – according to the NSS Joint Committee – is to “look hard at the UK’s place within the international order, and what strategic thinking should underpin its actions over the next five years”. The role of the SDSR is to demonstrate how UK defence can contribute to fulfilling the NSS. This is complemented by the CSR, which is supposed to “ensure that the government can make fully informed decisions on security-related spending”.

Saving or spending

There are a few things to consider about the UK government’s approach to defence spending and strategy. One key question is whether the SDSR will be strategically or financially driven; whether it will reflect a UK defence force that is retreating, or investing for the future.

Looking back at past examples, the 1998 SDSR was widely perceived to be strategically driven. It offered conclusions that were “largely welcome” by most commentators and were seen to “provide an insurance policy against future uncertainty”. In contrast, the 2010 SDSR was driven by both the government’s demand that defence contribute to general public expenditure savings and its need to respond to the over-commitments on equipment spending in the budget at the time.

As things stand, it appears that SDSR 2015 will be closer in character to 2010 than 1998, and the need to make savings will certainly be a factor. There is a growing consensus that there is “no sign that UK national strategy is about to escape the grip of austerity”. Indeed, before the SDSR process has even officially commenced, the government has announced that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will contribute to deficit reduction by making £500m worth of savings.

Losing face?

Having a financially driven SDSR, with a focus on making savings, is likely to have some complex consequences. For one thing, there’s the concern that the UK could lose standing among its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The UK has committed to meeting the NATO target of spending 2% of its GDP on defence. But this promise is only good for the current financial year (ending March 2016), and the UK’s defence spending looks likely to fall below the 2% target in the future.

With US energies focused on China and the Middle East, it is asking its NATO allies to do more. The collective defence cuts that took place across Europe in recent years have put NATO at risk of losing critical capabilities. So now, a growing number of European nations such as Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Poland are increasing their defence spending and France has decided to ring-fence defence spending from cuts.

The UK’s defence secretary, Michael Fallon, has argued that the UK government is investing for the future, with the fifth-largest defence budget in the world. In its election manifesto the government committed to increase the equipment budget, to be funded at 1% above inflation for the next parliament and not to reduce the army to below 82,000 members.

Fallon gets a talking-to. Defence Images/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

But if we look at the wider picture – as Giri Rajendran of the International Institute for Strategic Studies has pointed out – UK defence spending is 19% lower today in real terms than it was in 2010. As a result of these cuts, the government has come under criticism from both the domestic press and US officials. And the impression received by some of our key partners and allies is that UK defence is very much in retreat.

It is also prudent to ask – given the current levels of instability on Europe’s southern and eastern flanks today – whether conflict involving the UK will be more likely in the coming years. If it is, then surely we should be investing and preparing for it now. At the G7, Barack Obama requested that the UK stick to the 2% target beyond 2016 – but we will not have the government’s answer until the CSR is conducted this autumn.

A financial strategy

But of course, a lack of financial resources can itself be a strategic risk. And it is by no means unusual that SDSRs have a resource-driven element to them. The first major review conducted in 1957 as the Cold War gathered momentum stated that:

Britain’s influence in the world depends first and foremost on the health of her internal economy and the success of her export trade. Without these, military power cannot be supported in the long run. It is therefore in the true interests of defence that the claims of military expenditure should be considered in conjunction with the need to maintain the country’s financial and economic strength.

While designing an NSS and a SDSR that are driven by strategy might seem rather straightforward, it can be a difficult aspiration to attain. According to Professor Sir Hew Strachan, the “understanding and meaning of strategy has got lost, confused or become stripped of meaning”, and as a result “our execution of war aims is inevitably bungled”.

Another difficulty is that the development processes for each of these documents overlap and exist somewhat independently of each other. This is not prudent strategic planning. A good place to start would be a better coordinated approach to developing the NSS and SDSR alongside the CSR.

To paraphrase one analyst with whom I discussed our research into the UK’s defence transformation: you can save money, but you have to decide where to save money – and that is where the strategy comes in. But one oft-heard complaint – especially from some in the MoD – is that the capabilities (read SDSR) do not match the overambitious declarations of the NSS. In other words, we do not have the capacity to do everything, everywhere. If the government is not going to match spending and capabilities to its ambitions, then it should use the next NSS to offer a more realistic and honest assessment.