The scandal of Britain’s ‘withered’ armed forces: A strong defence is essential to liberty

In allowing our armed forced to become ‘withered’, successive governments have failed in a fundamental responsibility of the state

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, in discussing co-operation with incoming US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, said on Sunday that we cannot view Russia as an equal, but rather as a ‘strategic competitor’.  It seems that perhaps some of the warnings given by General Sir Richard Barrons when he retired as Commander Joint Force Command and wrote a 10-page memorandum to Fallon highlighting a number of fundamental failings in UK Defence policy, may be starting to take root.

In Syria, the Western model of intervention to shape the global terrain in line with our own foreign policy has come face-to-face with Russia attempting to do the same thing, and the simple fact is that our respective priorities are not in perfect accord.

In his excoriating critique of the handling of Defence matters, Gen Barrons drew attention to the total lack of ability of the UK to defend itself against a credible state actor.  We had become, he said, too embroiled in the thinking forced upon us by the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the immediacy of ongoing operations against non-state actors overshadowing a realistic appraisal of the changing global environment.  And this was in terms of two of the main pillars of fighting power.

First, conceptually, we suffer from the conceit that we would be able to choose the terms on which conflict would be fought, naturally preferring it to be ‘as small and as short term as we want to afford…and that is absurd’.  Secondly, our physical ability to wage effective warfare has been hollowed out by increasing cuts and failure to invest in manpower, command and control systems, and hardware.

At the end of the Cold War, President George H. W. Bush proclaimed a ‘New World Order’ where the USA, as a solitary superpower, would be able to flex its muscles benignly in pursuit of a trinity of goals: peaceful international relations, the spread of democratic ideals, and free-market capitalism.  However, the world has changed once more, and this vision seems utopian and naive.

Mercantilism and protectionism are on the rise.  We are coming to understand, particularly from the aftermath of the second Iraq invasion, that an injection of liberal democracy is not a straightforward panacea.   The Coalition Government’s 2010 National Security Strategy categorised inter-state warfare as a third-tier threat. The 2015 Conservative vision for ‘A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom’, however, recognised that it was once again rising in importance as a security concern.

Deterrence theory, well understood in the Cold War nuclear framework of Mutually Assured Destruction, has given rise to a new paradox: we have failed to invest in our ability to defend against conventional threats because we have seen them as a low priority; however, because we have not invested in the capability, the threat posed by conventional forces is now concomitantly higher.  Russia has consolidated itself and become emboldened under Putin, and in China the People’s Liberation Army continues its inexorable forward march.

It is a straightforward observation that security gives rise to liberty.  It is only if we are strong and secure as a nation that we have the freedom of action to pursue foreign policy goals, to trade, and to truly enjoy our status as a global power.  This doesn’t just apply to homeland defence; if we are to look Russia in the eye over the Syria negotiating table with any credibility, they need to know that they are dealing with depth, not merely the ‘window-dressing’ which Sir Richard has characterised our defence policy as becoming.

Whilst overall Government spending must continue to be reduced, the relative priority of Defence within that spending must be sharply increased.  This could be achieved with direct allocation of funds as a proportion of the overall budget.  In this sense, the 2% GDP NATO budget target must be seen as an irreducible minimum, rather than a generous aspiration.  But we must also conduct a more thorough appraisal of what our Armed Forces are used for, and reallocate budget funds appropriately.

The Armed Forces have undoubted utility as an instrument of foreign policy beyond all-out war.  DfID’s aid budget includes a ‘Conflict, Security and Stability Fund’, which, instead of being squandered on often badly managed and ideologically dubious NGOs, should bear the brunt of spending where Forces are deployed in furtherance of such objectives in the Third World, despite the inevitable laments from those who feel that foreign aid should be a form of no-strings, hair-shirt penance.  If the UK taxpayer is funding it, they are entitled to expect a genuine return on their investment, and not at the expense of their own domestic security.

The budgetary background to our contributions to the likes of Operation SOPHIA, the EU naval operation dealing with the Migrant Crisis in the Mediterranean, must also be re-evaluated, as well as its broader impact on our manpower and materiel. More broadly, the Government has become over reliant on the Armed Forces to plug capability gaps elsewhere in Government; whilst this is appropriate in a time of national emergency, it cannot be an ordinary contingency.

Finally, within the Defence budget itself, we must look to invest not just for counter-insurgency capability, but ensure that our ability to wage conventional warfare is adequately resourced, including the command and control, logistics, and intelligence systems that underpin it.

The alternative is a form of lingchi, as our influence – and therefore our security – wanes, Syria and Eastern Europe being the immediate issues, with the South China Sea and the Pacific not far off.  These are a concern for our Five Eyes and Commonwealth allies who find themselves increasingly in the shadow of growing Chinese influence.  It is in our interests to support them, as well as to maintain and reaffirm our status as the dominant European power in NATO.

This is not just pursuit of military power for its own sake.  For despite the pretensions of the EU to be a significant power bloc, it is NATO, and the Anglosphere’s Five Eyes community, which have done more than any other institution to secure our freedom, and which present our best hope for the future.  As an island and a trading nation, we require a high level of global influence to secure not only our day-to-day safety, but our long term freedom and prosperity as well.


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