Ed McGuinness is a founder of Conservatives in the City, and contested Hornsey & Wood Green at the last general election.
During Remembrance Week a mixture of emotions will fill the public’s mind. Some may take this moment to remember our late Queen, whose annual sombre leadership at the Cenotaph, over 70 years, embodied the sacrifice of our Nation’s fallen.
Amidst the more traditional moment of reflection of soldiers, sailors and aircrew who sacrificed so much during the Wars of the early 20th Century, my attention turns to the war burning at the edge of Europe and how we can strengthen ourselves to avoid such destructive acts in the future.
Like in the period between the two World Wars, we live in an increasingly multipolar world. Yet, unlike that period, the last thirty years have been dominated by an American security hegemony. This moral hazard allowed Western Europe to neglect investing in its armed forces in favour of social programmes.
Now, where our military adversaries see overt defensive posturing as a symbol of power and prestige, regaining that hard power edge will be critical in deterring and influencing our more bellicose neighbours.
It is not as simple as adding a few zeros to the defence budget. We must articulate three basic ideas to lead us on a path to success in defence investment and maintaining strength.
First is realising we cannot do everything. But we need to do most. Developments such as the creation of the Ranger regiments, new heavy lift aircraft and the new aircraft carriers are positive steps towards this. However, we must avoid spreading ourselves too thin.
The difficult of generating capability is correlated to the complexity of the platform you are operating on. For example, bringing an aircraft carrier up to full operation takes a lot more resource than training an infantryman. In a country with limited resources, we ought to focus on our larger, strategic capabilities, whilst retaining the ability to generate our less bespoke military assets.
Historically this is what we have done; in the pre-WWl era, we maintained a very small standing army, but a huge navy (by law twice the size of the next two largest navies combined).
Second, ministers must work to change the public’s understanding of what the military exists to do. I wrote back in the Spring that the Armed Forces risk becoming the national backstop for other public services when under pressure. Increasingly, this mission creep may have detracted from their core mission.
The conflict in Ukraine has refocused this somewhat, but peoples’ attention seldom lingers, particularly in a conflict many miles away. Operation Orbital – where the Armed Forces trained Ukrainian forces in effective tactics since 2014 – is an example of defence achieving its core role, and projecting influence across the globe in pursuit of our values. Being more effective at articulating and advertising these operations would help persuade the public what the proper role of the military really is.
Finally, there needs to be a shift in attitudes in government as to what kind of department the MoD is. Superficially, it is a spending department like the others, a competitor for resources. And, like other departments, it can reasonably argue that it provides a return on capital investment that benefits the country long term.
Defence, however and uniquely, is also a deterrence asset against our aggressive adversaries, in and of itself – in a way in which other departments cannot match.
Military investment would reinvigorate manufacturing bases across the UK, creating private enterprise, driving growth and innovation, and helping to solve the productivity conundrum which haunts the service-based British economy. Many of the world’s technological advancements have been born out of military innovation – and due to the nature of defence investment, the benefits would be concentrated here in Britain.
The relative calm period of post-Cold War calm is over. Our security can no longer depend so heavily on the US which, whilst remaining a steadfast ally, now has the Pacific competing for its attention. We have stepped up in Ukraine, but cannot and must not rest on our laurels now.
On this day each year, we take a short moment out of our lives to recall and give thanks for the service and sacrifice made by so many in this nation’s defence. But we can’t let that attitude become the special preserve of Armistice Day. Remembrance must be a spur to action in the here and now – it’s time to take defence seriously again.