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When it comes to the United Kingdom’s foreign policy ambitions – of which defence spending should be considered an instrument – there are two important questions: what are they? And how much are we prepared to pay for them?
Such has been the degree of churn in British politics over the past few years that at present neither has an obvious answer.
Yes, the Government recently set out its ambitions in the Integrated Review Refresh 2023. The general thrust, especially the clearer-sightedness about China’s global ambitions, seems perfectly sensible.
But how long will it stick? Consider, for example, this passage: “Today’s international system cannot simply be reduced to ‘democracy versus autocracy’, or divided into binary, cold war-style blocs.”
Fine; it is wise to acknowledge that many developing nations, for reasons understandable if not always laudable, prefer Chinese cash to Western rhetoric, and that adopting too purist a posture will just create spaces for Beijing (and indeed a diminished but still dangerous Moscow) to fill.
But it was only, what, last autumn that creating a much more obviously ideological Network of Liberty (outlined by Liz Truss as foreign secretary, and for this site by Shanker Singham) was the focus of our foreign policy.
Writing in the Guardian, Patrick Wintour claims that it abandons the optimistic Global Britain bombast of the Boris Johnson era”. The Johnson Era ended eight months ago.
And we need only look back to the mid-2010s (a life-age at the current pace of British politics, but the blink of an eye in strategic terms) to see the Government heralding the dawn of a Sino-British “golden era”, with George Osborne boasting that the UK was China’s “best partner in the West”.
This was about the same time that the then-Chancellor was accused of engaging in “creative accounting” in hitting the NATO target of spending two per cent of GDP on defence, expanding the definition of relevant spending to include war pensions and intelligence work. (Has this ever been reversed?)
Perhaps the Russo-Ukrainian War really has sharpened minds, and the above will eventually come to look like a clumsy and disjointed shift away from the end-of-history optimism that followed the last Cold War and into the mindset of the next one.
But even if this is the case, it doesn’t follow that clarity about our aspirations – it might be going to far to refer to objectives – will translate into either a coherent vision of the role of the Armed Forces or the sustained investment needed to ensure they’re fit to perform it.
In recent decades, the general flavour of successive governments’ approach to the defence budget has been that it has been an easy cut; Putin’s invasion has made increased the saleability of increasing spending, for now, but how long will this last as domestic pressures, most obviously the NHS and social care, continue to mount over the next ten years or so?
Then there’s the question of whether the extra money will be well spent, and that isn’t obvious. At the delivery level, the UK’s record on military procurement poor enough to have triggered an inquiry by a Defence sub-committee of MPs.
It will be easier for ministers to sound like they’re solving this problem than to actually solve it. Consider the following stories about the Ajax armoured fighting vehicle, a particularly notorious white-elephant project:
What do we think the odds are that the Ministry of Defence has actually fixed (in two months!) a project of which one analyst wrote, less than three months ago: “As with the Universe’s faster-than-light expansion, the horizon for the UK’s Ajax armoured vehicle programme service entry remains always over the next hill”?
Even if the cynics are wrong about that, there remains the bigger question of targeting investment around a clear and, crucially, more restricted vision of what the Armed Forces are for.
To date, there has been deep reluctance to formally abandon the nominal capabilities of a much larger military; instead, successive governments have spent a little bit on everything, with the obvious consequence that little is done especially well and almost all the capital projects are late.
Do we want to focus on combating Russia in the European theatre? On an elite expeditionary Army and the Navy to deploy it? On providing highly-motivated auxiliaries and certain specialist strengths to the Americans in whatever wars Washington decides to fight? Pick one, we can’t afford all three.
That last is about more than just the soldiers and kit. Putin’s invasion, and mounting tensions over Taiwan, have cast a cold light on the importance of having an industrial base sufficient to keep the military fighting.
In the event that British forces did get dragged into a high-intensity conflict, could we keep them adequately supplied with spare parts and ammunition? If we aren’t prepared to ensure such supplies, should we be up front about our clear unwillingness to actually fight that sort of war?
And how does this sit with the reality of restricted budgets, and the fact that scarce funds can be stretched much further, at least with regards to capital projects such as auxiliary vessels for the Navy, by buying overseas – yet another instance where shifting government policy has only recently poured fresh grit into the military supply chain?
None of the above is meant to imply that there isn’t good stuff in the latest review. AUKUS looks like it could evolve into a lasting and substantive partnership with real teeth; closer defence cooperation with Europe is not a course from which Labour seems likely to diverge. Consistency matters.
But it is one thing to make these commitments, and another to stick to them when budgets are tight, elections loom, and voters don’t care much for the fine details of defence.
If we don’t tackle the various structural factors stymying British growth, there will simply not be the cash for grand global ambitions, however important. Whatever the ambitions of the Integrated Review Refresh, we may well find the next Osborne redefining them to compass the MoD’s catering budget sooner than we think.