By: Geoffrey Van Orden CBE, Distinguished Fellow
Changes in our strategic environment are taking place faster than anticipated and require urgent response and a shift in approach. As a consequence, defence strategy and spending is being reviewed across many of the democracies after years of complacency.
NATO has completed a ‘reflection process’ to consider the shape and role of the Alliance ten years hence. The US Congress ‘Future of Defense Task Force’ has called for a ‘major course correction’ in the US approach to national security. In February 2021, US President Biden referenced a new Department of Defense China task force to look at US strategy and operational concepts, technology, and force posture. In March 2021, the British government published its “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”, and announced a huge uptick in UK defence expenditure. An additional £16.5 billion that will include 13 new frigates, an AI Centre and a new RAF Space Command. There are calls in India for a fresh military posture based on a new Grand Strategy. Australia has recently published its Defence Strategic Update.
These reviews share common threads:
- The certainties of the past, the model of successful Western free-market economies, the ambition for democracy, and commitments to the established rules-based, post-World War 2 system are under challenge. This has been driven primarily by the rise of China;
- The binary distinction between war and peace has been eroded by ‘grey zone’ conflict where subversion through social media, cyberattack, economic coercion, unattributable aggressive action and state-sponsored terrorism, undermine and distract our capabilities and the public confidence on which they are based;
- The realms of space and cyberspace have added new and awesome dimensions to the traditional domains of conflict;
- The threat of limited conventional warfare remains, as evidenced by Russian actions and threats against the Ukraine, and many more countries now have access to advanced weaponry, including sophisticated armed drones;
- Weapons of mass destruction, and of mass infection and disruption, in the hands of both rogue states and terrorist groups represent a potential threat to our homelands and people;
- The effects of climate change have major potential security implications;
The Locust Years
Without a strong economy, ambitious defence plans cannot be sustained. That is a truism. But neglect of defence spending is always a mistake. In periods of apparent peace and in difficult economic times, defence budgets are seen as a “regrettable necessity” if not a luxury spend absorbing precious resources and manpower.
For example, after the First World War, the massive British public spending cuts of 1922-23 (the so-called Geddes Axe) fell disproportionately on the armed forces. Defence spending restraint continued into the mid-1930s while the potential enemy was already spending three times as much. Britain was in a state of unpreparedness. The wakeup-call almost came too late.
After the massive and exhausting exertions of the Second World War leading to victory and peace, there were rapid cutbacks. A spike in defence expenditure during the Korean War was followed by massive defence cuts after the Suez crisis in 1956. Defence spending continued its spiral of decline with ‘salami cuts’ that reduced both military effectiveness and international capabilities at cost to Britain’s international standing and effectiveness. A dramatic fall in defence spending was justified following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the removal of the Warsaw Pact threat. But this proved to be far from the predicted ‘end of history’. New threats soon arose and Britain, like others, was slow to respond, hovering on the barely acceptable 2% of GDP on defence –a modest and reasonably achievable spending target for all NATO allies, which most fail to meet. Britain is the only European nation with growing full-spectrum military capabilities, global reach, continual operational experience, and robust political will, confirming its position as the most indispensable ally of the democracies after America
Defence Investment as a Multiplier of Advantages
The relationship between defence spending and economic well-being has been a subject of academic dispute for decades. Defence spending has often been a scapegoat for poor economic performance and ‘balance of payments’ difficulties while insufficient attention has been paid to the wider economic, political, technological and social benefits of defence spending, on top of the primary task of maintaining national security.
The commitment of NATO allies to the defence of the European democracies, the US defence guarantees to the Republic of Korea in 1953, to Taiwan in 1954, and to Japan in 1960, the UK protection of Kuwait from Iraq in 1964, the Commonwealth defence of the newly formed state of Malaysia in 1965, and the fearsome determination of Israel to defend its territory and its very existence, are all examples of credible deterrence, readiness and response.
The attempted communist takeover of the Korean peninsula in 1950, the Argentine invasion of the Falklands in 1982, and the seizure of Eastern Ukraine in 2014, would probably not have happened if the aggressor had thought these territories would be robustly defended.
What needs to be done
If we cherish continued freedom, security and prosperity, more needs to be spent on defence, sometimes differently than before. To strengthen the capabilities and resilience of our armed forces and intelligence services the lessons are clear:
- make a step-change in research, development and efficient procurement, protected from hostile espionage and acquisition, so that we become masters of the new domains of potential conflict;
- strengthen national resilience including critical infrastructure. The Covid-19 plague, for example, has exposed the weaknesses in even the most advanced societies to produce and distribute basic protective equipment, and maintain the confidence of the population;
- revitalise existing alliances, in particular NATO (where there is also a need to resist the divisive military ambitions of the EU, which includes 21 of the 30 NATO members) and generate new, flexible and willing coalitions.
and, most importantly, the much-neglected need to
- regenerate national solidarity and the understanding of our people, particularly the young, of the need for commitment to the defence of our freedom, prosperity and individual liberty.