With Britain currently fighting two wars, many commentators are claiming that the cuts in defence spending envisioned in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) should be cancelled. There is some logic to this, but only if you believe that the wars Britain is fighting are providing substantial benefits which outweigh the costs. In reality, they are probably doing the opposite, making the country less secure at considerable expense.
The problem with the SDSR was not that it cut defence too far, but rather that it missed an opportunity to cut it even further. A serious strategic review would avoid conflating vital and secondary interests, and focus on the former. It would consider the threats to those vital interests, design a strategy to counter them, and from that identify the military capabilities that the country required.
Had the SDSR done this, its drafters would have had to admit that Britain’s vital interests are not threatened by the sort of danger for which military force is an appropriate response. Much of today’s armed forces is entirely inappropriate to the country’s security needs and can be safely dismantled.
A sound strategic review would conclude that since there is no chance of any foreign state directly attacking the UK, most of the country’s traditional heavy war fighting capabilities (main battle tanks, fighter aircraft, etc) can be eliminated. It would also recognise that military intervention of the type practised by the UK in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya has done more harm than good, and so would eliminate those elements of the armed forces geared to such interventions.
If defence planners fear that doing all this will make it difficult to re-create capabilities if the international situation changes, then the solution is not to maintain large armed forces in being (creating the temptation for governments to use them in inappropriate circumstances), but rather to retain a core capability in the reserves. The government should retain in the regular forces only what is strictly necessary for defence.
Even if Britain were to cut its defence spending by 50%, it would remain the ninth largest spender in the world, and through NATO the UK would be allied to countries that collectively account for two-thirds of the world’s defence expenditure (and which would still account for over half of the global total even if they all followed Britain’s example and cut spending by half). It is impossible to say that Britain would not be well defended and could not protect her vital interests. No country would suddenly invade the United Kingdom; terrorism would not suddenly increase; the economy would not collapse. At the same time, many lives would be saved as futile military interventions came to an end. In fact, by doing less and spending less, Britain would probably be more secure, while the British state could repair its public finances and put money back into the pockets of taxpayers. Substantial cuts in the defence budget should be a priority of any future British government.
Professor Paul Robinson is the author of Chapter 7 of Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes.