UK defence policy – under any political party – risks being penny wise and pound foolish

Iwan Benneyworth

For a brief time before the General Election campaign commenced, it seemed that UK defence policy was quietly making its way up the news agenda. What was generally regarded as a lower tier issue crowded out by more pressing concerns such as health, education and the economy, started to gain traction, which will tend to happen when you have Russian nuclear bombers buzzing our airspace.

Defence has often been one of the first things to go on the budgetary chopping block once a conflict has concluded. This made sense several hundred years ago when wars tended to follow a conventional pattern, where entire armies were raised for the purposes of fighting that specific conflict to a resolution, treaties were signed, territory or influence was traded and everyone was sent home again and decommissioned until the next round.

As a global trading power, Britain had always placed a priority on a continuously expanding Royal Navy to protect our interests and sea routes, with the size of the Army often ballooning and deflating as Continental wars came and went. Even with the advent of empire, which provided both the rationale and the resources for the maintenance of a reasonably sized standing army to garrison the colonies, defence was still subject to cuts where possible (for a detailed, if sometimes dry history of the British Army and the yo-yoing of its size and budget, look out for the book by Allan Mallinson).

Not insensibly, we tend to cut what we feel we no longer need in order to reduce or reallocate a finite amount of spending power. And yet historically almost every time we have done this, sooner or later a national or international crisis has come along that forces the taps to be turned back on in a rush to compensate for years of personnel and equipment cutbacks.

This may have been viable even a century or so ago, when the military technology, tactics and command and control capabilities available were relatively basic compared to complex and sophisticated modern practices. Personnel being mobilised for the trenches of the Western front in 1915 had training requirements more in common with their comrades at Waterloo in 1815 than with the soldiers of 2015.

Presently, initial training for regular military personnel can be between 14 to 26 weeks depending on their trade, and that is before they move onto their specialist training. For officers it can be close to a year. In 1940 assembly lines were producing dozens of Spitfires a month to fly directly into combat, whereas today the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is still delayed and training skilled pilots can take years.

In 2010 the Strategic Defence and Security Review failed to foresee the Arab Spring, the civil war and subsequent collapse of Libya, the disintegration of Syria, the rise of ISIS, the expansionism of Russia and tensions in the Far East. Despite the world being more dangerous than any time since the Cold War ended, most political parties except UKIP are reluctant to confirm increased defence spending for the next parliament, or even really talk about it to any great extent. In fact, a recent RUSI report suggested even further manpower cuts could be on the horizon, which would please the Green Party at least.

However, as I have tried to highlight, it is not just people we lose but institutional knowledge, specialist training and vast experience. Once these are lost, they cannot be instantly conjured up again, no matter how much money is thrown at the problem. Significant time would be needed to rebuild, and unfortunately the Russian military might not be inclined to respect our timetable.