By George Kerevan
GENERALS, be they of the armchair variety or the real thing, refer sagely to the “fog of war” – the confusion that descends when the shooting starts. But the fog of war covers more than just the battlefield. It appears with equal certainty in any discussion of the UK defence budget.
This week, in the aftermath of the Sahara hostage crisis, David Cameron jetted off to Algeria. On route, Mr Cameron made a mistake that politicians often make when trapped on a plane with the media pack. Chatting away with the journos, the PM was tempted into making up policy on the hoof.
Faced with difficult questions about Britain’s growing military involvement in Africa – as well as the British army “advisers” going to Mali – Mr Cameron offered the Algerians “help” from the SAS and the PM suddenly revealed a heretofore unknown increase in defence spending, starting in 2015.
Welcome news perhaps, but a surprise both for Chancellor Osborne and the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, who sounded extremely vague when asked about it on the BBC Today programme.
In effect, Mr Cameron has announced a sudden reversal of the massive cut to Britain’s defence capability that has occurred since 2010. This includes the scrapping of all our aircraft carriers and maritime patrol aircraft (leaving Scotland unprotected), and a planned downsizing of the British army by one fifth. The axe had nothing to do with security needs and everything to do with the Chancellor’s austerity programme. A war-weary electorate was in no mood to object, especially as it was told there would be “savings” as a result of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
However, Mr Cameron’s conversion on the road to Damascus (perhaps literally) may not sway either his ministerial colleagues, or Tory backbench MPs unhappy with the commitment of British troops… sorry, advisers… to Mali.
The Mali involvement, we should note, is the first fruit of the Defence and Security Co-operation Treaty between Britain and France signed by Mr Cameron and then president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. The two right-wingers saw co-operation as way of sharing expensive military technology. It never occurred to Cameron he would find himself obliged to help a French socialist president invade West Africa. President Hollande’s machismo has boosted his poll ratings, while Tory MPs feel they have been conned.
Nevertheless, Mr Cameron’s instincts are broadly correct. Libya, Algeria and Mali – not to mention the Sunni Spring that has swept away secular regimes across the Arab world – prove that Europe’s backyard is not just unsafe but getting more dangerous. Meanwhile, Obama’s America is no longer willing to be the world’s policeman except perhaps in the Pacific. Inevitably, Europe will have to fill the vacuum. That does not imply the adventurism of Bush and Blair. But it does mean defence spending has to be fixed according to security needs, not financial expediency.
It is precisely here that Mr Cameron will have to do more than make throwaway promises to journalists. A genuine commitment to reversing the defence cuts has profound implications. Given that health spending is also protected, and given that Osborne still needs to find billions in cuts to meet his austerity target, something has to give. We are looking either at even deeper (and politically unacceptable) cuts in other spending departments… or a Plan B.
My bet, especially with the UK economy facing triple-dip recession, is that Osborne will have to ease up on austerity or see Labour win the 2015 general election. If it’s Plan B (ie a looser fiscal policy) then boosting defence spending has a positive side for the economy as you can issue procurement orders quickly and across the regions (such as ordering a few more Type 45 destroyers from the Clyde).
If the Tories lose the 2015 UK election, Labour will face the same defence spending dilemma. Yet Labour’s track record in these matters is no better than the Tories. Blair’s imperial ambitions (plus the arrogance of the admirals) resulted in billions being wasted on building two giant aircraft carriers that will enter service without any aircraft, while sending our squadies into action in Iraq and Afghanistan in canvas-sided land rovers. Meanwhile, the rest of the Royal Navy has been reduced to a flotilla and the RAF will soon have fewer fast jets than Scandinavia.
Labour also bequeathed us the daft plan to replace Trident with a new generation of nuclear missile subs (to deter whom?) that will devour what remains of the defence budget. This lamentable and bloody record of imperial over-reach, political arrogance and Whitehall bungling has led many – myself included – to believe the Union is not fit for purpose when it comes to defending Scotland. If Scotland votes “No” in the independence referendum, I do not expect Labour – drunk on power after the 2015 UK general election – to mend its ways.
Here we come to the nub of the defence debate. The UK still spends a lot on defending itself, despite the recent cuts. We have the fourth biggest military budget in the world in cash terms and we spend more of our GDP on defence (circa 2.6 per cent) than any other Nato member apart from the US. But, for decades, we have not got a bang for out buck.
We wasted billions on the wrong things. On military technology that took too long to perfect, and then was obsolete when it arrived. And on vanity weapons we do not need a quarter of a century on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, but which make London politicians feel important. Saddest of all, we did all this while sending our young men and women to fight and die with inadequate equipment.
My worry is that even if Mr Cameron makes good on his promise to reverse the defence cuts, the money will be wasted on the same old MoD boondoggles and admirals’ toys. But the UK will still have far fewer troops, helicopters or destroyers than it needs. And somewhere in Africa, young British soldiers will be paying the price – again.
Courtesy of George Kerevan and the Scotsman newspaper