Britain’s defence: all at sea

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
6 December 2007

A stark contrast between reality and perception in the discussion of the United Kingdom's defence policy is becoming increasingly visible. Britain has one of the world's largest defence budgets, and it has been rising on an annual basis. True, it is miniscule compared with the United States, which under the George W Bush administration is now spending about the same on the military as every other country in the world combined. But London spends more on defence than any other European country, and its budget is considerably larger even than France or Germany.

Yet a chorus of complaint about the country's defence policy has been rising, especially from within senior or former senior members of the defence establishment, and it focuses precisely on the notion that the country is spending too little rather than too much on its armed forces. How to explain this apparent paradox?

The cost of ambition

The most recent flurry of criticism started with a coordinated attack in parliament on 23 November 2007 by five of Britain's former chiefs of the defence staff; this was followed by an article in the Times piece celebrating the importance of nuclear-powered attack submarines (see Michael Evans, "Underwater and undercover...", Times, 27 November 2007); several former senior officers then wrote to the broadsheet newspapers to amplify the case for increases in expenditure.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

All these contributions bemoaned the state of Britain's military forces: many pointed to poor equipment, housing and medical facilities and some concentrated on the severe overstretch experienced by the army in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were even claims that the Royal Navy could no longer mount an operation like that against Iraq in 2003 (see Sean Rayment, "Britain would struggle to fight war - report", Telegraph, 3 December 2007). The overall consensus was that Britain needed to increase its spending on the military and needed to do so soon.

This vigorous criticism, against the background of rising expenditures, calls for explanation. And there is indeed a case to be made for the concern, initially based on two factors - one proximate, and one longer-term.

First, there is undoubtedly a deep bitterness in senior military circles, especially the army, about the tasks set the armed forces by the government of Tony Blair, who resigned in June 2007 after ten years as prime minister (see "Tony Blair's long war", 18 January 2007). There is a particular anger at being given an impossible job to do in southern Iraq while simultaneously committing substantial forces in Afghanistan.

Many military planners believe it would have taken much larger forces to make Basra secure than Britain could have deployed. But even if those larger forces had by some means been made available, there were doubts that the task could ever have been done by outside forces that were so easily seen as occupiers. A report by the House of Commons's defence select committee released on 3 December 2007 confirms that the army has failed to secure Basra, which is now in the grip of competing militias; instead, it has had to retreat to the airport outside the city. This has left a legacy of real anger over the sacrifice of young lives and does much to explain the general antipathy directed at the government from military circles in recent weeks.

Second, however, this internal anger is accompanied by awareness of a much deeper problem: exorbitant overspending on major defence programmes, coupled with an insistence on planning for a global role that is well beyond the reach of the UK (see "Britain's 21st-century defence", 15 February 2007).

Here are just three prominent example. The Eurofighter Typhoon, an interceptor conceived during the cold war, is barely now entering service a decade late. Its costs have gone up from £7 billion to at least £19 billion, and it is widely regarded as a supersonic "white elephant" that should have been cancelled in the early 1990s. (The former Conservative defence minister, Alan Clark, once described it as "essentially flawed and out of date", and - commenting on its role in job-creation - he said "we must find a less extravagant way of paying people to make buckets with holes in them").

The Royal Navy's new Astute-class submarines and Daring-class destroyers are both running late and over budget. The national audit office estimates that the Daring programme has shown a £354 million cost increase in the year ending March 2007; the total cost is rising towards £6.4 billion, nearly a billion pounds for each of the six ships planned.

The Royal Air Force is affected as well, quite apart from the Eurofighter. The Nimrod MR2 fleet (including the one that crashed in September 2006 in Afghanistan, causing the death of fourteen servicemen) was due to be replaced by the much more advanced Nimrod MRA4, yet there have been huge cost escalations and delays. The decision to replace the old planes was withdrawn in 1992 and a contract let to BAe Systems for a £2.2 billion programme in 1996; under it, the first planes were due in 2003. By 2005 there were still no planes in sight and costs had risen to £3.8 billion. It is now just possible that the MR4A will enter service in 2009.

The central problem

Beyond even this scale of overspending lie two more recent procurement decisions that both go to the heart of current dilemmas and explain why the treasury is reluctant to further increase the defence budget.

The first is the replacement of the Trident nuclear-missile fleet with new submarines and warheads (see "Britain's nuclear-weapons fix", 28 June 2006). While the costs of the submarines are largely in the future, there has already been a major increase in funding for the atomic-weapons establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston. This includes an expansion described (in an internal company newsletter) as one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken in Britain, on a similar scale to the new £4.2 billion terminal five at Heathrow airport.

The second is the decision to build two huge new aircraft-carriers and equip them with the formidably expensive F-35 multi-role aircraft purchased from the United States. The two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers will, at 65,000 tons, be the largest warships ever deployed by the Royal Navy. As well as the cost of the carriers, and without taking into account the likely cost over-runs, at least £7.5 billion will be spent on the planes (see "British sea power: a 21st-century question", 12 July 2006).

The combination of the carriers and the Trident replacement will make a huge dent in Britain's overall defence-procurement programme over the next ten years and is already having an impact (see David Hencke, "Cabinet split over $15bn proposed defence cuts" Guardian, 4 December 2007). The view from the treasury is that the ministry of defence cannot go for these two overarching projects while maintaining other programmes.

At present, proposed cuts include reducing the Daring-class destroyer order from eight to six, cutting the Astute-class submarine programme from eight to as few as four, cancelling part of the remaining Eurofighter order, and delaying new armoured vehicles for the army.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, July 2007). This is a collection of papers and essays written over the last twenty years, with two new essays on the current global predicament

The central problem is that Britain cannot afford to build a global expeditionary-warfare capability based on the two new super-carriers, and also maintain nuclear forces, while keeping up with all the new programmes (see "Gordon Brown's white elephants", 26 July 2007). Something has to give, and the senior military do not like it at all - especially when they are so angry with the government for getting them into the Iraq mess.

The time to reassess

Yet there is a further dimension of Britain's defence plans, programmes and resources that goes beyond this current dispute. A number of analysts are calling for a much more fundamental study of national security than is usually addressed by traditional defence reviews. If the major 21st-century threats to global security are going to be problems like climate change, resource conflict and economic marginalisation, should Britain still be thinking in terms of an old-style defence posture concerned narrowly with the defence of the state? Should it not be putting far more effort into the kinds of policies that will prevent those issues becoming critical?

Unfortunately, there is very little prospect of a radical reassessment of Britain's defence posture this side of the next general election (due in 2010 at latest, though it could be called or precipitated before then). But in two years' time, whichever party is in power, these issues will have to be addressed. By then, it is just possible that the new thinking now being undertaken on "sustainable security" may have come of age, sufficiently at least to encourage a proper analysis of where Britain's real security interests lie.

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