Britain's defence, the path to change

The combination of expensive military projects at a time of austerity should, after the election on 7 May, create the space for an overdue rethink of the UK's international security policy.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
7 May 2015
Gourock,Scotland, May 8, 2011.

Gourock,Scotland, May 8, 2011. Flickr/easylicum. Some rights reserved.The United Kingdom's general election is held on 7 May 2015 against a background a near stalemate in the opinion-polls between the two main parties, Conservatives and Labour, which held for months before the formal campaign started and then through the campaign itself. Once more, the main policy emphasis has almost entirely been on just two issues: the state of the economy and the well-being of the National Health Service (NHS). The rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and, to a lesser extent, the UK Independence Party has provided a new element, opening debate about the possible breakdown of two-party dominance and the need for the political system to reflect this. 

The economy and the NHS apart, a few other policy areas have surfaced briefly, including education, housing and immigration (the last of these surprisingly little to the fore). Global concerns such as energy security, Middle East conflicts and terrorism have been almost wholly absent, and this is also true of climate change. The Greens made repeated but mostly ignored attempts to raise it, while the Labour leader Ed Miliband's mention of the issue in his speech on foreign policy was scarcely reported.

A further interesting feature of the campaign, especially in the context of the longer term, was the almost complete neglect of UK defence policy. The Tories did attempt to link Labour to nuclear disarmament by citing the anti-Trident views of its possible post-election associate, the SNP, but this made little headway as Miliband declared himself an enthusiast for the nuclear programme. More broadly, the wider issue of Britain's defence posture and its costs was nowhere to be seen.

This neglect has three related elements. Labour normally professes strong support for defence because of its perennial fear of being labelled unpatriotic; the Tories, though more confident on defence, have made cuts in the 2010-15 period such that they feel vulnerable to close examination; and, most interesting of all, the singularly tight constraints imposed by several more years of austerity mean that neither party will make any commitment to increase defence spending.

The implication is that serious discussion of the UK's defence posture will only happen if a tolerably stable government is established after the election and then goes on to run the intended Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). But if and when that happens, a major problem will arise - one that should, in any sensible environment, lead to a fundamental rethinking of attitudes.

A costly strategy

The main reason for this is that the SDSR is well-nigh certain to be conducted on the basis that defence spending will be static over the next parliament (2015-20); yet this fact coincides with two huge, costly and ongoing projects that promise to squeeze every substantial component of the defence budget.

The first of these, clearly enough, is the replacement of the Trident nuclear programme itself. This is often claimed to cost around £30 billion, a frankly ridiculous figure, since - if a thirty-year time-frame for the new system is assumed - this will not even meet the £1 billion annual running costs of nuclear research, development and production at the Aldermaston and Burghfield sites.

Yet even the larger figure of around £100 billion suggested for the lifetime costs of the whole programme is likely to be an underestimate, for this excludes what is euphemistically called “defence support” (i.e. the various systems dedicated to the defence of the missile-submarines, such as nuclear-powered attack submarines and surface combatants). But even if £100 billion is accepted as accurate, this would be front-loaded as the new missile-submarine programme goes ahead, causing a further financial burden.

The second project is the building of two enormous aircraft-carriers, one of which - HMS Queen Elizabeth - is nearing completion. They are costly in themselves, but make little sense without aircraft. The current plan is to buy the American F-35, a supremely expensive fighter-jet.

A traditional British perspective would see the two carriers and the missile-submarines as instruments in preserving the UK's status as a "grade A" power worthy of a place at the top table. But the reality is that possessing these severely limits what Britain can do elsewhere as its numbers of destroyers and frigates decline, personnel cuts continue (which cause bitter complains from the army), and the Royal Air Force can’t even conduct long-range maritime reconnaissance because it lacks the planes.

There is far more dismay about such developments among the armed forces than ever gets into the public domain. Even the Royal Navy has many disaffected people, as it recedes to the point where it can deploy little more than one aircraft-carrier and a Trident submarine in any one period; this makes it little more than a two-ship navy.

This predicament raises two immediate questions: is being a nuclear-weapons power too costly, and does Britain need a worldwide expeditionary capability (which the carriers are meant to deliver)? And if the answer to either or both is “no”, then why persist with them?

These questions lead to others. Keeping Trident and its replacement provides the UK with the ability to kill 5 million people in forty-five minutes. Is this really what international standing is about, given that 187 out of the 195 member-states of the United Nations manage without nuclear weapons? Given that the Royal Navy will have been without carrier-based airpower for around a decade before the new systems come in, is it really necessary in the first place?

A space for change

Beyond these large questions are far bigger ones that are barely considered in Britain's public debate. They concern core global problems: potentially catastrophic climate disruption, and the anger and resentment at economic marginalisation across much of the world. In such contexts, many would argue that nuclear-missile submarines and aircraft-carriers are strikingly irrelevant.

All this might suggest a depressing conclusion: that UK defence thinking is irrelevant yet set in stone. But a confluence of factors means that the situation may be more fluid. Staying a strategic nuclear power is expensive, and the aircraft-carriers were ordered long before the 2007-08 financial crisis had its effects  Both are still on the books, meaning that everything else is squeezed. The UK simply cannot maintain its current posture in its entirety, and any kind of defence review has to face that fact. This creates scope to review both nuclear policy (which may boosted by antipathy to Trident in Scotland, the base for the submarine fleet) and the cost of a global naval role.

Such a review would bring simple yet fundamental questions into play: what is the UK defence posture actually for, and does it have any serious relevance to likely future challenges?

The combination of inescapable overspending and financial constraints may then allow a genuine and long overdue reconsideration of the UK's attitudes to international security, and a refocus on serious global challenges. That makes the post-election moment all the more interesting.

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