Houses of Parliament

National Security – A Challenge for the PM

DS fully supports this UKNDA analysis and advice about the position and possible future for British defence in the post-election era.

By Air Commodore Andrew Lambert, Professor Andrew Roberts and Allen Sykes

Foreward by Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon

In the run up to the election, the UKNDA issued two commentaries. The first asked the question “Who will speak for Defence in the election campaign?” It concluded that no-one in the two main parties would do so.

The second commentary suggested what a responsible party might include in its manifesto on the subject of defence and security; we were to be disappointed again. None of the then major parties made any serious contribution to what they had all stated, at one time or another, was their primary duty. Each sought shelter by deferring difficult decisions to after the next Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

Why was this? It was of course the belief that “There were no votes in defence”. In this commentary, we suggest, and we are not alone, that with the right sort of leadership the nation would be supportive.

The Conservative party has confounded the pollsters and it appears that the British public has chosen the tough option rather than the soft in addressing the nation’s financial deficit. Is there not a lesson here? The public will respond when the situation is presented clearly to them.

The Prime Minister has now an opportunity to do what he and the other major party leaders felt unable to do in this election campaign, namely to repair the damage done to our defence and security in recent years and to our reputation as a serious contributor to world security. He can start immediately, by endorsing the House of Commons Defence Committee Report of the 17th March this year – “Re-thinking defence to meet new threats”, and in a simple statement make good his commitment to the NATO minimum of 2% of GDP. It is an opportunity which any Prime Minister who aspires to be remembered as a statesman should take.

David Cameron is to be congratulated on his election victory giving the Conservatives a majority government with unfettered responsibility for national defence and security. He is now in a very different place from five years ago.

Throughout the 2015 election the major political parties chose to sideline foreign policy, defence and security. We heard almost nothing about the parties’ vision for Britain and its place in the world nor, at a time widely recognised as the most dangerous since the Cold War, what this country, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a leading player in NATO, should be doing to reduce world tensions and prepare for the growing risks to our security in the difficult and volatile years that lie ahead.

Commentators from left and right of the political spectrum criticised this omission; we in the UKNDA wrote two commentaries on the matter, and senior diplomats, retired Service Chiefs and august politicians went into print. The list included previous Defence Secretaries, Ambassadors, members of the House of Commons Defence Committee, as well as leaders of the Western World, including President Obama, the US Ambassador to the UN, top US Generals and past and present NATO Secretary Generals. Each pressed the UK to commit to at least NATO’s 2% requirement, which David Cameron himself had advocated so strongly at NATO’s September summit. It was surely not too much to ask, against the backdrop of the dangerous security situation in Ukraine, the Middle East and the Baltics, that the leader proposing this step so powerfully should be prepared to show his own commitment. Yet, not just he, but all the major parties simply ignored it. Why?

The Political Calculus

It is the nature of democracy that politicians put re-election above almost everything else. This concentrates attention on results within the term of a Parliament. Inevitably, strategic issues, looking 20 or 30 years ahead, are sidelined and awkward questions over defence avoided by deferring difficult decisions to after a Strategic Defence and Security Review. Absent a change of heart about political priorities, we should now worry that for SDSR15 the verdict may have already been decided. Favoured departments will be ring-fenced whilst defence may be cut and the money used to reduce the deficit. All that would remain would be to assemble the evidence accordingly. Such an approach would reflect a serious misreading of world events.

Defence was far from the Coalition’s first priority. Indeed, health, education, foreign aid and pension benefits all took priority, with each being ring-fenced or boosted as electoral inducements. Despite the considerable pressure brought to bear these last four months by Allies, diplomats, generals and MPs, the Conservatives refused to make the NATO 2% commitment on the grounds that “it might not be affordable”. Yet taxes are now to be frozen by law, while another £8Bn can still be found for the NHS. Quite simply, defence was at the bottom of their list, with all difficult decisions conveniently deferred to a “light touch” SDSR, whatever that might mean.

Now, with a small, albeit workable majority, defence issues are no longer subject to veto by the coalition partner. The new government could, if it wished, decide to keep the NATO 2% commitment, and could defeat opposition to higher defence spending from Labour, SNP and LibDems. Nor would it be unpopular amongst those who voted Conservative at this general election, particularly if funded by a more modest allocation of money to foreign aid. [This would require the revocation of the recent legislation allocating 0.7% of GDP to aid. Such a level of generosity could wait for the British books to balance.] The political storm which would follow might even strengthen support for the Government.

Being seen to be willing to pay to strengthen our defences and put national security first will give a strong lead in NATO Europe in resisting the destabilising policies of Russia. A strong credible defence capability, and being seen to be ready to use it, is by far the best deterrent to war.

David Cameron clearly appreciated these implications in his 25th February statement that failure to stand up to Russia over Ukraine would be deeply damaging if the Baltic States were next – “and that sort of instability will be dreadful for our [Europe’s] economies, dreadful for our stability”. Indeed the likely losses in the 44% of our exports that go to Europe would dwarf any extra defence costs which might help to prevent it – the clearest current argument for prioritising defence. Nevertheless we have much ground to recover as our support for Ukraine was not widely evident and we were sidelined when the latest ceasefire was negotiated.

“No Votes in Defence”

The view that there are “no votes in defence” and that it therefore carries little weight, has been convincingly refuted by the former Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox 1, “The idea that [defence] should be a discretionary function whose scale should be determined by the popularity of demands for spending in other areas is deeply flawed”. He went on to say:

  • defence is not discretionary because it depends on our enemies;
  • we have to provide defence forces we hope we will never have to use but we would be in danger if we did not

“…we are only one Russian miscalculation away from a potential conflict on the European continent, something we had come to believe unthinkable.” We would do well to heed these sobering words.

1 ‘Defence is never cheap’, Sunday Express, 8th March 2015.

It is always wrong for governments to neglect defence needs because there is no public clamour to spend more, that is until a crisis is imminent, by which time it is too late to re-arm and train. We have to fight tomorrow’s wars with the troops and equipment we have today, whose provision was made many years before. As most wars come as surprises we have, therefore, to retain robust general capabilities to deter, and to defeat, should the need arise.

Leadership is required to present this message. Given our history, no public in the world is more responsive than the British if properly led. It is not a given that there are “no votes in defence”.


Britain spent 2½% of GDP on defence in 2010, but a combination of severe and misguided defence cuts caused this to fall to 2% in 2014, falling further to 1.7% on current plans. What will happen if the new Government does nothing to change course?

Apart from making David Cameron’s passionate appeal at the NATO Summit seem hollow, additional cuts would send a clear message to the President of the USA that Britain is not the ally it once was. While America continues to spend 4½% of her GDP on defence,, providing over 70% of NATO’s defence, NATO Europe has “free-loaded” on America. As Europe’s population and GDP now exceed that of America this irresponsible imbalance cannot last.

Britain has for over 70 years enjoyed a special relationship as America’s most credible military ally, contributing its troops alongside America, sharing vital intelligence and acting as the lynchpin for NATO Europe. It is essential to America, and critical to America’s willingness to continue to support NATO Europe, that Britain is seen as committed to the NATO 2% target. If Britain reneges on this commitment then, as successive US defence secretaries have warned, America is likely to undertake an “agonising re-appraisal” of its funding, and force levels, for NATO. Why indeed should American voters continue to subsidise the defence of a richer continent which will not pay proportionately for its own defence?

What message would Britain also be sending to NATO Europe if, as one of NATO’s strongest members, it goes soft on defence? With Germany and France both now increasing their defence expenditures, as are several of the Eastern European NATO members, our influence would be undermined.

Equally, a clear signal to Vladimir Putin would be that Britain is weak and lacking in resolve. How would Mr Putin gauge such weakness as he considers the possible options for testing NATO’s resolve to defend its Eastern members? Incursion, or the wide range of “hybrid” yet deniable options used in Ukraine, would be likely to challenge the Alliance’s cohesiveness. If NATO failed to respond effectively, the Alliance would collapse with major consequences for European peace and prosperity.

An Objective SDSR

Both main political parties have long affirmed their wish for Britain to continue as a global power, albeit as one leading the middle ranks. If Britain and other Western powers duck their responsibilities, then they and the rest of the world would face three super-powers – America, China and Russia. With the latter two moving ever closer this could be a very unstable and dangerous situation that could leave America isolated. Britain has an essential part to play in supporting its ally. The UK, with its history, alliances and international responsibilities, benefits greatly from exercising global influence rather than merely being a spectator at the mercy of events.

We have argued for the UK to commit firmly, and symbolically, to spending a minimum of 2% of GDP on defence. But this is unlikely to meet all the challenges, both on our European doorstep and from the oil-richchaotic Middle East. The rushed SDSR of 2010 imposed severe cuts on the Armed Services, but the world order it assumed was outdated before the ink was dry, as was so clearly demonstrated by the Arab Spring which erupted within weeks. SDSR10’s simplistic vision was that Britain would only ever have to fight limited duration, modest, overseas engagements, one at a time. Now, with an aggressive Russia threatening NATO Europe the possibility of direct confrontation on our doorstep has to be admitted. Simultaneously, with wealthy ISIL creating chaos across the Middle East and North Africa, with Al Shabab, Boko Haram, and Argentina, possibly with new Russian “Fencer” bombers and Chinese-provided warships, then the prospects for stability and thus our security are a matter of deep concern.

The Labour Government left a “black hole” in our defence procurement. A “bow wave” of unfunded defence requirements remains, and vital capabilities are not obviously funded. If, without additional funding, we are to replace Trident the effects on our conventional defences would be so severe as to undermine credible conventional

deterrence, making resort to a nuclear response more, not less, likely. The much needed fleet of Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) to guard our shores and cover the Trident exit routes was withdrawn in the ‘capability holiday’ of 2010, and should be reprovided. Our new aircraft carriers still have no aircraft, and we are reducing to just 6 fast-jet squadrons for defence of the UK and our overseas responsibilities. There are too few frigates and destroyers, especially when our carriers enter service and need escorts. We have no effective anti-ballisticmissile protection while Russia upgrades its arsenal, and we have manpower problems in all the armed services.

Such gaps need to be addressed in the forthcoming SDSR15 and, if completed objectively, are likely to require more than 2% of GDP for defence. As it is we have already fallen from 4th to 6th in the defence league tables, now well below Saudi Arabia, and on current trajectories soon to be below Japan and India as well. This bodes ill for the future while the world becomes demonstrably more dangerous. There is surely an urgent need to re-establish ourselves as a serious international force.

With the growth of the economy, defence needs as a minimum to retain its pro rata 2% share but, if this government is serious, additional funds will have to be identified over the next 10 years to provide for essential capabilities.

Britain’s Long-Term Security

Is this not an opportunity for Mr Cameron to grasp? Regardless of the narrow majority in Parliament the new government can actively pursue a consensus across the House on this, the first priority of government. David Cameron’s first policy announcement was to promise to seek national unity. Nowhere is this more needed than in defence and security.

Three steps are called for. First, the Government should commit to the minimum NATO defence target of 2% of GDP for the life of this Parliament and ring-fence it. It should go further and commit to whatever additional funding SDSR15 then shows to be necessary for adequate defence and the discharge of our Alliance responsibilities. Such a ring-fenced commitment would show leadership, resolve and responsibility. It would be supported by many MPs of different persuasions, and a clear majority of the public. Any Prime Minister who made such a strong commitment would be seen by allies and adversaries as a true statesman.

Second, SDSR15 should be thorough, neither rushed nor “light touch”. It must have the resources to consider the nation’s defence and security needs unconstrained. It should recognise that major new threats, unforeseen five years ago, now need to be catered for, that evolving styles of warfare, such as the “hybrid”, deniable, warfare favoured by Russia, together with the growing cyber threats, must all now be addressed. These are threats which add to the defence burden, not diminish it.

Third, we should adopt the American practice whereby the Chiefs of Staff are free to give their views publically to Parliament so that MPs and the public can be reassured of the adequacy of defence provision.

The all party House of Commons Defence Committee report of March this year contained powerful recommendations. The Prime Minister can now address these and what a hallmark it would be, for his new administration to commit to them and to demonstrate to the world a statesmanship prepared to make hard choices in the long-term interest of Britain, and for the freedom and security of a wider world.