By Wyn Rees
Election fever is in the air and the party platforms are busily being debated. Amidst this febrile atmosphere, defence is coming under the spotlight. Although not an issue at the top of voters’ agendas it is a subject that attracts attention because of the heightened threat environment resulting from terrorism and events in the Middle East. What are the issues in defence that will figure in the General Election in May?
Like other government departments, the Ministry of Defence has experienced four years of austerity. The Conservatives conducted a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2010 that inflicted painful cuts on all three Armed Services. Based on the premise that a £37billion shortfall had emerged between defence commitments and resources, the Regular Army was cut from 102 000 to 82 000, the surface fleet was reduced in size and the Harrier and Nimrod aircraft were retired. The legacy from these decisions creates the context in which a future government will conduct an SDSR in 2015. There was an expectation that by the time of the 2015 Review the defence budget would be growing again but the persistence of the national debt renders this unlikely. Anything more than a slight increase in the defence equipment budget, to take account of major weapons programmes, looks overly optimistic.
This reawakens a long-standing debate in British defence policy between the ambitions of its politicians and the capabilities of the military. British pretensions to remain a global power remain undimmed. The authorization by the present Conservative government to deploy a second Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier speaks of a determination to be able to conduct future expeditionary operations to far flung corners of the world. The building of a naval base in Bahrain is consistent with this thinking. Britain wants to preserve its identity as the partner of choice for the United States.
Yet these ambitions are being called into question by the military themselves. It is argued that British capabilities are reaching a floor at which point it becomes impossible to conduct complex operations on a significant scale. The 2010 SDSR signalled that only a brigade sized force (just 5 000 personnel) would be available to undertake a long term military task. The size of the Reserves is being increased to 30 000 soldiers. Even a figure as senior as the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, has voiced concern that the Armed Services were being cut too far.
This tension between commitments and capabilities is not helped by the ambiguity of the current strategic environment. The previous decade has witnessed counter-insurgency conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Such conflicts were against relatively unsophisticated opponents yet they still required large numbers of personnel and high levels of training. The engagement against Islamic State forces in Iraq suggests that such tasks may continue for some time to come. In addition, Russia has flexed its muscles over Ukraine and resurrected the fear, absent since the Cold War, of a military standoff against a major power. This sort of threat requires high intensity war-fighting capabilities and places a premium upon technologically sophisticated and expensive military platforms. Determining the appropriate balance between these contending demands, whilst simultaneously addressing novel challenges such as cyber-conflict, poses the Ministry of Defence with a dilemma.
Thus, a post-election government faces difficult choices in defence. On the one hand, there are multi-faceted external threats that call for different kinds of defence capabilities. On the other, there are expensive weapons programmes in the pipeline at a time when national debt reduction is far from being achieved. Whilst defence is unlikely to figure as a major issue in the forthcoming election, there are nonetheless important issues for the future of the UK.
Wyn Rees is a Professor of International Security at the University of Nottingham, specialising in transatlantic security relations, counter-terrorism and UK defence policy.
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Image credit: Royal Navy