After years of military cuts, can Britain still defend itself?
Russian warplanes are skirting the British Isles and Isil is rampant in the Middle East - yet somehow Britain's armed forces have become the forgotten issue in this election
But that was before a succession of governments – both Tory and Labour – undertook a series of dramatic cuts. They have reduced our Armed Forces to a lamentable state, with serious questions now being asked about their ability to deal with the many threats we are likely to face in future years, whether that be the Kremlin’s new-found spirit of military adventurism, or the rise of well-organised Islamist terror groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), which has seized control of large swathes of northern Iraq and Syria and is once more dominating the headlines after the murder of the Japanese hostage Kenji Goto over the weekend.
With the Coalition’s most recent defence cuts, following the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), the Army’s strength now stands at a modest 82,000 men. The total number of RAF combat squadrons is due to fall to a paltry six – hardly sufficient to protect Britain’s airspace, let alone undertake overseas combat operations. The number of operational Navy warships stands at just 18 – five destroyers and 13 frigates – with the two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers unlikely to enter service until well into the next decade.
The most recent cuts, moreover, have had a disastrous impact on our ability to undertake even the most basic military tasks. For example, the Coalition’s decision to scrap the Nimrod maritime patrol programme means that we no longer have the ability to track Russian nuclear submarines operating close to British territorial waters. At the end of last year, when a Russian attack boat was spotted close to the Scottish coast, we had to ask Nato to help us by sending one of its anti-submarine patrol aircraft.
Similarly, delays to the RAF’s upgrade programme for the Typhoon fleet, principally caused by the lack of funding available for the new equipment, have left RAF pilots relying on our ageing fleet of Tornado GR4 bombers to conduct missions against Isil positions in Iraq.
These are just two of the more glaring examples of how the defence cuts are having a direct bearing on the effectiveness of all three Forces. And yet, rather than facing up to the enormous damage that has been inflicted by successive governments, none of the main political parties appears to be at all interested in championing the needs of the Armed Forces.
Indeed, with politicians of all persuasions warning that the next government will need to make further cuts if it is to balance the books, there is already speculation that more defence cuts are being planned in the run-up to the next SDSR, which will take place after the general election. Last month Sir Nick Harvey, the former Liberal Democrat defence minister, warned that the MoD had drawn up plans to cut the Army by a further 20,000 to around 60,000, a number that would render it incapable of participating in any future coalition ground operations. Senior Army sources have downplayed the claim, pointing out that David Cameron has made a public commitment to keep the Army at its current, depleted strength if he is re-elected.
An alternative money-saving option, floated this weekend, was to merge the Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment – an idea that Maj Gen Julian Thompson, who led 3 Commando Brigade during the Falklands War, describes as “barmy”. The thinking is that a single joint airborne and amphibious assault unit would be formed, stripping out duplication but also gravely weakening our capability to respond to global events.
There is something peculiar here. Already, those within the MoD are starting to wrangle over what to cut. But that implicitly accepts that the cuts will inevitably happen.
Indeed, while Mr Cameron has signalled his reluctance to make further cuts to the Army, he has been less forthcoming about whether a future Conservative-led government would maintain Britain’s defence spending at the all‑important figure of 2 per cent of GDP – the sum that is required by Nato membership.
During last September’s Nato summit in Wales, Mr Cameron lectured the other European members on the need to meet that benchmark. Yet even without further cuts, our defence spending is due to fall to around
1.7 per cent of GDP by 2018 – well below the designated threshold. When challenged in the Commons last month about his intentions, Mr Cameron avoided making a firm commitment, preferring to give assurances that he would make sure the Armed Forces had the funding needed to fulfil Britain’s defence requirements.
It is the same story with Labour, where Vernon Coaker, the shadow defence secretary, says his party cannot make a firm commitment to the 2 per cent threshold so long as tackling the deficit remains a top priority. And the Liberal Democrats, who could still hold the balance of power, have no interest in increasing the defence budget. On the contrary, most would like to divert even more of it towards international aid, even though the Department for International Development is said to have spent a staggering £60 billion over the past four years on projects that have done nothing whatsoever to ameliorate the threat to British interests – which was Mr Cameron’s argument for ring-fencing the aid budget in the first place.
All of which means that, as the election campaign gets under way, none of the main political parties is prepared to champion the cause of the Armed Forces. Indeed, if the politicians get their way, defence will be a non‑subject for the campaign’s duration.
Whether they can get away with this woeful and deliberate neglect will depend, to a degree, on whether any major international crisis emerges before May. But what is certainly true is that, unless there is a radical change in the way the next government funds defence, Britain’s Armed Forces could go from being a source of pride to a national embarrassment.