Innsworth, England. 8 December. Two events took place here in Britain last week that place the future of the British armed forces in the gravest doubt. First, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Right Reverend Justin Welby, made a speech in the House of Lords in which he made a thinly-veiled attempt to take more money out of an already horribly over-strained defence budget to ‘reinvest’ in the bottomless never-never pit of ‘soft power’. Second, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made his Autumn Statement and made it clear that if Britain’s ‘books’ are to be balanced more swingeing cuts will be needed after the May 2015 elections. A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) suggested that the Chancellor would need to find an additional £54.1bn of cuts. According to IPPR with health, schools and the international aid budget ‘ring-fenced’ for narrow political reasons the defence budget would take by far the biggest hit; a further £9.3bn worth of cuts, well over twice that faced by any other department. This would reduce the defence budget from some £34bn today to £25bn. So, what would happen and who would lose if the British armed forces suffered such additional swingeing cuts?
NATO would be profoundly weakened and any pretence the British had to be leading NATO Europe by example would be trashed. My purpose in Innsworth is to address the Headquarters of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, a major NATO headquarters and a vestige of the once mighty British Army of the Rhine - I am just finishing off a book on NATO so I am full of it – and NATO’s history. In September, at the NATO Wales Summit not far from here, Prime Minister David Cameron proudly announced that the money had been found to enable HMS Prince of Wales, the second of Britain’s new massive aircraft carriers to join the fleet. Britain, he said, would be one of the few Allied powers to honour its commitment to spend 2% GDP on defence. Both ‘commitments’ are now again in doubt. Even maintaining the defence budget at 2%GDP will prove hard because with an economy growing at 3% per annum such a target would require significant new money. And, as Professor Malcolm Chalmers points out on current spending the British defence budget will fall to 1.88% next year and 1.52% the year after.
The Special Relationship with the Americans would be dead. Assurances were given privately to the US at the time of 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) that once that round of cuts was completed the defence budget would be stabilised. Further promises were given that thereafter the British defence budget would grow at 1% per annum in real terms to 2020. The state of the current British military is of profound concern to the Americans. Any further cuts would effectively end the close strategic military co-operation that has been a vital cornerstone of European and world security since Churchill and Roosevelt crafted the Atlantic Charter on the USS Augusta in 1941.
Britain’s influence would be critically diminished. Britain’s armed forces are integral to Britain’s strategic brand. In his speech to the House of Lords Archbishop Welby called on the Government to include the funding of soft power in SDSR 2015. Sadly, His Grace is not alone in pushing such nonsense; there is a group of people close to the top of government who agree with him and who are using austerity as a cover to reduce Britain’s armed forces to little more than yet another European peacekeeping militia. Incredibly, Archbishop Welby suggests that soft power is the foundation of all power. He is clearly no strategist for it is the other way round, as I prove conclusively in my latest book Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power. Yes, a state in a hyper-competitive world must invest in all forms of power –diplomatic, aid and development and military - if it is to exert the influence and effect commensurate with its political and economic weight (not population size). However, the bedrock of said influence is credible and relevant hard military power and that costs.
British soldiers would die needlessly. Somewhere, sometime an under-equipped, over-tasked British solder would die in a foreign field that would forever be testament to political incompetence. Far from the world becoming a more peaceful place all the evidence is that big, hard power is back. Friction abounds the world over, strategic ambiguous warfare is being used in Europe, a super-insurgency is underway in the Middle East and hard geopolitics is reflected by the rapid growth of illiberal power and their armed forces. If such a world is to be stabilised and aggression deterred, and if needs be countered, then it needs the Western democracies to stand together and stand tall as credible military powers. Today, European defence is a sham. Any further cuts to the British armed forces would not only destroy their ability to act, it would wipe out the last vestige of Britain’s independent strategic brand and remove Britain as a pillar of Western defence once and for all. Perhaps that is the aim?
A third event took place last week. President Putin gave his State of Russia address in which he said, “We will continue to develop our general purpose forces: aviation, the navy and the land forces….the funds we are allocating for rearming the Army and the Navy…are unprecedented. They total 23 trillion roubles [more than $700 billion]”. In the same debate at which Archbishop Welby spoke Baroness Williams supported His Grace by warning against being ‘beastly’ to the Russians. When I looked last it was not Britain that had invaded Ukraine and who is intimidating NATO and EU allies, most notably our friends in the Baltic States. As such Williams’s statement was a close to an endorsement of appeasement any British politician has uttered since the 1930s.
Be it unbalanced defence cuts driven through simply to meet an arbitrary deficit target or Archbishop Welby’s meaningless ‘soft power’ grab both reveal the essential strategic illiteracy of Britain’s ruling clique. Indeed, all the indications are that Britain will need more not less forces and the effective destruction (for that is what such cuts would mean) of one of the finest fighting forces would simply make the world more not less dangerous.
Sometimes I wonder if the greatest threat to Britain is not economic crises or even the rise of global armed illiberalism, but the fantasy politicians who occupy the increasingly fantasy world that is the fantasy Palace of Westminster.
Cut Britain’s armed forces anymore and it will be the hardest and most dangerous cut of all.