hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Defence Blindness: Why Are Our Leaders Destroying Our Armed Forces?

Adjust: ‘to adapt oneself to one’s environment’; ‘Cuts’; ‘to reduce expenditure, to prune.’
The Concise Oxford Dictionary
Cuts; ‘to adapt oneself to one’s [political] environment’; Adjust: ‘to reduce expenditure, to prune’.
British Ministry of Defence Speak

Alphen, Netherlands. 10 October. I am on nonsense-watch this morning. This blog emerged from a weekend debate I had with a British friend with very senior experience at the top of the Whitehall machine.  He raised two interesting questions about defence policy, not just in Britain but across Europe.  First, if what is desirable/necessary is politically impossible should one call for its enactment? Second, would an alternative not be to point out the consequences of political choices and failure? This raised in my mind a third question. Why are Europe’s leaders destroying Europe’s armed forces?

Take Britain. If the British defence budget goes on increasing at the rate the British government claims, the British armed forces will soon cease to exist! London is in the midst of yet another of those ‘defence reviews’, which I am assured is an ‘adjustment’ to the defence budget, not a further ‘cut’. It is a cut. This one is euphemistically called the National Security Capabilities Review which will see Britain’s already woefully small armed forces lose yet more military capabilities.  These were capabilities that as recently as 2015 were not only deemed ‘critical’, but irreducible.  If, for no other reason than to demonstrate and reinforce Britain’s continuing importance to the post-Brexit defence of Europe one might think London would desist from such a further cut to defence. But no. Unfortunately, Britain is not alone in pursuing politics at the expense of strategy.

Why?  Too many leaders prefer, i.e. choose sound money at the expense of sound defence.  Take Britain again. Yes, the annual deficit and national debt are far higher than should ideally (in an ideal world) be the case, although both are far lower than they were for much of the twentieth century. However, London does not live in an ideal world and yet chooses to emphasise not an ineffective policy of austerity, whilst at the same time favouring a relatively low tax regime. Now, I am (absolutely) no Corbynite, but at a time of high demand on the public purse, and a relatively small said purse something clearly has to give. Unfortunately, sound defence and sound money are at opposing poles between income and expenditure, and between strategic responsibility and political benefit, with everything else in between. London has adopted arbitrary austerity targets based on dodgy statistics whilst pursuing relatively low taxes, and yet maintains relatively high spending on areas such as health, and education for a fast-growing population clamouring for ever more entitlement and threatening political mayhem (Corbyn) if denied. Consequently, London chooses to make the armed forces weak, and thus accepts a higher degree of defence risk. It is not even grown-up politics, let alone sound strategy.

Unfortunately, Britain is by no means alone. Defying defence gravity (in both senses of the word) is also the position of Berlin, which is critical to what happens across the rest of Europe. This is why the Germans are rowing back (along with the Belgians, Dutch, and other Europeans) from meeting the solemn commitment Berlin made at the 2014 NATO Wales Summit to spend 2% GDP on defence by 2024.  Now, one can argue until the few defence cows we Europeans have left about the utility and/or appropriateness of the ‘2%’ Defence Investment Pledge. Put it this way, 2% spent reasonably well on defence is at least twice as effective as the roughly ‘1%’ many Europeans on average spend on defence, and spend badly. 

Germany’s defence effort is, not unreasonably, still influenced by the dark eloquence of Germany’s none-too-distant history, and Berlin’s legitimate concerns about the structural weaknesses of the euro, and the cost of keeping the single currency stable. And, given history, sound money is sound defence for Berlin – period.  However, by placing sound money above sound defence, Berlin imposes its own neuroses on the rest of the Europe it leads through the EU, and enables other Europeans to slide away from solemn defence commitments.

Why is a gap between sound money and sound defence so dangerous?  Danger develops when the balance between sound defence and sound money becomes so out of kilter that one or the other effectively collapses. Russia suffers from the diametrically opposing problem; unsound defence at the expense of both a sound economy and sound money.  The problem for European defence, as I implied in my last blog, is that whilst both unsound money and unsound defence can blow up in your face, only one is could at some point produce an unheralded nuclear mushroom cloud!

Here is my point (and there is one) if a European political leader accepts a higher degree of security and defence risk by cutting the very military capabilities and capacities upon which credible deterrence and defence sit then one at least ought to try and balance that by being more command and efficient and resource effective. Unfortunately, such ‘integration’ is impossible for a host of political reasons. The result is that all Europeans, NATO and EU members alike, are trapped in a kind of defence black hole between dangerously low defence investment and growing risk.  In other words, Europe’s 'leaders' are helping to create the very ‘risk space’ through which a politically unstable, economically weak, but militarily over-bearing Russia, could, in extremis, drive a new Armata tank (and many of its ilk).

Does all of the above really matter? The problem is not only do European leaders actually believe their own defence-blind rhetoric, the very real impact on European armed forces is already proving fatal. Last week the Dutch Research Council for Security published a report on Dutch UN peacekeeping operations in Mali that was so damning that both the Dutch Defence Minister and the Chief of the Netherlands Defence Staff stepped down. The essence of the report was that in April 2016 two Dutch soldiers were killed, and one gravely injured, because in 2006 the Dutch had bought cheap and untested mortars from the Bulgarians for operations in Afghanistan.  The implications of the report are clear; old, and clearly ‘dodgy’ second-hand munitions were in use only because a Dutch government deployed over-stretched, but under-funded forces for political reasons, and for which Dutch soldiers payed the ultimate price.  The continual under-funding of the Netherlands Armed Forces over twenty years and more (See my 2010 co-authored RUSI Whitehall Report on the state of the Dutch armed forces entitled “Between the Polder and a Hard Place”) meant the force was thus deployed at a far higher level of risk to its own safety than should have been the case, if they were properly funded and equipped.

Therein lies the essential problem of European defence – too many of Europe’s political leaders are strategically-illiterate and defence-blind, and only listen to political advice, not strategic guidance.  Worse, they listen to economists! Unfortunately, if governments in Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, go on treating defence budgets as contingency reserves for funding politically convenient projects.  If, in so doing, they abandon the proper management of strategic risk. And, if sound money is deemed to be more important than sound defence and at any cost, then at some point risk will be replaced with disaster.

Back to the British. The reason for the ‘adjustment’ is to counter the fall in the value of the pound since the Brexit vote and the impact of said fall on the cost of defence imports and thus defence cost inflation.  The ‘cost’ is believed to be as high as £30bn. In the past London would have made such an adjustment by drawing money from the contingency reserve. Today, London merely cuts the force, proving conclusively that both the 2015 National Security Strategy and the Strategic Defence and Security Review were not worth the paper they were written on.

My British friend answered the question at the head of this blog in his usual succinct and crafted manner; “Strategic circumstances demand certain measures; if political decisions prevent those measures being taken, then the consequences are a high strategic risk. That has to be weighed against the arguments for those decisions. Both strategy and politics in the present world are about choices: denying that is not grown up and could prove (literally) fatal”.

At other times in history perhaps European leaders could get away with defence blindness. However, as Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman suggests in his new book, “The Future of War: A History” (London: Allen Lane), war most definitely has a future. So, why are Europe’s leaders destroying Europe’s armed forces?  Because too many of them are in denial, and history could well damn them (and us) for it. Worse, by consistently weakening their own defences the defence blind make future war more likely.

Julian Lindley-French 


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  2. A defence minister recently said that the Government had successfully hedged against the falling pound to ensure that dollar defence equipment expenditure could be maintained at for at least another 5 years. Perhaps the defence budget as a whole is the hedge?

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