hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday 1 November 2022

Is Britain Failing the Riga Test?

“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks”.

Winston Churchill

Britain and the Riga Test

November 2nd, 2022.  Is Britain about to fail the Riga Test?  Come the Autumn Statement (budget) on November 17th the financial reckoning of the pandemic lockdown will become apparent. There are also worrying signs that Britain’s new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, might be about to renege on the commitments London made to NATO as recently as the June Madrid Summit. 

For many years I have had the honour of attending the superb annual Riga Conference. Each year I set the Riga Test: can the good citizens of Riga sleep easier in their beds than last year?  On the one hand, there is a major war in Ukraine raging south of Latvia involving its grizzly neighbour Russia, whilst on the other, Russia’s brutal incompetence, allied to NATO’s strategic re-awakening, should give Rigans grounds for confidence.  It was also Britain, not the EU, Germany or France, which took the lead in supporting Ukraine when Russia invaded, but that was then and this is now. Since then what passes for the British Government has been mired in the kind of political self-indulgence one normally finds at the Oxford Union.

Is Britain declining?

Let me make a bold assertion: Britain is not declining, it is simply very badly led.  Sadly, the 'all things being equal', geopolitically-illiterate economists who control matters and money in London like to trot out relative growth figures of countries such as China, India and Brazil as proof of Britain’s ‘terminal’ decline. However, they conveniently fail to point out the enormous internal challenges such countries face turning size, macro-wealth and macro-poverty into power. They also like to pretend that whatever the geopolitical backdrop the solution is always the same – focus on the electoral cycle, cut the things the public might not notice, and hope for the best.  It is hardly surprising defence is first in the firing line for cuts.

In fact, Britain has done its declining and there is a lot an advanced country of 70 or so million souls can do.  Britain sits off the north-west coast of a relatively stable Europe, is blessed with a world language and had the luxury of inventing time (Greenwich) to suit its interests.  Britain is also the world’s fifth or sixth largest economy, and in 2022 the world’s third largest defence spender. It also has a world-leading intelligence capability. And yet, it is precisely Britain’s big defence spending that reveals the depth of the British disease: London’s appallingly poor application of resources in the failed pursuit of much needed forces. Britain gets nothing like the pound for the Pound it invests in defence.   

Government is always about hard choices, but it is precisely because successive British governments have either failed to make such choices, or on the few occasions when they have it has invariably been the wrong choice driven by short-term politics rather than national strategy. The High Establishment even have a metaphor for kicking the British can down the global road - managing decline. They are not particularly good at even doing that.  

The core problem is the culture war is being fought out between much of government and the British people.  Much of the London elite is post-patriotic and refuses to recognise that to survive and prosper Britain must have interests and be prepared to defend them. Indeed, patriotism is a dirty word in many corridors of British power. Rather, what passes for government both in Westminster and Whitehall these days seems more akin to false flagging virtue, or simply appeasing reality, and is thus bereft of any strategic ambition. If there is no strategic ambition in government how can there be strategy?  If there is no strategy there can be no clear sense of ends, ways or means.

Blood, sweat and fears?

Could that change? 2022 is not 2010.  During the financial crisis NATO still saw Russia as a potential security partner and China as vital to economic security. In 2015, Cameron came close to selling the Crown Jewels to China less than a year after Putin had seized Crimea. Now that Russia has invaded Ukraine there is little evidence Europe will be at peace any time soon.

There is no question Britain finds itself facing a raft of hard economic choices, like many of its European peers.  That said, it was somewhat galling to read the current (this week at least) Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Jeremy Hunt quote Churchill at war in 1940 to justify once again putting economic stability BEFORE national security. First, because Churchill actually did the opposite. Second, because during the recent contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party Hunt called for 4% GDP to be spent on defence. The Chancellor also said economic stability is the first duty of government.  Such stability is, of course, very important, but the first duty of government is national security and sometimes in history, as Churchill knew only too well, security and defence HAVE to be afforded whatever the financial situation. Such as when there is a major war in Europe underway involving a nuclear-tipped and unstable adversary of both Britain and NATO.

Britain now looks likely to return to Planet Cameron and its one-eyed mantra of, “We only afford as much threat as the bond markets say we can”. At a meeting of the European Research Group, Sunak refused to commit to spending 3% GDP on defence by 2030.  If past experience is anything to go by when a defence commitment is no longer a commitment it becomes an aspiration, and in politics ‘aspirations’ normally herald a government raid on the defence budget. In Britain this is usually so that ever more money can be poured into that apparently unreformable and unimpeachable Holy Relic called ‘our’ National Health Service.

Britain’s Potemkin power

Britain’s Potemkin power creates uncertainty just at moment when NATO deterrence and defence needs Britain, France and Germany to step up to the challenge of anchoring European defence.  This is because the Americans are over-stretched and will become more so dealing with Russia and China.  For Britain to send a signal now that London wants to increase the pressure on the US and its forces by making America relatively weaker through a free-riding dereliction of NATO duty would be unforgivable. Sadly, it would not be the first time.

Therefore, let me put British defence expenditure in perspective. Between 1945 and 1960 Britain’s debt to GDP ratio was between 200% and 250%, today it is 96.6%. In 1950, British defence spending stood at 9.6% GDP, 5.9% in 1960 and remained high throughout the cash-strapped 1970s.  It remained as high as 5% GDP as late as 1989. Post-war Britain was far more cash-strapped than Britain today.  

For the sake of political politesse Sunak will probably claim he is committed to increasing the defence budget to 3% GDP by 2030, but not just yet.  After all, if a week is a long time in British politics seven years is another geological age. He will also probably ‘back-load’ any increase to the back-end of the 2020s, albeit with a promise to maintain expenditure at 2% until at least 2026-27.  Defence will thus be someone else’s problem. 

The critical issue, given rampant inflation, and thus proof of Sunak’s defence-seriousness, will be whether London maintains its existing commitment to increase the defence budget 0.5% above inflation each year. If not, London will further hollow out an already hollowed out force and thus further undermine NATO deterrence and defence just at the moment Putin has announced decade of danger (in fact, I had called it that last week – I wonder).

Disintegrated review?

Britain likes to pretend it is building a strategic raider force. In fact, Britain’s forces are already far too small to be a quality force even if the force retains a certain quality. Quantity does have a certain quality especially when it is quality and one of the many lessons of the Ukraine War is that credible deterrence and defence demand a balance between quality and quantity that Britain has abandoned. It is also for this reason that institutions like NATO are the core of Britain’s strategic method precisely because they are mechanisms for balancing strategy, capability and affordability.  To make NATO 2030 work, and given Britain’s relative political and economic weight, London needs significantly more military capability at far higher capacity.

One had hoped Britain has learnt its lesson following the disastrous 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review which sacrificed national security for financial ‘stability’.  Yet, the same old accountants (or ‘grown-ups’ as they like to style themselves) seem to be back in office determined as ever to aid Britain’s adversaries and NATO’s enemies by slashing one of the few influence tools allies and adversaries still respect. I hope I am wrong. 

One of the many findings of my Future War and Deterrence Conference, was not only the need for countries like Britain to resolve profound tensions in the life-cycles of platforms and systems but also the need to get ahead of the planning challenge posed by emerging and disruptive technologies. Britain has a chance to do that but not if Treasury and political short-termism once again put a hole in defence below the waterline.

Plan and deliver

What to do?  First, make the 3% commitment by 2030 law. Second, carry out a thorough audit of British defence procurement. There has been an almost criminal waste of money over the past 25 years on failed projects. The Ajax armoured infantry fighting Christmas Tree, sorry fighting vehicle, being but the latest such disaster. Third, treat the defence and technological industrial base as a national asset and involve business directly in an overhaul of defence planning and procurement. Fourth, and above all, develop a new strategy to re-capitalise the British armed forces by 2030 based on a threat-based assessment of ends, ways, and means.

Why? Britain and the world have been hit by repeated crises since 2001 – 911, the banking and Eurozone crisis, Brexit, COVID, and now Putin’s war.  It is precisely at such times of stress and shock that danger rears its ugly head in the form of military adventurism as autocrats and totalitarians fear both a threat to their own power and opportunity in equal measure.

Band of brothers?

Last week I had the distinct honour of giving the ‘band of brothers’ speech to some of Britain’s military leaders in the very room in the Tower of London to which the real Henry V returned after his victory at the Battle of Agincourt in October 1415.  We few, we happy few…and all that.  First, I looked more like Sir John Falstaff than the Boy King. Second, the words simply no longer resonate beyond a few in London these days. If there are further cuts, or whatever euphemism London chooses to employ as ‘spin’ (lies), it will kill any post-Brexit influence Britain has re-generated by its leadership in Ukraine. It will also destroy the defence momentum generated by Integrated Review 2021, and help hand the future multi-domain battlespace to Britain’s enemies. Washington will just shake a sorry head and move on. 

The whole point of defence investment is to prevent war through strengthened deterrence when others seem hell bent on fighting it. For Sunak that means answering several bloody big strategic questions. Are the bond markets really a greater threat to Britain than Putin or China’s just crowned and increasingly totalitarian President-for-Life Xi Jinping?  Must market speculators also be appeased, like Hitler in the 1930s? Or, do speculators also have an interest in defending the free world and free markets? Can Britain really again get off the world whilst London once again messes around with its endlessly shambolic economy?

The British armed forces must be rebuilt after a disastrous decade of strategic and defence pretence. 3% GDP would simply be a down-payment on such a responsibility during the coming decade of danger in a world that is no longer forgiving of such one-eyed weakness.  If not, and given the world in which we live, further cuts to Britain’s armed forces will doubtless mean some poor ill-equipped British soldier, sailor or airman could well find himself or herself unable to work with the more advanced Americans whilst at the same time facing a superior enemy with a reduced chance of survival. London would, of course, make its usual excuses. London always does.

If Britain fails the defence test it will not only be failing Latvians, Americans and its other allies and partners, it will be failing itself. For once, I hope I am wrong. Rigans? They might well be advised to heed another of Churchill's warnings when dealing with London: “I no longer listen to what people say, just what they do. Behaviour never lies’.  Sorry Riga.

Julian Lindley-French