John Kampfner: If we want to punch above our weight, we'll have to pay for it

Our defence budget is more than adequate for a medium-sized European country. It does not meet the needs of a nation suffering from an identity crisis

Share
Related Topics

One of the myths about the armed forces, at least according to those members I have spoken to over the years, is that they are gung-ho for action. What the top brass require is that politicians know what they are doing when they send men and women into harm's way. They need a strategy, an exit plan, a set of measures for success, the appropriate kit and a sensible budget.

What they do not appreciate is a mismatch between rhetoric and reality. When Tony Blair was massaging the truth on the road to Iraq, he was also committing forces into action without being properly prepared. David Cameron promised to take a more sober approach to the UK's mission to "democratise" the world – a latter-day version of the White Man's Burden. Yet,while administering 8 per cent cuts to the defence budget by 2015 he has found himself clinging to many of the same hubristic mantras. Britain has found itself again involved in two major conflicts, making up the strategy as it goes along.

This week's report by the Commons Defence Select Committee points out glaring inconsistencies. How, it asks, can the Prime Minister preside over a sudden intervention in Libya and a continued engagement of attrition in Afghanistan while cutting back the armed forces? "We are not convinced, given the financial climate and the drawdown of capabilities arising from the Strategic Defence and Security Review that from 2015 the armed forces will maintain the capability to undertake all that is being asked of them," the report notes.

In other words, Cameron's claim that the UK retains "full spectrum defence capability" is bogus. That is quite a charge. The tone is stinging: "We can only conclude that the government has postponed the sensible aspiration of bringing commitments and resources into line." The mismatch between resources and aspiration is clear. The MPs, however, indulge in the traditional genuflection of British politicians, bemoaning the lack of money rather than the excesses of the ambition.

The Labour opposition, having long learnt the lessons of the Falklands, used the report to attack the lack of flag-waving patriotism of ministers. Trade unions condemn cuts in the Ministry of Defence's civilian contingent, just as they cling to the defence industry as a key provider of jobs. Politics, as ever, is dictated by immovable nostrums. "Support" for the armed forces is non-negotiable; sensible debate appears out of bounds.

Neither the facts nor the logic add up. Britain's defence budget, even after the cuts, will remain the world's fourth largest in terms of total spend. As a proportion of GDP it is further down the scale, but still easily within Nato's required 2 per cent. This would be more than adequate for a medium-sized European nation to defend itself and to contribute to certain multilateral ventures. It does not meet the needs of a nation that continues to suffer from an identity crisis.

What else would explain the desperate desire among Conservatives (and Labour) to replace the Trident nuclear submarine, at a cost of £25bn? And that does not take into account the warheads, running costs, and the leasing from the US of the actual missiles for this supposedly "independent" deterrent.

The MoD is not a market leader in numeracy. It struggles to answer simple questions about budgets. A few weeks before it launched its latest report, the Defence Committee expressed pique when it finally extracted "estimates" for overall spending on Afghanistan (£18bn) and on Libya (£260m). The ministry has a long tradition in wasting billions of taxpayers' money on shoddily conceived procurement contracts, as a report in 2009 revealed. Average overruns were 40 per cent more than the original cost, with an aggregate value of £35bn – the equivalent of nearly a year's defence spending.

It will be interesting to see the extent to which the department has since been kicked into shape. The appointment as head of procurement last December of Bernard Grey, the author of the 2009 report, bodes well. But such is the financial and political grip that UK and other defence contractors have on the department that one should assume the worst. If ever an area across government – and not just in the MoD – were ripe for budgetary examination and decimation, it is defence procurement. Instead it is the service personnel who will bear the burden, not just in job cuts, but in treatment. Over-stretch is now standard across the forces.

When in opposition, Cameron spoke disparagingly about imposing democracy from 10,000 feet. He was right to do so, although perhaps not as glibly as he did. His instincts suggest that he understands far better than any of his predecessors in Downing Street that the time for delusions of grandeur is over. Military intervention, when deemed to be successful, can be the making of a premier. It is what makes them feel important. Remember not just the Falklands but the shot of Margaret Thatcher in the desert with the head scarf?

Yet Cameron can't bring himself to act upon his hunch. Part of the reason is the flow of events. When confronted by the prospect of a massacre in Benghazi, he joined the French in the sudden deployment of the RAF to impose a no-fly zone. The alternative could have been cataclysmic. He felt he had no choice. But that does not excuse a lack of strategic thinking.

Blair's brand of humanitarian interventionism had virtuous roots in seeing the international community standing idly by in Bosnia. Via Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, it found its nemesis in Iraq. The questions that have dogged policy-makers for the past 20 years – when, how and whether to intervene in sovereign countries to prevent or stem mass abuses – remain as acute as ever. Why, as has been lamented, Libya and not Syria?

These inconsistencies will perhaps never be resolved. Less forgivable is the preening. If Britain is, belatedly, to find a quieter place for itself on the world stage, it should admit as much. If it still believes it is a major military power, then it needs to find the money from somewhere. Any bids for further cuts elsewhere?

John Kampfner is author of 'Freedom For Sale' and 'Blair's Wars'; www.jkampfner.net; twitter@johnkampfner

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Barnardo's: Corporate Audit and Inspection – Retail Intern (Leeds)

Unpaid - £4 lunch allowance plus travel to and from work: Barnardo's: Purpose ...

Recruitment Genius: Content Writer - Global Financial Services

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Receptionist

£15000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward, who were killed after a gunman opened fire during a live broadcast in Virginia  

Because of Facebook and Twitter I still have Alison Parker's final chilling moments looping in my head

Nash Riggins
A Chinese investor holds prayer beads as he monitors stock prices at a brokerage house in Beijing  

We fear China's growing power. But it is morally reprehensible to celebrate the country's woes

Fokke Obbema
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future