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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: English Teacher - Saffron ...

Primary Supply Teacher - Northants

£90 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Primary School Supply Teache...

Maths Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Maths Teacher - Saffro...

Chemistry Teacher - Top School in Malaysia - January Start

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Being catcalled, groped and masturbated at is a common part of the female experience

Bryony Beynon
A general view at the 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' evolving art installation at the Tower of London  

London's sea of poppies is a beautiful monument to the fallen of World War I

Ken Eggleston
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain