The cost of being Europe's squaddies

This is the ultimate Biggles dream machine, fuelled by national testosterone. We - you and I - are buying 232 for pounds 16bn
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The Independent Online
Who do we think we are? We strut our stuff on the world stage, puffed up with imperial dreams way beyond our means - all fur coat and no knickers. We are buying more Eurofighters than anyone else so we can flash around the skies like some pimp cruising through a bombed-out neighbourhood in a white Jag. We have ordered 386 new Challenger tanks and 64 EH101 battle helicopters. We are hardware addicts on a wild spending spree.

The public spending round is upon us. The little performance with the Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, and his (too few) extra millions for the NHS is a phoney show designed to reassure us that money will go where it is needed. But what about the billions spent where it is no longer needed?

Britain together with France spends far more than the rest of Europe on defence - 3.1 per cent of our GNP. (We spend the same as France because we are locked into an absurd arms race with them.) Germany and Belgium spend only 1.7 per cent; Spain spends 1.5 per cent. We have no treaty obligations to make us contribute more to Nato or European defence than Germany, so we could halve our spending if we chose. We currently spend pounds 22bn. Think how much we could put right with another pounds 11bn a year to spend on education and social projects.

We are not a rich country. We rank only 20th in the world, with most of Europe ahead of us in the league tables of per capita GDP. Why do we spend so much on defence, what do we get for it, and who is the enemy, anyway?

The Eurofighter is a beautiful thing. This we know because of the purple prose that drips from the boys' pens. One eloquent profile of the plane reads: "The pilot with helmet-mounted sights and voice-operated weapons selection will be able to shoot down enemy aircraft by doing little more than looking at them and wishing his missiles happy hunting. The computer has a woman's soft voice which keeps the pilot informed about the condition of the aircraft (remaining fuel, etc) and rises to an urgent timbre when the blip of an enemy appears on her radar ... Four computers hold it steady and interpret the pilot's tiny finger movements on the joystick." This is the ultimate Biggles dream machine, fuelled by national testosterone.

We - you and I - are buying 232 of these. Estimates suggest that they will cost some pounds 16bn, but the cost is notional. It will multiply again and again, as defence contracts do. At the present attrition rate, some eight of them will crash a year in training. But it will enable Britain to mount a full-scale war. Hurrah!

The plane was first thought of in 1979 at the height of the Cold War to engage with Russian MiGs over Europe. It was designed for dog-fights and assaults on attacking bombers. No one expects bombers over Britain now. Any attack would be with missiles.

For what war will these little beauties be needed? Wars now are expected to be of the Bosnian or Rwandan variety. Our strategy is about peacekeeping around the world. The monstrous great Challenger 2 tanks we have ordered, at a (purely notional) pounds 1.1bn, will be no use for that kind of war - too wide, slow and heavy for narrow streets or long distances. Then there is the pounds 1.5bn (or pick any sum you like) for the EH101 helicopters. Ah, yes, and the Trident nuclear submarines, still costing us some pounds 1bn a year.

Why do we need all this? One of the worst reasons is jobs. Michael Portillo says that the Eurofighter will bring 14,000 jobs. At a very conservative estimate, that is pounds 1m per job. pounds 1m! Think of the jobs you could create with government money in health, education, training, welfare and social services. This is a job creation of the madhouse.

There is the high-tech argument. But these days military electronics steals from the civilian world. They spin-in the technology of others. The spin-off is minimal.

Why do we really need all this? It keeps us at the top table of world- class warriors. Our nuclear arms and strike forces ensure our UN security council seat. Here, the argument becomes circular. Why do we want to sit on the security council, anyway? Why do we want to punch so much more than our weight in the world? Why can't we be satisfied with the fire- power of Belgium? Here the experts shrug, bemused by the question. National grandeur, said one. Our own self-image and pride, said another.

We do have moral obligations. We have a duty to contribute fairly, according to our means, to international peacekeeping. Are we loved and admired around the world because of our extra fire-power? No, we are not loved at all; least of all in the EU, where we contribute so much more than the rest. We are the squaddies of Europe. Our pretentions are snickered at by other nations who see through our gilded armour-plating to the chaotic state of much of society behind the front line.

Who are our real enemies? They are all within. We may be armed to the teeth, but not against the enemies people most fear. Crime has come to symbolise a sickness eating away at the social core. The enemy is not some Red Baron in the skies, but small boys from catastrophic, poor families, out of control, on drugs, growing up without help, for lack of investment in social programmes. They wreak havoc in schools and fetch up in prison while their teenage sisters give birth to more like them. These are the fruits of a neglected underclass. Much can be done about it with money wisely spent. Ignorance, poverty and crime are our real enemies.

So what would Labour do in power? They will hold a defence review that will try to make sense of our muddled military objectives. Maybe they will have the guts to make swingeing cuts, but if so, we are not likely to hear about it until after the election.

If generals are always fighting the last war, then politicians are always fighting the last election. Scorched into Labour memory is the damage that unilateral disarmament did, tarring them as fellow travellers in the Cold War. But those days have gone. Declaring the peace dividend would make Labour's best social aspirations suddenly look creative and credible. If read-my-lips-no-new-taxes is to remain the rule, then a promise to release money from the mad defence budget would win votes.

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