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Artillery Row

We have to wake up on defence

Britain cannot act as if war will never come

In an appeasement-era scene from The First of the Few (1942), a troubled R.J. Mitchell – the Spitfire designer played with improbable flair by Leslie Howard — gazes at a yacht-mounted sign declaring WAKE UP ENGLAND. Some passers-by titter at the sight. “Laugh!” says Lady Houston, the yacht’s owner. “That’s all they can do. But I can see something — I can see England in danger.”

It is important to avoid overstating the inevitability of direct conflict even in the wake of Ukraine and Iran’s recent assault upon Israel

Until quite recently, such pre-war shadows seemed to emanate from a different, darker universe. (Howard himself was shot down and killed shortly before the film’s American release.) Now, however, things aren’t quite so assured. In Putin we have a new Thirties-style dictator, waging a barbaric and expansionary war of conquest in Europe alongside ruthless repression at home. With China, Iran and others rallying round the Kremlin, we have a new axis of hostile states threatening conflict on fronts ranging from Taiwan to the Middle East. And with Trump and the GOP agitating for America First, we have a potential return to 1930s isolationism, and possibly even a threat to NATO as it currently exists. 

It is important to avoid overstating the inevitability of direct conflict even in the wake of Ukraine and Iran’s recent assault upon Israel. As an extension of politics, in which nothing is inevitable, there are always scenarios in which the likelihood of armed conflict recedes. Putin might fall, for instance, to be replaced by a more rational autocrat who recognises the folly and evil of Russia’s war in Ukraine. A resulting shift in Russia’s war posture might then ramify through the emerging hostile axis and spread oil on troubled waters elsewhere, calming tempers in Beijing, Tehran, and elsewhere. It is equally important, however, to avoid the trap of wishful thinking – of expecting unforeseen developments to furnish deliverance from present crises. For every hopeful scenario that promises to rescue us from Thirties-style foreboding, there are a thousand countervailing considerations that support gloomier conclusions. If Putin were going to fall, for instance, wouldn’t he have done so before now – in the days following the failed Kyiv offensive, for instance? “Hope is a good breakfast,” said Francis Bacon, “but a bad supper”; and we are well past the morning hours. Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, recently summed up the geopolitical situation as “the most critical moment since the end of the Second World War.”

One might concede that there are grounds for serious concern, but still cite nuclear weapons as a decisive difference between the Thirties and today. Ukraine, of course, dismantled its own nukes under the Budapest Memorandum, opening the way — some have argued – for Russia’s invasion. But if nukes are so effective in protecting against attack, why does Russia appear to be preparing for a large-scale conventional war against nuclear-armed NATO? Nukes may still prevent homeland invasions, as Russia’s protocols dictate; but their status as barriers to large-scale conflict now stands in serious doubt. In other words, we may be closer to the Thirties than we would prefer.

This introduces a major headache for the United Kingdom, which has long regarded Trident as the nation’s chief safeguard against war. (The 2010 strategic defence review referred to an independent deterrent as “the United Kingdom’s ultimate insurance policy.”) But if Britain can no longer rely on nukes to prevent a major peer-on-peer war, this throws an uncomfortable spotlight onto the UK’s conventional forces — uncomfortable because, for all their undoubted excellence, they currently require the support of allies to project “tier 1” full-spectrum capability across land, sea, and air. The Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, Lt Gen Sir Rob Magowan, recently told the House of Commons Defence Committee that Britain could not fight an adversary like Russia for more than two months, following a report highlighting a lack of warfighting readiness in the armed forces. Sky News, meanwhile, has run reports revealing shortfalls such as the lack of a national defence plan, absent since the Government War Book ceased to be maintained and updated in the early 2000s. Until very recently, defence has fallen towards the bottom of most voters’ priority lists, making additional funding pledges politically challenging, above all during a cost-of-living crisis. Polls show increasing salience of defence in voting intentions in the UK, but for many the war in Ukraine remains — as Chamberlain infamously remarked regarding the threat posed by Nazi Germany to Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland — “a quarrel in a far-away land between people of whom we know nothing.” Nonetheless it remains the case that all other spending is ultimately moot in the absence of an adequate defence settlement. The world’s sixth largest economy is in the uncomfortable position of a homeowner rich in worldly goods but unable to insure them. 

How did we arrive at this situation? Not without good intentions, is the answer – or rather an understandable desire to benefit from dividends arising from the rollback of imperial commitments and the end of the Cold War. From 1949 to 1989, defence spending averaged 6.3 per cent of GDP, falling to 3.1 per cent from 1990-2001 and 2.4 per cent from 2002-2014, before finally falling to around 2.2 per cent today, at a time when the US spends 3.1 per cent, Poland 4 per cent, and Russia 6 per cent. In other words, even the soi-disant “war on terror” didn’t arrest the long decline in British defence spending, and in fact presented a useful pretext to continue the shift — or drift — towards smaller, more “agile” forces. Peace dividends are all very well, but we’re no longer really at peace. At best, as Defence Secretary Grant Shapps noted recently, we’re living in a pre-war world — though as Tory MP Mark Francois has said, “nobody seems to have told HM Treasury.”

So what should we do to hedge against the possibility of pre-war becoming war? The obvious first step is immediately to increase spending to at least 2.5 per cent GDP and ideally 3 per cent, as Shapps and others (including Labour peer Lord West) have suggested, offering resource to replenish stocks sent to Ukraine, uplift asset availability, improve cyber and AI readiness, and begin to plug current procurement black holes running to nearly £30B. Rather than waiting for the oft cited (but chimerical) “rise in economic conditions”, the rise in spend should be announced in the Autumn Statement in advance of a phased increase, reflecting the grave urgency of external conditions. Labour is likely to match Tory tax and spend commitments, so this approach could ensure some years at least of higher spend following the next general election. A rise to 3 per cent is also relatively affordable: costed at an additional £21B, this is only £10B costlier to the country than Jeremy Hunt’s 2p cut to National Insurance, and of far greater national value. 

With this rise secured, more strategic planning could then take place, ideally through a cross-party strategic defence and security review (SDSR), as Labour has proposed. SDSRs could take place on a mandatory annual or biannual basis with a rolling remit to ensure preparedness for an imminent major war — the polar opposite of the dilatory Ten Year Rule proposed (ironically by Churchill) in 1919, which justified post-war cuts on the assumption of no major war occurring in that timeframe. 

The UK could also follow the US in embedding full-spectrum capability requirements in law, though more modestly in scope — two carriers instead of eleven, for instance, but with full flight decks and fully available carrier support groups. Similar requirements could be applied to the army and air force, with (e.g.) two full-strength divisions and >200 fighter aircraft. (France currently has 210 fighter aircraft and the US over 1,350 compared to c.130 for the RAF; Russia has over 900; China, over 1,900.) This approach would ensure tier 1 status as well as preserving the UK’s position, currently under threat from Germany, as the second military power in NATO — or indeed the first, should a Trumpian America leave the organisation. Defence spending would then flow from requirements rather than vice versa, likely rising to Cold War levels (>5 per cent GDP), with the additional bonus of removing defence from party politics as far as possible. 

Such concerns would likely diminish rapidly when confronted with a real rather than hypothetical threat

If cross-party agreement could be achieved, it would also strengthen public-facing communication around potential future requirements for national service and even conscription — eventualities that sit awkwardly with current public opinion. Recent YouGov data, for example, suggest that almost a third of 18 to 40-year-olds would refuse to serve in the armed forces even if the UK was facing imminent invasion, most commonly because of unwillingness to “fight for the rich and powerful”. Such concerns would likely diminish rapidly when confronted with a real rather than hypothetical threat, as seen on previous occasions. (In 1933 the Oxford Union notoriously passed the motion that “This House would not in any circumstances fight for King and Country”.) In the meantime, such concerns can be addressed by enhanced strategic communication around the nature and extent of present dangers. Communication of this kind requires very careful design, balancing clear information around the urgency and nearness of external threats with more upbeat messaging around the preventability of direct warfare. Indeed, these two aspects are inextricably linked, since nothing is more likely to deter war than urgent preparations undertaken on the conviction that it may be imminent.

Britain could also adopt national service schemes on the Norwegian model, designed to convey personal and professional benefits to participants while building much-needed reserves. More widely, increased defence spending could be integrated as “dual-use” funding within a levelling up agenda, creating regional nodes to strengthen local economies, and investing in local industry, infrastructure and education.

Within the armed forces themselves, recruitment and retention could be aided by improving pay and living conditions, by reducing operational overload via larger pools of personnel, and by respecting the distinctive cultures of each branch of the armed forces. In the army, for instance, abolished or merged regiments could be re-established, while — at the governmental level — new ministers for the army and air force, and a reinstated First Lord of the Admiralty, could advocate for their respective branches, raise the presence and prestige of the forces in national life, and support the Defence Secretary in managing a vast and complex brief. Lastly, the Defence Secretary’s title itself could be changed to Secretary of State for War, a position that existed continuously during war and peace from 1854 to 1964, and with incumbents including Peel, Asquith, Kitchener, Lloyd George, Churchill, and Eden. In the wake of Lord Robertson’s warning that UK defence spending is “giving the wrong signal” to Putin, this shift would send a message of resolve to external adversaries. As Churchill himself wrote in an entirely different context, “great is the moral effect of an enemy who advances.”

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