Defence matters

AlanWest.jpgAlan West on halting the decline of British sea power

We live in a highly dangerous world with threats emerging from Russia, the Middle East, North African littoral, Sahel, terrorism in all its guises, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Korea, China and cyber.

The latter is of huge concern and there are no agreed norms of reactions to attack or how to behave – and nations fear for their own vulnerability. Cyber however, does not replace hard military power as some politicians and the Treasury wish. Rather, it involves extra expenditure to protect our systems and allow offensive action.

In the face of these threats, what has the UK government done? It has shown a staggering sense of complacency or self-delusion, when it is quite clear to experts and laymen that defence needs more resources.

The previous Coalition government reduced our military capability by 30% and our forces remain underfunded. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, there is minimal new money. It is, in theory, being produced by efficiencies. These are impacting on the lives of our sailors, soldiers and airmen.

The House of Commons select committee have pointed out the creative accounting in the 2% figure of GDP spent on defence given by the government. Spending on pensions doesn’t win wars. And the 2% is not a target but the very minimum any NATO nation should spend on defence. The UK should be spending more.

We are now suffering a ‘Black Hole’ of greater proportions than that talked of in 2010.

Robust defence forces prevent wars. If a small conflagration in a distant part of the world develops into a real conflict threatening our national survival then the best welfare provision, NHS and education system in the world are as nothing.

Stopping war, and defending our nation and people if it happens, is more important than any other government spending priorities. That is certainly the Labour view. If Ministers get defence wrong the nation will never forgive them, and the costs in blood and treasure are enormous.

The government has a choice of spending what is required to ensure the safety and security of our nation, our dependencies and people, whether or not the economic outlook is bleak. At present, they are getting the choice wrong and I fear for the security of our nation.

The United States military power, and to a lesser extent – at least until recently – our own, has ensured no world war for over 70 years. Our allies however, expects us and other countries to step up to the plate and share the defence burden. It is right we should do so and it is no use the UK government pretending otherwise.

There is not enough money in the defence budget to ensure our security in this dangerous world. Notwithstanding Secretary of State Michael Fallon calling this “the year of the Navy”, we have too few ships to do what our great nation expects of it. We have effectively only eleven escorts fully capable of operations – a national disgrace. Delays meanwhile, in ordering the new T26 frigates have led to the ordering of extra highly overpriced Offshore Patrol Vessels to fill the Clyde shipyard with work, due to an agreement that it will be subsidized whether or not ships are produced.

Where I would congratulate the government is on its commitment to the deterrent Successor Programme (also Labour policy) but the capital cost of this should be met from central contingency funds and not the defence vote. And the really good news lies with the new carriers (ordered by the previous Labour government), and both welcomed and eagerly awaited by the US. The government must now purchase enough aircraft for these, and help better ensure our security for the next 50 years and beyond.

Lord Alan West of Spithead is a former Security Minister and a Labour Peer in the House of Lords

Published 11th January 2017

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