The news that the National Audit office has estimated that the UK defence budget is underfunded to the tune of £20 billion for the next decade should come as no surprise. Attempts to do defence on the cheap since the end of the cold war have squeezed the capabilities of the armed forces without making the uncomfortable choices that such under funding demand.
While the immediate cash crisis is the result of the fall in the value of the pound making purchases of American equipment such as F- 35 jet aircraft more expensive, and the requirement for unrealistic efficiency savings, the larger problems are structural. Most importantly Britain still aspires to deploy a full spectrum capability on a global scale but is unwilling to pay what it takes to make that role credible, yet the ability to contribute to American military missions is a key element of UK foreign policy and this has driven defence procurement and strategy. The decision to try to maintain “organic” carrier-based airpower without allocating sufficient resources to make that a reality are a clear case in point.
At £3 billion, building the two new aircraft carriers has been colossally expensive, that the budget for the air defence destroyers necessary for their protection has been cut as a result. The initial plan for these Type 45 destroyers was to build 12. When their cost soared to a billion pound each, the Royal Navy was asked what the minimum was they really needed. Their reply was that they could manage with eight at a push, instead they were given six. This has resulted in insufficient escorts for even one of the Queen Elizabeth carriers to operate without the assistance of allied navies.
The cost of the Destroyers is also indicative of another structural problem, the fact that the defence budget is also used as part of an industrial strategy. The destroyers like most of the UK’s equipment, are produced domestically and expensively in order to support the UK arms industry. Had the UK bought the equivalent American destroyers, the Arleigh Burke class, it could have done so at half the price getting twice the capability, 12, at the same cost. The carriers will also only sail with a tiny amount of aircraft on them, as the F35 they plan to buy cost $100 million each. As result they will be an independent naval air arm only in name.
Britain’s nuclear deterrent system is another hugely expensive component of the defence budget that draws sources away from the other fighting arms. Its lifetime costs are estimated at £205 billion. As a result plans to replace the existing Vanguard submarines with the Dreadnaught class have contributed to the projected overspend. These systems are also renowned for over running their allocated budgets and roles. Furthermore, underfunding of defence has raised the question of the operational security of the current nuclear fleet as a result of cuts made in the 2010 defence review, as this round of cuts scrapped both existing and planned Maritime Patrol Aircraft that were in part deployed to give the submarines vital top cover support.
The irony of the decisions to buy new carriers and nuclear submarines is that the Royal Navy is now being asked to consider what it can cut to pay for these new procurements. Having paid for and brought into service relatively new and recently refitted Amphibious Assault Ships, there is speculation that this role will be cut and the Royal Marines merged with the paratroopers in order to make further savings. There is also talk of reducing the Army by another 14,000 troops which would take it to its lowest level since before the Napoleonic wars. To avoid these cuts and postpone these choices would take at least another £2billion each year for the next decade. The alternative will be armed forces that present the appearance of full spectrum capability, but in reality is a hollowed out illusion of a defence posture.
Like in so many areas the UK likes to think of itself as a global player, an indispensable ally and an influential actor. But its unwillingness to either pay what it takes to properly fund that role or to make the choices necessary to consolidate its resources and make good its capabilities, leaves it contributions overstretched and not fit for purpose.
As Britain contemplates its role as “Global Britain” outside the EU it would do well to consider the consequences of an approach here, as it is elsewhere, of trying to “have your cake and eat it.”