Britain obsesses over its military weaknesses, so why doesn't it overcome them?

Last week showed why British and European defence has never been so troubled

Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales sets sail from Portsmouth to lead the largest Nato exercise since the Cold War. PA
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The term “hollowed-out” has featured in discussions about the UK’s military capabilities for so long that it has become a kind of truism.

The number of people who think there should be a reassessment on rearmament grows with every passing week.

Yet it seems landmark opportunities to do something about it come and go without a change in direction.

The next chance is later this week when the budget is unveiled by Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt. But it appears this opportunity will not be taken on Wednesday.

Mr Hunt previously served as foreign secretary and he is the son of an admiral. So if anyone should have a firm grasp of how dangerous the shifting times have become, it is him. Yet pleas on his mighty office for more funds have been going nowhere.

Officials have said the level of anguish on this matter during internal meetings has been high but the Chancellor is far more steely-eyed about containing government spending than bolstering the armed might of the realm.

This is an election year, so it is natural that thoughts might turn to the opposition Labour party promising a much more robust posture ahead of the vote.

Snapping up the support of the military-minded would certainly be an audacious challenge for left-leaning Labour to throw down. It would have also been unthinkable until the relentless squeeze on defence spending kicked into gear after the Conservative party’s move into No 10 Downing Street in 2010.

Under Labour’s approach, there is a danger of an extended period of 'wait and see'

The question for Labour, though, is whether its own promises on defence are equally hollowed out.

John Healey, the Labour spokesman who could take the role of defence secretary in an incoming government, has become a high-profile figure in Westminster. Events where he is the keynote speaker are sold out or standing room only. I know of two such in the past week alone.

What the audience is keen to hear is the thinking that Labour is bringing to the defence brief. Mr Healey talks of a new era of instability and has set out five priorities to underpin his policies on defence.

One of those is to fulfil the country’s obligation to the Nato alliance and another is to make allies the UK’s strategic strength. These are clever words that expose the importance of Nato, not just for the UK but for all western European nations.

The first question Mr Healey faced in the room at Policy Exchange, where I watched him, was about the money. Former defence secretaries and other leading politicians – many of them Conservatives – listened very carefully to him.

A number were trying to persuade Mr Healey to make a promise for more spending – and it wasn’t for the narrow political reason that the issue could expose the Labour party’s tight messaging on spending in government. It was evident that genuine hunger existed in the room, and across the sympathetic audience, for more defence spending. It was the kind of yearning for leadership that was tangible.

Nato has been boosted immensely in the past week by Sweden’s accession to the group of more than 30 rich nations that form the western alliance.

“Moscow faces being militarily excluded from the Baltic Sea and its air space, while Nato can project force more effectively across Scandinavia and into the High North and Arctic,” was the view of Dr Neil Melvin, a director of the London-based Rusi think tank.

The chief of the UK defence forces, Admiral Tony Radakin, also gave a speech last week. He sketched out what a Russian attack on Nato, which is feared after the invasion of Ukraine, would set in motion. Western troops on the Baltic front line have the backing of 3.5 million Nato personnel in uniform and the alliance air power is three times that of Russia.

London can boast British forces represent a quarter of Nato’s strength at sea and a 10th of its land and air power. With the alliance growing from 30 to 32 nations, it now has a collective gross domestic product 20 times greater than Russia's.

Days before Russian President Vladimir Putin used his annual news conference to warn about the nuclear threshold, Adm Radakin had a reminder of his own to stress. “Sitting above all of this is Nato as a nuclear alliance,” he said.

These are grim times, as Mr Healey acknowledged in his talk of a new era. His big reform announcement last week was that the UK would move to an equivalent of the US joint chiefs, empowering Adm Radakin and his successors as Chief of the Defence Staff to lead the military on their own priorities.

A UK Defence Ministry equivalent of a central command at its HQ would provide cleaner lines of decision-making on how resources are spent and squeeze out inefficiencies. Yet under Labour’s approach, there is a danger of an extended period of “wait and see”.

After an election, which could happen as late as November, comes an overhaul of the high command. Only after that will the UK launch a new multi-month Strategic Defence Review. When that is in place, Mr Healey will tackle his own Chancellor for the money to back his plans.

The timeframes suggest a luxury of reform that may not exist.

The trap is that the UK’s defence establishment, across all hues, is superb at admiring its problems from every angle. Not so much at mobilising for the big and necessary investment that lies ahead.

Published: March 04, 2024, 4:00 AM
Updated: March 05, 2024, 8:31 AM