The last Strategic Defence Review (SDR) was undertaken in 1998 and the die is now cast for the remaining months of this government. As the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said in his last speech on the subject of defence, ‘The nation must debate and decide what we want our country to do in the world and then fund it, so that it does not slip by default into the second division’. A major decision with respect to foreign and defence policies and their funding awaits the next Prime Minister and this decision can no longer be fudged.
We could decide to continue with our current liberal interventionist, expeditionary and proactive foreign and defence policies, working and if necessary fighting alongside the United States, but then we must fund them adequately. This funding would have to involve repairing the damage as a result of over-stretch, filling the equipment gap and allowing for an appropriate tempo of operations.
Alternatively, we could decide to lower our profile in the world at large and compromise towards more reactive foreign and defence policies. When played out, this would represent the most radical shift in the nation’s priorities in more than two centuries. Perhaps this course already has been decided upon by default. Indeed, this course of action would be compatible with our current trajectory. As if to reinforce this impression, defence spending has been ruled out as a fiscal stimulus.
The scandalous lack of adequate defence equipment, from personal items to helicopters experienced by the armed forces together with wasteful start-delay-stop of high-value equipment programmes is now well understood.
What is the common thread which explains this unsatisfactory situation? It is the chronic problem of trying to do too much with too little funding. The lack of recognition of this situation played out over many years has led to dysfunctional approaches to contracting which in the end cost even more. However, none of this should be placed at the feet of the thousands of competent, professional men and women working very hard every day in the MoD attempting to make sense of it all.
The United Kingdom is still a major player in world affairs. A Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, and America’s key partner in the transatlantic alliance – despite having slumped to seventh place (and still falling) in the league table of global economies – Britain undoubtedly ‘punches above its weight’. But, Britain is also currently ‘punching above its budget’ – and we can no longer continue to do so.
Tony Edwards is a director of the United Kingdom National Defence Association, which campaigns for sufficient, appropriate and fully funded armed forces