Are we spending enough on our military?

I recently attended a seminar led by a specialist in international relations, and one of those attending asked “How likely do you think it is that the UK will fight a conventional war in the next ten years?”. Without any hesitation the reply came: “Almost certain.”

It’s hard to avoid noticing the changing political environment we find ourselves, both at home and abroad. For the first time in decades, the prospect of large-scale non-nuclear war seems plausible (though President Trump seems keen on removing “non-nuclear” from that equation). Russia’s aggressive actions can’t be written off as isolated incidents, and the situation in the Middle East is even worse than it was a decade ago.

It’s very likely that, due to aggression against us or our allies we will be at war again in the not too distant future. As someone who has always fancied themselves a pacifist, this is all a bit depressing, but it would be naive to think that my wishes have any impact on reality. It seems important, therefore, that we continue to meet our spending commitments to NATO, however many reservations we have about the use of military force.

But is that enough? I had a (separate) fascinating conversation with a US army officer recently, that shed light on military budgeting in a way that had never occurred to me. He pointed out that the reasons that the nominal (and percentage) amount the US spends on their military is so high are complicated, but a big part of it is down to living costs. Around a third of defence spending in the US is on employment and benefits, and a similar amount is spent in the UK (31.3% in 2016). Why is this significant?

Well, in China, an army lieutenant can expect to be paid around 36,000 yuan a year – about £4,250. In the UK, a 2nd Lieutenant earns around £31,000. That means that, because of pay disparity and living cost differences, each UK lieutenant is equivalent to about 6 Chinese lieutenants, pound for pound. That’s an enormous difference, and there’s reason to believe that the disparity between service personnel pay is even greater.

That’s only part of the story – what about living costs impacting elsewhere in procurement? For obvious reasons, militaries are keen to procure kit and resources domestically or from friendly countries. Goods, particularly raw materials, are tremendously cheap in China compared to the EU – two thirds the cost, if not less. This has an enormous impact on costings throughout the supply chain.

So when we examine our military spending, we can’t compare apples and oranges. Russia’s military spending is around $470 per capita per year, while the UK’s is $869 per capita. But if we adjust these by cost of living, things look rather different… because the UK is about twice as expensive to live in than Russia.

Do we spend enough on our military compared to other countries? Turns out, that’s not the question. It should be: do we spend enough on our military for our country? That’s harder to say, but simplistic comparisons should be treated with great suspicion.

* Edwin Moriarty joined the Liberal Democrats in 2016.

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  • Richard Underhill 9th Mar '17 - 10:55am

    Former defence secretary Liam Fox is in the cabinet, the current defence secretary has said that the UK currently has combat troops in Iraq, When “Maggie” May was holding hands with DJ Trump she was encouraging him to support NATO, the UK achieved the 2% target by including the payments to war pensioners. When our people are in the UK they need to be adequately housed.

  • Mike Clements 9th Mar '17 - 12:49pm

    If war comes, will NATO be guilty, either wholly or in part, of provoking the outbreak of hostilities. As NATO has expanded eastward, it is hardly surprising that Russia looks on with disfavour, just as Kennedy did at the time of Cuban missile crisis. Furthermore to my mind the military leaders are taking an unduly aggressive and pessimistic attitude toward Russia when in terms of military hardware Russia is the underdog. Reading between the lines of media reporting I suspect dark forces talking us up to accept the inevitability of a war that is avoidable

  • Steve Trevethan 9th Mar '17 - 1:30pm

    Is it possible to have more precision?
    As war/armed conflict always results in death, dismemberment, mental illness, refugees and profits, it is deadly serious and demands careful analysis
    Is the predicted war existential or optional?
    What is a “conventional” war?
    How does it differ from a “hybrid war”?
    When were we last involved in a “conventional” war?
    After Iraq 2, how can we know that we are not being deceived by the “fake news” of the main stream media, the government and some, if not all, political parties?

  • Steve Trevethan 9th Mar '17 - 5:20pm

    NATO as an agency for peace and security?
    “After bombing Yugoslavia into submission, NATO then stood by and submissively allowed the KLA to murder, pillage and burn. The KLA was given a freehand to do as they wished. Almost all of the non-Albanian population was ethnically cleansed from Kosovo under the watchful eyes of 40,000 NATO troops.” James Blissett, former Canadian Ambassador to Yugoslavia and Albania.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Mar '17 - 6:36pm

    I know the EU has been trying to increase military spending on equipment, rather than simply things like wages and living costs. However, this isn’t to say that soldiers shouldn’t be well remunerated.

    I think 2% is sufficient. People sometimes talk down the UK’s military strength, but remember: Nato is the most powerful military alliance in the world and we also have nuclear weapons (which I’m not very comfortable with, but still).

  • Mick Taylor 10th Mar '17 - 6:14am

    Actually we spend far too much on defence.
    Instead of preparing to kill other people with more and more sophisticated technology we should be getting involved in conflict prevention and resolution so that wars don’t actually happen. The solution to any conflict is ultimately political and it is only the pigheadedness of the leaders who refuse to get round the table with their opponents and negotiate a peaceful solution that leads to wars and slaughter of innocent men, women and children as ‘collateral damage’. The policy of never taking to terrorists (whilst actually talking to them through secret envoys or middle men) ensures thousands of people die unnecessarily whilst making peace more and more difficult.
    Lets spend less on defence and more on conflict resolution.

  • ♡ Mick.
    I was going to comment but found you’d already said it all for me

  • Nom de Plume 11th Mar '17 - 9:05pm

    You can not negotiate with the likes of IS. You need to be able to judge where negotiations will work and where they will not work. And act accordingly.

  • Edwin Moriarty 15th Mar '17 - 8:54am

    It’s interesting to me that no one has actually tackled the thrust of this piece at all – not one of you has commented on how the consideration of living costs impacts military spending, even to refute it. Instead we’ve just had a parade of arguments that aren’t responding to anything I’ve written.

    Yes, there absolutely should be some blame attached to NATO for increasing tensions. Yes, it’s undoubtedly a flawed and in some cases deeply unpleasant organisation. Yes, we should ensure that people in the UK are adequately housed and fed. Yes, diplomatic solutions are vital. Yes, the lines between conventional and unconventional warfare are, as they always have been, blurry and indistinct. Yes, there are, as there always are, questions around precision and adequate safety measures in military operations.

    I’m not saying we definitely will go to war, but, you know, history seems to suggest we will at some point. I’d like us to at least rationally assess whether we’re prepared for the possibility.

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