The liberal case for increased defence spending

Autumn Conference made one thing very clear – the Liberal Democrats stand with Ukraine and welcome the support that the UK has provided in their fight against Russian aggression. But the fight for freedom doesn’t come cheap, nor we can assume it will always be fought far away. With an assertive China, and considerable uncertainty as to the future political direction of the USA, we are arguably facing the most dangerous period since the height of the Cold War.

The largest donor of military aid to Ukraine is the USA and the flow of American equipment and ammunition has been essential to enable Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression. Yet Republicans are succeeding in switching off the flow of aid to Ukraine, and threatening to cripple the war effort for a mix of ideological and political reasons.

Meanwhile efforts in Europe to coordinate a strategy to build industrial capacity to supply munitions and replenish stocks are well-intentioned but proceeding far too slowly, and Europe is currently in no position to fully replace any withdrawal of US aid.

While the West dithers, Putin has transitioned the Russian economy to a war footing, increasing spending and building capacity at pace. Looking forward, Putin will survey the situation in Ukraine and wavering support from her allies and believe he can win. That victory will be of a war of attrition, and come at great cost to the Russian people and economy as well as the Ukrainians. Yet as he empties his prisons to provide cannon-fodder for the frontline, his grip on power is such that he answers to no-one except his ego and dreams of past Soviet glory.

And what lessons will other autocratic regimes around the world learn from a Russian victory? That the support of the West is finite, can be undermined politically, and persistence will ultimately bring rewards.

The lowest brick in the foundations of British Foreign policy has always been that our interests are closely aligned with the US, and that their commitment to NATO is absolute. Yet we need to face up to the risk that this may not always be the case. We can see the growing isolationist tendency and resistance to supporting Ukraine among certain elements of the Republican Party, and Donald Trump’s antipathy towards NATO is well known. He believes that European nations have had a free ride on the back of the US military for too long, and have failed to invest enough in defence. On that issue, he has a fair point.

But a reduction in the US commitment to NATO is not the only risk. Looking east we can see China building its military capacity and capability at an alarming rate, and becoming increasingly assertive towards Taiwan and other neighbours. In a couple of years time, China will feel well positioned to seek a military solution to its claims on Taiwan, and if that results in the US becoming drawn into a full-scale war with China, that will consume all of their military and industrial resources. That in turn will create the perfect environment for an opportunist Putin to launch further aggressive moves against countries in Europe, safe in the knowledge that the US will unable to ride to the rescue.

So what is the UK doing in the face of these threats? The Conservative Government is in the process of cutting our Armed Forces by most metrics. Planned cuts in troop numbers, armour, combat aircraft, helicopters and warships are continuing despite Russian aggression. They have failed to keep their defence spending promises, haven’t fixed a broken defence procurement system that frequently fails to deliver either on time or on budget, and continue to present global aspirations in Defence Reviews that aren’t matched by the budget provided. The result, as revealed earlier this month, is an inflation-driven hole of £16.9bn in the equipment budget over the next 10 years. In other words, we either find extra funding to plug this hole or implement even more cuts on top of the ones already underway.

The Party’s Policy Working Group on International Security (of which I am a member) has been doing great work and is bringing a paper to the Spring Conference. This paper will present tangible plans to restore Britain’s traditional soft-power strengths and rebuild our international reputation as a trustworthy partner, fix a broken system to deliver better value from the defence budget, and focus on homeland defence and our NATO commitments while recognising the importance of building alliances globally. What this paper doesn’t do, beyond reversing Army cuts as championed by Richard Foord (our Defence Spokesperson), is make commitments to increase defence spending beyond the NATO guideline of 2% of GDP.

With so much to be fixed in health and social care, education and infrastructure after years of Tory neglect, can we afford to spend more on defence? Yet the cost of not investing in defence now could be astronomical, both in money and lives. Armed conflict can sometimes be avoided by diplomacy, but when faced with callous autocrats like Putin the most effective way to avoid war is to deter it by making it clear that the cost to the aggressor will be too high and that they will lose. With US support wavering, Western Europe is not yet collectively doing enough to deter Putin.

So should the Lib Dems support an increase in defence spending as an investment in future security, even if that means higher taxes?

* Nick Baird is a Lib Dem activist in Cheltenham, and member of the Policy Working Group on International Security. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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29 Comments

  • Jenny Barnes 10th Dec '23 - 3:31pm

    It’s probably time we were less aligned with the US. Their interests are not necessarily ours. Not suggesting we should leave NATO, just be a bit more pragmatic about our interests.
    As to defense spending, it would be sensible to realise that the UK is no longer a world Empire as it was up to WW2. We are a regional European power, with some particular strengths, but the aircraft carriers for example speak to a mistaken sense of UK capabilities. It seems that a lot of the procurement failures parallel the dodgy Covid contracts of recent memory. The Ajax IFV – when there’s a perfectly good German one; rebuilding Challenger tanks rather than buying Leopards or korean K2 (both have the NATO standard 120mm Rheinmetal main armament). Poland has around 1000 k2s on order.

  • Mick Taylor 10th Dec '23 - 3:55pm

    There is never a case for more arms spending.If we spent a quarter the amount we spend on arms promoting peace and getting would be combatants round a table talking instead of fighting, we’d all be better off.
    The Ukraine war will not be resolved by more killing, more bombs, more tanks. It will, eventually, be resolved round the negotiating table. Peace is always a much harder option than war for dictators and more democratic governments. It’s easy to whip up support for war and much more difficult to advocate peace.
    The problem is that too few people stand up for peace and when we do, we are accused of wanting to surrender or to betray our friends.
    Our government, and others, backing one side or another in the current 2 major wars need to stop arming the participants and tell them to negotiate peace.

  • Mary Fulton 10th Dec '23 - 4:05pm

    I think there is a liberal case to be made for genuine defence spending but not for spending on offensive capability. In other words, the UK does not need armed forces capable of launching illegal aggression against another country, such as happened in Iraq, but it does need air-defence systems and other military equipment that would be needed if attacked. Therefore, no more money on aircraft carriers that add to offensive capacities – and sell the ones we have if anyone is willing to buy – and closure of UK military bases in Cyprus and other far flung places unrelated to defending the UK if attacked.

  • @Jenny Barnes & @Mary Fulton – it is certainly the case that the UK has tried to cling to global power status, and as a result has seen core defensive capabilities shrink and become obsolete while considerable sums have been spent on expeditionary capabilities such as the aircraft carriers. That has compromised our ability to defend the UK and meet our NATO commitments in the event that of a further escalation of Russian aggression in the future.

    @Mick Taylor – I can confidently state that all Lib Dems want peace, but there are malign authoritarian regimes around the world who don’t hesitate to use force to achieve their aims. Negotiating for peace assumes both sides are acting in good faith and actually want peace. Ukraine has negotiated with Russia before as part of the Budapest Memorandum and gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee that Russia would not use force or economic coercion against them. Russia reneged on that agreement. Why should they be trusted to keep their word this time, even if Ukraine Government accepted the inevitable territorial concessions against the will of its own people?

  • Peter Chambers 10th Dec '23 - 8:01pm

    @Jenny
    > there’s a perfectly good German one

    Well, the Ajax is based on a legacy Spanish one. Only it had to be changed to meet what the MOD decided it had to be. So some changes had to be made. And if you are changing that, then…
    The MOD might seem to be a government department, however it is best analysed as a band of struggling tribes. What gets bought is a compromise between a coalition of some of those tribes, HM Treasury, and various interests around certain constituencies. Only some US kit is bought “as-is”, when they want us to have it and they give us a good deal.
    The usual episode of Yes Minister apply, but updated with theories about why the US wanted to to supply a carrier to host USMC F-35 squadrons. (I do not know which one I believe.)

  • I know that nobody will like it but we are already in a second cold war. The Moscow Beijing axis will grow,especially in Middle East and Africa. The Americans will be drawn ever more to the Pacific. Therefore a European pillar of NATO will need to be enhanced with UK best places to spend more on Royal Navy. Germany and France have dramatically increased defence spending. We cannot claim to be good Europeans and then look the other way.

  • Nick Hopkinson 11th Dec '23 - 8:04am

    A well balanced article suggesting that ultimately Europe (including the UK) will have to spend more on defence. This would necessarily involve more tax, even though this sits uncomfortably with the desperate need for more spending on health and social services. Politicians need to be honest about this. One way to moderate increases in defence is to seek far closer cooperation and integration with European allies.

  • Jenny Barnes 11th Dec '23 - 9:21am

    “the Ajax is based on a legacy Spanish one. Only it had to be changed to meet what the MOD decided it had to be.”
    It’s a pity the MOD decided to change it to be so noisy and uncomfortable that it became unusable. Noise cancelling headphones for all, maybe?

  • The important thing is this issue is to be debated by the party. The key issue is why we need a defence capability. A number of contributions here have discussed that. It does not make sense to fund armed forces unless we know why. I hope this will be explored in detail.
    We also need a debate, again as has been mentioned in contributions on how we work as a country for peace. Do we need a budget for that?

  • Tom, The reason we need a defence capability is because we face a resurgent dictatorships like Russia and China, both of whom detest our liberal democratic values and principles with a vengence. They undermine, threaten and ultimately destroy any of their people who aspire to even mild movements towards those values. They renege on treaties and steadily use their power but by bit to destroy any others within their sphere of immediate influence who do not comply with their wishes – e.g. Hong Kong and Ukraine. They support other despots to maintain them in power so they can also use their territory to base nuclear weapons, strip their country of natural resources or act as a deniable proxy for their dirty work. And they continuously threaten and undermine any their democratic neighbours (e.g. South Korea and Taiwan).

    I really do worry that if we are not all immediately aware of these matters, that some of us have not been paying attention.

    Ultimately, we all have to make a decision. Do we believe liberal democratic values are worth defending?

  • @Tom Harney – one thing that is considered settled in the Lib Dems is our commitment to NATO. Even the Greens abandoned their long-standing policy of leaving NATO at their spring conference this year, recognising the dangerous security environment that we find ourselves in (and presumably that the policy was a net vote loser in the current climate).

    NATO membership carries obligations in exchange for the benefits of the mutual security guarantees, requiring the UK to commit personnel and equipment.

  • Rif Winfield 11th Dec '23 - 12:54pm

    Emotionally I fully agree with Mick Taylor and Mary Fulton, and – like all Liberals – I am committed to the cause of peace around the world, and have campaigned for this throughout my life (for example, I served on the Council of CND for some years). But sadly not all countries are democratically run, and indeed, are controlled by autocrats (sometimes with a veneer of democratic forms) who seek to protect their own values and status by using a variety of means to try and destroy liberal values throughout the world. As has been said, the UK is no longer able to be a global power by itself, but that means it has to find allies who share its values and work with them for mutual defence; if not we could find ourselves friendless and threatened by a hostile superpower which is determined to remove our values system simply because they perceive those values to be opposed to their own views.

  • Rif Winfield 11th Dec '23 - 12:55pm

    As it becomes apparent that the United States is becoming more isolationist and potentially is unwilling (Trump is the obvious threat) to come to the aide of liberal democratic states on our side of the Atlantic, that means that European nations will need to bolster their own defences; sadly, this means we have to take our share of the responsibility, and this means that we must reinforce our own defence spending. And that capability now cannot be simply retained within the boundaries of Europe – modern attacks are global and often instantly deployed by authoritarian governments – from cyber attack and space-based systems as well as conventional armed forces.

  • My comment on the reply from David Evans. The question is what we are expecting to do with our defence capability. We may be concerned about China. So what preparations can we make? And is it really sensible to import lots of cheap goods from China if we are expecting conflict with them.
    We could ask similar questions about each area of possible conflict. It is essential that we have a debate about each and every area of our relation with other countries.
    As far as we NATO is concerned following Nick Baird’s comments. We are an important member of NATO, and there is a finite probability that we will become more important depending on events in the USA. Therefore we need the similar discussion on this as we have on domestic defence policy. What preparations do we actually need to make to respond to possible threats?

  • David Evans 11th Dec '23 - 2:46pm

    I’m sorry Tom, there is clearly some misunderstanding about what you meant in your previous post where you posted “The important thing is this issue is to be debated by the party. The key issue is why we need a defence capability. A number of contributions here have discussed that. It does not make sense to fund armed forces unless we know why. I hope this will be explored in detail”.

    To me that implied you were looking for an answer to that key issue. Clearly from your reply you were looking for something different, not as much why we need a defence capability as what should it be able to do. That is indeed vital once Lib Dems have decided we do want to defend our values. Of course some, indeed many wish it was unnecessary, but clearly it is. Others like Mick seem to prefer to believe/hope any problems can be negotiated away or like Mary that we only need defensive weapons for us – but that would mean that if South Korea is invaded we can’t help much.

    I don’t believe either of those stances really stand up to much analysis in a world of Putins and Xis. Dave’s 1st Totalitarian rule of thumb “Any leader who wants to change the rules on a maximum term, wants to be a dictator. Anyone who puts it to a vote already is”.

  • Mary Fulton 11th Dec '23 - 3:07pm

    @David Evans
    I’m afraid your South Korea example does not counter the point I made about the need for us to have a truly defensive capability versus us having an offensive capacity. As the Ukraine war has illustrated, we along with other allies have been able to make a big difference by giving Ukraine defensive equipment. I don’t see why that could also be done if South Korea were the victim of aggression. Therefore it is perfectly possible to defend ourselves, and help others with truly defensive weapons and equipment. None of this requires us to have an offensive capacity.

    The more difficult question is one of when it would be appropriate for us to involve ourselves in disputes around the world. I would not support us getting involved if China decides to reincorporate Taiwan which only currently exists as a self governing entity because the Chinese revolution of 1949 was unable to take over all Chinese territory at the time due to the island of Formosa being so far from the mainland. On the other hand, a move by China against Japan or the Philippines would be a very different situation.

  • Zachary Adam Barker 11th Dec '23 - 9:21pm

    Nick Baird, I congratulate you on writing such a brave and prescient article. I fear that this is the sort of debate our party is too often afraid to have. As far as I am concerned being liberal is not the same as being a pacifist. These are dangerous times for free nations and those fighting to stay free.

    Europe has got to take serious responsibility for it’s defence needs. Judging by the ammunition crisis Ukraine faces it hasn’t got there yet. And their foot dragging has had global consequences. Rightly, many US voters have got fed up of waiting for their peace dividend while America has to finance much of Europe’s security burden.

    But we have to face some responsibility in our own party too. We have encouraged too much talk about war changing and hard power capability being outdated, around the time of the Iraq/Afghan Wars. Our strong anti-war position gave much voice to what we would NOT fight for, but not what we would.

    This country and Europe needs to rearm and quickly and there is no shame in that. The only shame we should feel is for not putting Putin on notice quicker. Now we have Fascism again trying to kick the door down in the East of Europe.

    Nick Baird, I would be very interested in joining the Policy Working Group on International Security. How would I go about this?

  • @ Tom Harney,

    Just so! Wars usually start with militaries perfectly equipped to fight the last war because that’s what dominates thinking/planning. What capabilities our military has/develops will depend on what military challenges we see emerging over the next few decades. (Decades because it takes so long to develop and deploy new capabilities).

    As an island, Britain has never really been a land power in the way Germany or Russia have. Rather our rise was driven by naval power, based on great leadership, technical innovation, good training, and high investment but others outdo us now in all those categories. Also, in an age of fast and pin-point accurate missiles, surface ships are an anachronism – carriers especially so. It is said there are now just two types of ship – submarines and ones that sink.

    I believe we need some military to keep in the game, but I don’t know how big or what capabilities it should have. As a small and densely populated island with limited resources of food, energy, and minerals we need to be careful so I’m with Mick Taylor.

    The context of thinking has to be how the world is changing but I don’t see any UK political party getting to grips with understanding that or its implications. (Hint: For 500 years European powers (and the US offshoot) have taken it in turns to dominate the reachable world, but that era has now ended. What comes next?)

  • Paraphrasing: ‘LibDems welcome the support the UK has provided to Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression.’

    The go-to person for background on the Ukraine war is Colonel Jacques Baud, a former colonel of the Swiss General Staff, Eastern Europe specialist in Swiss intelligence and Policy Chief for United Nations Peace Operations. In other words, much greater subject knowledge, and depth than available from the MSM.

    The linked article is from April 2022, i.e. just after the war started.

    https://www.thepostil.com/the-military-situation-in-the-ukraine/

  • Zachary Adam Barker 12th Dec '23 - 7:42pm

    Gordon that article is a repeat of Russian propaganda.

    The only that thing it is liberal with is the truth.

  • Gordon. I read the article and find it all pro Russian propaganda seeking to make Russia the victim just like Germany in the 1930s.

  • @Mary Fulton: I would expect that now that Ukraine has actually lost land that it rightfully owns, it needs offensive, not defensive capability, to take that land back. Does that not illustrate why a country would need to maintain offensive capability even if it’s not intending to invade anyone else? Likewise, there is no way we would ever have defeated the Nazis and Japan in WWII if we’d tried to do so by only ever maintaining defensive capability.

    Regarding Taiwan, I would think that the most important determining factor over whether a country should be recognised and given help to defend itself if it is invaded is whether its people today want to exist as an independent country, not whatever historical shenanigans might have happened regarding revolutions over 70 years ago.

  • I do despair of the warmongers in our party, who always see the case for more weapons and more bombs so that we can keep a military machine capable of killing and maiming our fellow human beings. Of course, the soften it with fine words and justifications about the military prowess of others.
    There are other ways to tackle dictators , though that does require working with other friendly countries. Essentially this means isolating Russia and similar states economically so that they gradually lose their ability to spend money on weapons and war. The trouble is that for many people that doesn’t work fast enough, hence the demand for more defence spending. And for large companies, especially weapons’ manufacturers, this means that they lose money and profits, so they undermine peace efforts in order to continue making profits. A bit like big oil and tobacco, mouthing platitudes whilst continuing to undermine efforts for climate change and better health.
    As I said before, waging peace is time consuming and lengthy, but surely we should spend much more time on it than waging war. After all, in the end, all conflicts end round the negotiating table, however much the combatants want to avoid it.

  • The conundrum is how does Ukraine break the Russian defensive lines and strongholds. Perhaps bombing by modern jet fighters. BUT the lines are hundreds of miles long.

  • @Mick Taylor – I think it’s unfair and insulting to accuse anyone engaging in this debate of being a “warmonger”. Unfortunately it is sometimes necessary to fight for freedom and democracy, and also sometimes to prevent or curtail genocide. Recognising that fact is not the same as welcoming it.

    it may be true that conflicts end around the negotiating table. The problem is sometimes you might be negotiating a peace treaty, but other times you might be negotiating the terms of your surrender.

    The West has attempted to isolate Russia economically, but the effect is very much blunted when regimes such as China, India, North Korea and Iran don’t join in. In the meantime, what should Ukraine do while waiting for Russia to suffer your “gradual loss of ability to spend money on weapons”?

    A simple and blunt question for you – should Ukraine cede some (or all) of its sovereign territory in exchange for some form of “peace” with Russia, and should the West force that on them by refusing to supply military aid?

    If you think the answer is “yes” then be honest and say so, but if you think the answer is “no” then you need to explain how Ukraine avoids that outcome without fighting back against Russia with our support.

  • @Nick Baird and Mick Taylor:

    And even if Ukraine did give up a large swathe of its territory to buy a ceasefire from the aggressor, hence rewarding aggression, this would not be peace in our time.

    The Russians would be back for more later.

    Not supplying the Ukrainians with arms means the Russians will win and aggression will be rewarded.

  • Peter Hirst 13th Dec '23 - 2:38pm

    What is clear is that we will be most effective militarily if we cooperate effectively and efficiently with our european neighbours inside or outside of the eu. We should also work with other countries where we have shared interests. By sharing resources we can focus on areas where we have or will have special expertise and resources. Being an island it makes sense for one such area to be maritime capability.

  • Mick Taylor 13th Dec '23 - 3:05pm

    When two sides negotiate peace, it should be up to them what terms they agree. I have no idea what the results of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine will look like and it’s not for me to say. What I do know is that thousands more will die in the absence of a ceasefire and peace negotiations.
    @NickBaird. You try to put words in my mouth that I didn’t say. It is an unhealthy trend on this and other discussions about war and peace, to accuse people who call for peace, of surrender or worse.
    I want to see a ceasefire and peace negotiations, not more needless death and destruction.

  • @ Zachary Adam Barker, @ Tim Rogers,

    Russian propaganda? A very partial list of sources Baud draws on (and links to) includes:
    • UN Security Council
    • Organisation for Security & Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
    • Washington Post
    • Kyiv Post
    • Vesti
    • UK Home Office
    • Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides (OFPRA)
    • Reuters
    • USA Today
    • Jerusalem Post
    • The Simon Wiesenthal Center
    • President of Ukraine – Official Website
    • Anadolu Agency
    • RAND Corporation

    Did Russia subvert all these and more? Or is this like the Iraq War where the media was used to mislead the public in the service of…? War profits, the US Empire, something else?

    The choice is between red and blue pills.

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