What happens now? The strategic implications of the General Election on Britain’s Defence and Security

After the ‘snap’ election – and after a very (unnecessarily?) long 7 week campaign – Theresa May’s parliamentary majority blew up and she now lies somewhat forlornly just short of an overall majority. A logical analysis was that, although she had fought a lousy campaign and Corbyn had fought a pretty good one (but we shouldn’t forget that in the end he lost) there would nevertheless be about a 30 seat Conservative majority. That proved wrong – all too often she treated voters in an arrogant and dismissive manner – ‘her strong and stable’ mantra was somewhat reminiscent of Edward Heath 4 decades ago when he fought the first of 2 elections in 1974 on the issue of ‘who rules Britain’ – and lost!

So, having failed to secure a majority, what are the strategic implications for British Defence and Security, our global influence, and how might this be affected by the growing movement towards integrated EU Defence Union?

Defence and Security:

It quickly became clear that there was a mood in the new Cabinet Office for many of the Tory manifesto commitments to be dropped in the Queen’s forthcoming speech. The end result may be an agenda dominated (in addition to the process of Brexit) by issues of ‘internal security’ and improving ways of combating the terrorism. The police, NCA, GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 could thus all benefit – perhaps at the expense of ‘mainstream’ defence.

Whilst there may be little if any change to the existing defence budget – and the DUP want to see a ‘pure’ 2% i.e. one excluding non-military spending – the decline in the priority of ‘defence’ will probably continue, not least because at some point the Government is going to have to admit to a serious defence budget deficit of about £11Bn over the next decade, caused by a combination of the falling value of sterling and defence inflation. About £28Bn of new equipment is being bought from the US over the next 10 years as a result of SDSR 15 – including the F-35 JSF and the Boeing P-8 Poseidon MPA.

The Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon, (who has been re-appointed) will have to work his way through bringing this defence budget deficit under control. A mini-defence review – perhaps written as an additional chapter to SDSR 2015 – appears likely. Professor Mike Clarke, a former long-time head of the Royal United Services Institute and an Adviser to the House of Commons Defence Committee has suggested that, “defence planners will have to look again at requirements, commitments and costs to make promises [made] in the SDSR 2015 review stick because they are already drifting off-course”. It has, he suggested, become “axiomatic that the new government will have to conduct a quiet review very quickly as defence increasingly falls back into all the old habits of drift and evasion that leave the armed forces much hollower than they appear”.

Andrew Chuter, a well-respected defence journalist, published an article in Defense News very recently, quoting a former MoD Procurement Minister, Sir Peter Luff, who suggested that the “defence program [as it currently stands] is unaffordable at present,” and that: “I don’t see them [the MoD] getting any more cash than they have already been promised to solve the problems – so that there will [clearly] be tough choices to be made, irrespective of whether there is a minority government or not. The priority is to get the budget back into balance again”. Luff is also quoted as suggesting that he would be surprised if the MoD were to publish the delayed Government response to Sir Peter Parker’s ‘national shipbuilding strategy’ review paper, or the long awaited defence industrial strategy review – at least until after a mini-review.

Having failed to identify the £11.5Bn in cuts required after SDSR 2015 to help fund the planned equipment procurement programme, the MoD will probably delay procurement programmes (no matter that defence inflation will automatically lead to the cost of any delayed equipment rising), and equally probably reduce the planned equipment numbers. The recent order confirmations of Maritime Patrol Aircraft and Apache helicopters were short of the original planned numbers announced in SDSR 2015 – this was apparently only due to an agreement on which particular ‘LOT’ these aircraft will have been allocated for export by the US – if we can believe that!

British power and influence:

A relatively weak Prime Minister in Downing Street is clearly not good news when Britain needs strong leadership; she will probably never fight another election and everyone she will deal with from now on knows that. With the support of the DUP and a de facto 13-15 seat majority, she and the Conservatives could well stumble on for quite a while, but there is no point in pretending that the result does anything but harm to Britain’s influence in Europe and the wider world. Britain may be the 5th or 6th largest economy in the world (and one twice the size of that of Putin’s Russia), a top 5 military power, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, but after 3 close elections and 2 referendums the political elite are in schism – reinforced by a politicised British civil service which all too often leans to the left of the political spectrum. The result is that it will be exceptionally hard to leverage our fundamental power into strategic influence. Overall we have no choice but to go through a period of uncertainty but, unless this is handled well, this could well lead to a reduction of our power and influence – something the US, NATO and other Allies will need to contend with.

EU Defence Initiatives:

Angela Merkel suggested on 28 May – in the wake of President Trump’s visit to NATO – that “we Europeans have to take our own [defence] fate into our own hands”. She also claimed that America and Britain were now unreliable allies. Subsequently, on the 7th June (the day after the anniversary of D-Day) the European Commission launched a “Reflection Paper on the Future of European Defence” which called for a “Security and Defence Union” (SDU) to be realised by 2025.

The central tenet of the paper – that Europeans must do more and spend more on their own defence – is undeniable: “This reflection paper considers the issues that matter for the future of our security and defence. It does so by looking beyond current debates and decisions. Instead, it considers underlying structural trends, presents different scenarios of possible futures for European security and defence by 2025, and maps our possible ways forward”.

Taken together with the 2016 Global Strategy and the European Defence Action Plan, alongside plans for a new European Defence Fund – which came out the same day as the Reflections paper – the EU is certainly not short of security and defence ‘ideas’ or ambition. The paper offers a series of strategic and political ‘drivers’, supported by a set of figures to reinforce the central case of more Europe doing more defence. The Commission offers 3 scenarios.

  • “Security and Defence Co-operation” – which calls for a more EU-focused security and defence effort, albeit on a voluntary basis;
  • “Shared Security and Defence” – which goes a step further and calls for greater financial and operational “solidarity” and some form of defence integration, whatever that is;
  • “Common Security and Defence” – which calls for fully-fledged European defence integration with a European SDU to be realised, possibly as early as 2025.

It is the latter scenario which is undoubtedly the Commission’s real objective. All 3 scenarios sit within a chapter entitled “Europe in 2025 – Moving towards a Security and Defence Union” (along with the eventual creation of a European Army). But there are serious problems with this attempt to re-create the failed 1952-1954 European Defence Community.

Highlighting the fact that the US spends 3.3% GDP on defence (but not noting that Ottawa has just committed to spending 2% GDP on defence by 2025) the paper acknowledges that the average across EU member-states is 1.34%; this figure is itself inflated by the roughly 2% GDP spent on defence by the UK, France, Poland and a couple of others. To make an ‘independent’ EU SDU credible all of the EU member-states would need to spend at least 3 to 4% GDP on defence – even if the synergies the Commission claims for a common defence were realised (which they won’t be). All of the member-states would also be expected to give all of their defence money to some form of defence Commission. Remembering that NATO is finding it hard to get most of the same states to spend just 2% GDP on defence under the agreed-to Defence Investment Pledge this all looks pretty implausible!

The US currently spends €108,322 per soldier, sailor and airman on equipment procurement and research and technology; EU member-states spend, on average, just €27,639 – and 90% of that is by Britain, France and Germany alone. NATO is having trouble getting member states to spend 20% of their annual defence budgets on new equipment – to even begin to match the US each EU member-state would need to spend upwards of 40% of a massively increased defence expenditure on new equipment each year. And again, under Commission planning, they would also be expected to provide the EU with all that money – and along with it the decision-making powers over defence planning, including which defence industries to invest in – and those to cut!

The bottom line is that the paper has very little to do with the sound defence of Europe. A European SDU would need a fully-fledged European government, which would fulfil the Euro-federalist’s ambition of replacing Europe’s nation-states. The more likely outcome will be some form of hybrid – a common and collective force which would see European states pooling and sharing far more of their defence effort, and becoming ever more interdependent. On the face of it this may well be a good thing, but when a genuine and major crisis emerges all member-states would need to agree to its use which is, to put it politely, pretty unlikely.

Maybe in identifying the enormity of the security and defence challenges the paper simply confirms that defence and security can only be provided by a strong transatlantic alliance – NATO, however adapted, remaining the centre of gravity but in close partnership with the EU. As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in March, the hard reality for an EU that seeks to take on the mantle of defending Europe is that “…collective defence in Europe is NATO’s main responsibility and it is pretty obvious that after Brexit we need NATO and the EU working together, not competing, because 80 % of NATO’s defence expenditure will be non-EU” (i.e. US/UK)!

Veterans for Britain