Neil Shastri-Hurst: It's time to think strategically about defence
Neil Shastri-Hurst is a former British Army Officer and Conservative activist in Birmingham.
This piece was originally published on Conservative Home on 25th June 2015
It is five years since the Coalition conducted a far-reaching Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). Through fiscal necessity, this resulted in not only the re-organisation of Britain’s defence capability but also its paring down to a more slim-line beast. Since 2010, the global security threats have continued to increase. The complexity of these threats has not simplified, either. Russian hostilities in the Ukraine have re-ignited the threats of the Cold War and the expansion of hybrid warfare will continue to prove to be a significant test for military and civilian security planning.
In order to tackle this nemesis effectively, it would be short-sighted to only focus on today’s dangers. Rather, underlying trends must be studied in depth to identify the root causes of these threats. The SDSR 2015, spearheaded by the Cabinet Office, is now underway. Quite rightly, the current threats to the Defence of the Realm cannot be confined to the Ministry Of Defence’s in-tray. A collaborative approach encompassing the Foreign Office, Home Office, and DfID, among others, is vital to ensure the full range of challenges are addressed. However, it is also an opportunity to determine how we choose to be perceived on the world stage. Are we to remain an influential figure or step back to a more supportive role? It is therefore a crucial time to take stock and re-evaluate the UK’s defence and security policies.
The drivers of global destabilisation can be broadly divided into three principle groups. Namely, the exponential advancement in deadly technologies, the wealth gap between the relative minority rich to the majority poor, and the scramble for resource acquisition. Military means alone will not be able to combat these factors. The establishment of the National Security Council (NSC) has led to some steps towards a more collegiate Whitehall approach to security policy, in combination with its wider foreign policy objectives. However, it remains under-resourced and imbalanced, leading to more short-term thinking rather than long-term planning.
One suggested approach, that should be given time to be developed, is the amalgamation of resources across defence, diplomacy, the intelligence services and international development. This would increase the pot, so to speak, to around 2.75 per cent of GDP. This should not be seen as economical accounting to exceed the symbolic, and politically essential, NATO target but rather as an important step in the restructuring of our nation’s defences. It would fundamentally enable the development of a more coherent policy on both hard and soft strategic policy by utilising diplomacy as a legitimate and vital military resource over the long term.
Britain has a strong military history and this has, in no small part, resulted in its positioning as a global power. As the Chief of Defence Staff noted, it stems from “a national ambition and a nation’s appetite for risk.” This entrenched mindset has led Britain and its leaders to develop strategy based upon global reach, exerting their military influence in diverse and widespread environs. The modus operandi is therefore to put expeditionary operations and interventions at its heart. Delivering this ambition does not come cheap. The MOD procurement budget sits at around 40 per cent of its expenditure in the decade following 2014. If this remains the defence policy of the current government, the financial reality is that Britain’s Armed Forces will develop a niche in providing expert capabilities as a junior partner. Outside Europe, the United States are the only viable partners, thus intrinsically tying their foreign policy with ours.
Much was said during the General Election campaign about the NATO non-binding two per cent target for annual defence spending. Politically and symbolically, there is no argument that dropping below that watermark would prove to be extremely damaging for Britain’s global reputation both in Europe and the United States. Moreover, it would provide our enemies with footholds to undermine our standing in the world. However, this SDSR is more important than arbitrary figures. It is the opportunity to develop coherent, post-Afghanistan foreign and security policies. It is our leaders’ political duty to ensure a robust and scrutinised SDSR takes place that not only addresses our current requirements but plans effectively and robustly for the future. It is only through this that a government’s principle duties, national security and the defence of its people, can be fulfilled.