A future Labour government will be under pressure to spend on urgent domestic priorities like health, education and housing, repairing the damage done by years of austerity. But the government will still have to respond to multiple complex national security challenges.
Military power may be only part of the solution to them – or it may be entirely irrelevant. The keys to maintaining security effectively but affordably will be acceptance that the UK cannot go it alone; agreement on a common strategy and a division of labour with allies and partners; and an honest assessment of the tools needed for defence, diplomacy and development.
Governments of both parties have tried since the end of the cold war to maintain a full spectrum of defence capabilities to be able to deal with most contingencies. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s military expenditure database, in constant price terms the UK’s defence expenditure was higher in 2012 than in 1988, before the cold war ended. But with the rising cost of increasingly sophisticated weapons systems, the result has been armed forces with smaller numbers of ever more expensive major weapons systems.
Governments have repeatedly said that in almost any conflict Britain would be fighting alongside its allies and above all the United States. Against that background, the coalition government has paid lip service to the idea of pooling and sharing capabilities in an EU or NATO context. But the reality has not reflected the rhetoric. The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) announced that the navy’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, would be fitted with catapult and arrestor gear in order to make it interoperable with French and US carriers and aircraft. But for cost reasons the Ministry of Defence has now reverted to a design without ‘cats and traps’, and will buy the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the F35. This is an aircraft which in 2010 it described as lacking the range and payload needed for the kinds of operations envisaged.
Budgets can never be unlimited, but the decision makes a statement about the value the UK places on maximising capability through co-operation. The coalition government supports interoperability for others, but still harbours delusions of self-sufficiency for Britain.
Unfortunately, this is one case where the UK is not the odd man out in Europe. As Nick Witney (former chief executive of the European Defence Agency) and Olivier de France pointed out in a recent publication for the European Council on Foreign Relations, every EU member-state has a different national security strategy (or no strategy at all). Between them, all have signed up to the European Security Strategy of 2003, the NATO strategic concept of 2010 or both. But in practice not many base their national strategies on these multilateral texts, or link strategy to resource decisions.
The UK MoD says that strategy “seeks to align objectives, concepts and resources to increase the probability of policy success”. So if objectives are not clear, resources cannot be aligned with them and the probability of policy failure is increased.
If Britain finds it hard enough to align its own objectives and resources, why not concentrate on fixing that, and leave the rest of Europe to go its own way? Perhaps because, leaving aside the (remote) possibility of Argentina attacking the Falkland Islands, it is hard to think of many threats to the UK which would not affect the rest of Europe, or vice versa. It is even harder to see how we or any other European country would deal better with these threats on our own than with allies.
Nor can we assume that the US will always rescue Europe, if Europe does nothing to rescue itself. In June 2011, then US defence secretary Robert Gates told the Europeans that if current trends in the decline of European defence capabilities were not halted and reversed, future US political leaders might not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost. NATO’s ‘Steadfast Jazz’ exercise in November 2013 shows what the future might look like. This was the largest exercise conducted by NATO since 2006, and was designed to practise the defence of the Baltic States and Poland. Of its 6000 participants, only 250 were Americans.
Ironically, if European nations were more capable of protecting their own security, they would be both less dependent on the US for their defence, and less likely to provoke the US to give up on them in exasperation. But European security does not depend simply on spending more on high-tech military equipment. It depends on having a strategy, agreed by all, which sets out what the nations of Europe are trying to achieve, and which can serve as a basis for plans to deliver those objectives. Some plans will involve military capabilities. Others may involve the use of non-military instruments. Both will need to be resourced.
The closest thing the EU has to a strategy at present is the European Security Strategy, adopted in 2003 and lightly revised in 2008. It is inspiring – “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free” – aspirational –“Europe should be ready to share in the responsibility for global security and in building a better world” – and of little operational value. Ten years after the strategy was adopted, the countries of Europe have made very limited progress towards being “able to act before countries around us deteriorate, when signs of proliferation are detected, and before humanitarian emergencies arise”.
A number of European countries, most prominently Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden, see the need for a new security strategy. With their encouragement, several European think-tanks have been involved in a ‘European Global Strategy’ project, designed to stimulate debate among policymakers, academics and others. The UK and Germany, among others, have been unenthusiastic or actively opposed to trying to rewrite the 2003 strategy, however. After a period when the German government was willing to join allies and partners in defending European values robustly, for example in the Kosovo conflict in 1999, Germany seems at present to oppose even a serious discussion of the use of military power.
The UK, perhaps worried that reaching consensus on sensitive issues like Europe’s attitude to Russia would be a long process, wants the EU to concentrate on increasing capability, and is against covering strategy at the December 2013 European Council discussion on defence. But it is hard to see how the UK can hope to persuade its European partners to invest more in defence unless it can articulate what for. Without a strategy to underpin it, defence procurement becomes little more than an expensive job-creation programme.
A future Labour government should be among the leading advocates for a comprehensive European security strategy. Such a strategy would recognise that no single European country can resolve by itself the security problems it faces, but that collectively the countries of Europe can make a major contribution to meeting common challenges. A strategy should set out not only what Europe aims to achieve by military means, but also how it can make use of its diplomatic influence, development assistance and other soft power tools.
Though it will undoubtedly be difficult to get consensus among countries whose security outlook depends significantly on what is happening in their very different neighbourhoods, the European strategy should not be a Christmas tree with 28 national ‘top priorities’; it should identify those issues where a European contribution is most needed and most likely to be decisive. As Sven Biscop of Belgium’s Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations has recently argued, it no longer makes sense (and probably never did) for this to be an EU security strategy, as opposed to a European one: the 22 EU member-states who are also members of NATO do not (or should not) change their strategy as they move from one office building in Brussels to another; and in the post-cold war world the ‘neutral’ states largely face similar threats and challenges to the NATO members. The main distinction between a European strategy and the NATO Strategic Concept ought to be that NATO focuses on deterrence and defence, while the EU deploys its much-heralded comprehensive approach to crisis and conflict situations.
The resource decisions that flow from a European strategy need to reflect the comprehensive approach, so that (a) every element is resourced by someone; but (b) not everyone tries to do everything. There are obstacles to an effective division of labour, both in the military and civilian spheres. The Centre for European Reform noted this summer that “countries remain wary of relying on others for military capabilities”. But existing initiatives like the European Air Transport Command (a pool of almost 150 aircraft from Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) show that there are ways around the problem of trust. Giving up a national capability and handing over responsibility to another country is even more difficult, but it too can be done, as for example in the case of the Netherlands, which now leaves Germany to fly maritime patrols on its behalf. Britain and France have also shown that it is possible for countries with similar strategic cultures to agree to work together at the ‘hard’ end of security, even to the extent of sharing nuclear weapons research facilities.
European nations can work together better in ‘soft’ security as well; development assistance and capacity building can be just as important to Europe’s security as the application of military force. It is clear that for cultural or other reasons, some countries will continue to resist spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence; but they should then be challenged to invest more in assistance. Currently, the UK spends close to 3 per cent of GDP on defence and development combined and Sweden around 2.5 per cent; Germany spends a little more than 1.5 per cent and Italy around 1.3 per cent. The coalition government’s efforts to get partners to increase their defence capabilities have largely failed; a future government should think in broader terms. It should join other major contributors in pressing the back-markers to do more for European security, for example through well-targeted development assistance in fragile or conflict-affected countries in Europe’s neighbourhood.
Ultimately, the value of a European security strategy will depend on the way in which its conclusions are implemented through national resource or procurement decisions. Britain will be better placed to persuade its allies and partners to spend wisely if it can show the logic of its own spending.
A future Labour government must not shy away from difficult decisions for fear of being accused by its opponents of being weak on national security. The Challenger 2 was not the best available tank when it was first bought in the 1990s. Now that the British Army is withdrawing from Germany, it does not make sense to keep more than 200 of them until at least 2035, when our allies in Europe have more and better tanks.
Similarly, the Royal Air Force say that the F-35B Lightning II “will place the RAF at the forefront of fighter technology and will give it a true multi-role aircraft that will surpass the majority of other weapons systems in production today, or envisaged in the foreseeable future”. That would be the right benchmark if the government believes that we are likely to face a conflict with a similarly equipped adversary in the coming decades. If not, then British taxpayers should not be asked to pay around £125 million per aircraft for the F-35B. Neither the UK nor anyone else in Europe can afford weapons systems that are designed for threats we do not face but ill-adapted to those we do. Fifth-generation fighters will not protect us from terrorist attacks, uncontrolled mass migration from North Africa or cyber-attacks on our economies. More modest expenditure on countering radicalisation, capacity-building in fragile states or helping companies to improve their cyber resilience might.
Finally, the next British government will have to take decisions on the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. By about 2016, the government will have to decide how many ballistic missile submarines to procure as replacements for the four Vanguard-class boats currently in service. By about 2019 it will have to decide what to do about new nuclear warheads (to replace the current ones, which will last until the late 2030s).
The last Labour government concluded in 2006 that “an independent British nuclear deterrent is an essential part of our insurance against the uncertainties and risks of the future”, but reduced the number of operationally available warheads by 20 per cent. The coalition government announced plans in 2010 to reduce this number further for the current submarine fleet, and to cut the number of missile tubes on the next generation of ballistic missile submarines so that the maximum requirement for operationally available warheads would fall by about another 25 per cent, to no more than 120. Even so, the projected cost of the Trident replacement programme is around £20bn.
A future Labour government will have to decide whether 120 warheads is a threshold below which the deterrent would lose credibility; whether four submarines and a continuous at-sea deterrent are more stabilising and less escalatory than a smaller number of boats whose deployment at a time of crisis could lead an opponent to conclude that the UK was planning a pre-emptive strike; and whether current and potential threats to national security still include some which can only be deterred by nuclear weapons.
A nuclear-free world remains the ultimate goal, to which the UK has contributed and should continue to contribute by reducing weapons to an absolute minimum. But it is hard to imagine any government assessing the instability in the world and the risks of further nuclear proliferation, and deciding that Britain no longer needed a nuclear deterrent at all.