Defence spending has been in the news with a recent debate on Trident and increasing rumours that security forces may be facing yet more cuts focussing largely on conventional forces. Updating Trident is estimated to have cost £1.24bn already. Once upgraded at considerable additional expense, possibly around £130bn, it will continue to cost billions to maintain.
With no real nuclear threat imminent, it seems this money could be put to far better use in defence alone. Whether you are pro-intervention or anti-war, investing in conventional forces can yield a great number of positive outcomes from creating jobs to increased peace keeping capacity. It is also likely to have little effect on national security, there is no major nuclear threat; conventional terrorism and cyber terrorism are far more likely to be used in any potential attacks.
Vernon Coaker has committed Labour to maintaining a nuclear deterrent in the UK while Miliband is pushing for a less expensive replacement. A recent vote in parliament proved fairly decisive with Labour and Conservatives voting together for Trident. However, even within the Labour party there is discontent and support for discarding Trident. Paul Flynn MP described the current system as “a useless, hugely expensive virility symbol which will never be used”. Jeremy Corbyn MP worked for months to secure a debate on Trident in an attempt to unearth the legal and financial problems Trident could cause.
And it’s not just Labour MPs who would like to see Trident scrapped. There is plenty of public appetite to abandon Trident rather than upgrade. This suggests that adopting the position of nuclear disarmament wouldn’t necessarily be electoral suicide for Labour.
Spending at least part of the money saved on Trident on conventional force would create relatively stable jobs. Rather than low paid jobs, the army often offers further training for their employees which can be used outside the military once they’ve left. However, at the moment, defence spending is under pressure and Cameron has recently had to commit to maintain conventional troop numbers above 60,000. Whilst on the face of things this may seem laudable, the army currently employs 82,000 people in the regular army. To cut personnel to 60,000 would represent a loss of 22,000 jobs which is hardly an insignificant number.
Afghanistan proved the army is underfunded for what it is often expected to do. Sir Peter Wall, former head of the British Army described the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan as ‘under-prepared and under-resourced’. However, the army does not solely function in war zones. Maintaining a decent security force is vital both in terms of domestic matters and in maintaining international influence. Very few countries have no armed forces and the few that don’t often have other forms of defence such as the Icelandic agreement with the US.
Cutting Trident could free up funding for conventional forces, not just to engage in war but to engage in peacekeeping, humanitarian aid and fighting drug trafficking to name but a few. The army is currently working in Africa to provide advice on peace support in South Africa and in Kenya to help clear dangerous mines. It is also deployed with United Nations Force in Cyprus to maintain peace along the ceasefire line in Nicosia.
Finally, the nuclear threat is outdated, whether or not an exact date of its end can be agreed, everyone can agree the Cold War has been over for decades now. Threats such as cyber attacks are far more pertinent and have been seen in Estonia in 2007. As proved by the situation in Estonia, these attacks can be almost impossible to track, making them quite dangerous if done on an even larger scale. These attacks are also less likely to result in the sort of violent retribution that might follow a nuclear strike, making them a lower risk option for perpetrators.
Labour must recognise that there is a great deal of opportunity in scrapping Trident to create jobs, increase peace keeping forces, and target defence spending more efficiently at potential rather than imagined threats.