The PM on Defence (1) [edited transcript]
Not all the public understands primus inter pares, and now I am Her Majesty’s First Minister I am not sure I do either. As I am the one who takes the rap when any one of you falls down, we are most certainly not equal, and it is that thought which now inspires what I intend to say to you today.
At our first plenary session I reminded you all that UK plc is not only a trading company that must trade to survive, a truth we all recognise, but also that it must survive if it is to trade, a simple reality some of our predecessors have neglected. The situation in which we find UK plc today is catastrophic, and with the discovery almost every day of more hidden data we must conclude that severe measures are essential. Fortunately we now have with Brexit a new opportunity that will in the public mind excuse severity and justify innovation.
While discussing our international trade I made the point that in common with all companies in distress UK plc must examine every escape mechanism, and this means looking carefully at the elimination of waste, at borrowing, at raising more capital, at downsizing, at vastly increased efficiencies, and at new expansion. We shall have committees to examine all these measures, and more, but this committee is to concentrate on expansion in the one department where we have no choice but to expand. That department, colleagues, is Defence.
Why have we no choice? The Government’s first duty is the Defence of the Realm, and as our predecessors neglected it we have much to repair and replace. Let me try to quantify the problem. During the 1960s, when the greatest danger to the nation appeared to be that of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe and the dreadful war that would have followed, our average Defence spend was around 5.8 per cent of GDP. During the next decade this dropped to 4.8 per cent, and then during the 1980s it dropped further to 4.5 per cent. With perestroika there came the declaration of a “peace dividend” and the spend was dropped to 3.2 per cent of GDP until a Labour Government took over and dropped it first to 2.5 per cent and finally to 2.3 per cent. Since then our immediate predecessors have planned to reduce it, if we refuse to fudge the definitions, to below 2.0 per cent.
That “peace dividend” was fictitious because it was supposed to represent money being saved by no longer having to defend ourselves against the Soviets with only conventional weapons, but in reality we were never able to defend ourselves with conventional weapons alone. NATO would have been forced to go nuclear on the third day, and perhaps even earlier. You and I and our constituents may not have known that, but the Governments of those days did. So the baseline for the calculation was false.
Not only was there no “peace dividend”: there was a failure to understand that with the collapse of the bipolar stability the Americans and Soviets had created, a new instability required larger and more powerful Armed Forces to defend our interests and to enforce peace with different equipment and new skills. During the bad days of the Cold War it was rare for the UK to fight. We had Korea as part of the United Nations Force, and an insurgency in Malaya, but thereafter we experienced only comparatively minor post-colonial problems with little loss of life. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, however, our conflicts overseas have been frequent — the Gulf War in 1991, Bosnia in ’92, Kosovo in ’99, Sierra Leone in 2000, Iraq from 2003, Afghanistan which, I fear, has no end in sight, and, of course, the Falklands whose security from invasion will remain a serious worry for both the near and distant future. Accordingly, and especially because the weaponry we produced for a possible high-intensity war here in Europe was so often quite unsuitable for low-intensity conflict elsewhere, the investment in national defence should have been far higher — at least double.
Today we face a situation in which our predecessors planned to invest in the coming year a percentage of GDP that is little more than one third of the 5.8 per cent that was insufficient for conventional defence anyway. Moreover, this small increase does not compensate for several decades of underinvestment that have reduced our defence assets substantially in both number and quality to the point that the men and women of our Armed Forces no longer trust our Defence Ministers’ judgment, a serious detriment to the morale already suffering from the poor housing provided for their families (and for which all pay unjustifiably high levels of rent). You are well aware of the scandalous waste of money owed to seriously flawed MoD decisions, so I shall not list them now, but we must recognise the consequences — the financial drain of the horrific PFI contracts; the helicopters we need but do not have; the helicopters we have but cannot use where we need them; the Potemkin destroyers sent to sea without their defence systems; the 14 Type 45 destroyers agreed as the bare minimum yet reduced in number to 6, several of which are for one reason or another currently in dock and awaiting engine modifications to allow them to operate in tropical waters; the EFA Typhoon fighters that first had a gun, and then didn’t, and then did after all but could not fire it, and now is to have one to fire in support of the troops, but at a cost of many millions of pounds per aircraft; and the lack of a genuinely cost-effective aircraft for Close Air Support (needed in Afghanistan where the Tornado cost an unaffordable £33,000 per hour, plus fuel, to operate).
In summary, then, the ministry for which you have accepted responsibility, Michael, is a total financial disaster. To begin to repair the damage our various predecessors created we shall need in the forthcoming financial years access to funds at a level of five per cent of GDP plus a margin — say around £80billion. Across-the-board cuts cannot be applied to this situation, Philip, for the Defence budget has been cut already, as it has been every year since the 1960s, from 5.8 per cent (which was always insufficient anyway) down to the current insane, inadequate two per cent.
Well, I assure you, the UK will not commit suicide on my watch. War is coming — not perhaps a state-on-state conflict during the term of this present Parliament, although that will come during our lifetime and we must prepare for it now — but insurgency and terrorism are coming into the British Isles now, during the term of this present Parliament, and on a scale that can be classified only as War.
The technical ability to kill large numbers of humans has improved in every century during the last millennium, and every century the death toll has increased accordingly to reach about 150 million for the last one. With the population of the world expanding quickly, as is natural, and with the pressure on key resources such as water now beginning to threaten disturbances, who will gamble on this thousand-year trend being reversed?
War is natural to Man, and preparation for war has been Man’s principal activity all down our long march. Machiavelli warned us that Man is more inclined to do evil than to do good, and the history of the last five hundred years has not contradicted him. The Great War of 1914-18 was the war that was to end all our wars; remember? The atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 were the weapons that would end wars forever; remember? And yet after 1945 we had Korea, Viet Nam and the Falkland Islands, and the horrors of Pol Pot, Rwanda Burundi, and the Balkans.
History has decided.
Well, I’ve given you something to ponder. I should like to see you all again at three o’clock on Thursday, to hear your ideas on how we may proceed in solving the problems of Defence finance.
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