Max Boot is worried about the future of Britain’s armed forces under the Conservatives, should they be so lucky as to win the election on Thursday. He’s right to worry, but this isn’t a Conservative problem. It’s a British problem. As a letter in today’s Times from three senior British security officials makes clear, the plans of the Liberal Democrats – who stand a chance of forming a part of a coalition government – are even worse: they encompass, amidst much else, a profound skepticism about the United States, an abandonment of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, and a refusal to even contemplate pre-emptive military action against Iran.
The Conservative emphasis, as Max notes, is on the need to save money in defense through reform. There is something to be said for this. Since 2004, the size of the Ministry of Defense’s civilian ranks has shrunk by 19 percent. Yet expenditures on civilians are up by 13 percent, and rose almost twice as fast over that period as the cost of an actual member of the forces. This is because the cuts on the civilian side have come exclusively out of the lower salary ranks, while the bureaucracy at the top has grown.
In short, the picture here is identifiably the same as it is elsewhere under Labour: more top-down control, more bureaucracy, more spending on senior officials, more waste, more disguised debts, and fewer actual capabilities. From this point of view, Liam Fox’s promise to scrutinize the top ranks of the forces is encouraging, because it puts the emphasis on one of the areas where Labour has failed to contain costs.
But at the end of the day, reform will not be enough. Indeed, Britain’s last Strategic Defense Review, in 1998, was premised on the idea that savings from procurement reform would fill the acknowledged gap between Britain’s means and its ends. Those savings, predictably, failed to materialize. As I point out in a forthcoming article from the Royal United Services Institute, the gap between Britain’s budget and its procurement programs alone to 2038-2039 is now on the order of 300 billion pounds. And the RUSI report that Max cites estimating an 11 percent real decline in defense spending to 2016-2017 is wildly optimistic: the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies puts the level of implied cuts at 6 percent per year by 2015.
All of that is really bad news. But here’s the worst of it: Britain is going to justify its cuts by drawing on the arguments the Obama Administration is using to justify cuts on this side of the Atlantic. Both states accept that defense budgets will decline in the coming decade. Both states blame the size of today’s defense budgets, in part, on the competitive extravagance of the armed services. Finally, both argue that defense acquisition reform is vital because the nature of war has changed: failure to reform will therefore result in defeat as well as waste. So, sure, worry about the British forces. But worry about ours as well.