Defence Spending: an orphan subject at the election – with a mad uncle

Defence after a few days in the spotlight a couple of weeks ago has settled back to being one of the Cinderella subjects in the General Election campaign. It is maybe fairer to call it an orphan rather than a Cinderella subject: orphan because very few serious politicians pay it anything more than lip service during election campaigns. To continue the orphan analogy it does have an odd, mad uncle who is supportive but that often hurts not helps the issue.

For the left there is frequently a degree of internationalism and distrust of the subjects of militarism and defence spending. Some might call defence spending morally wrong and suggest that there are always more important things to spend money on: those less fortunate in society or for that matter International development.

Furthermore the left have tended to oppose almost all the wars the UK has fought since the Second World War. Usually this has been very laudable and honourable. Suez and the Second Iraq War being the two classic examples and the left’s opposition probably helped ensure our non involvement in arguably the only greater western foreign policy disaster of the post war years: Vietnam.

Those wars the left have supported have tended to be of the peace making / keeping variety such as Sierra Leone where British military presence helped stop a deeply unpleasant civil war.

The right on the other hand had less interest in defence since the end of empire. Advocates of a smaller sate and reductions in the public sector tend not to be in favour of large state institutions. Clearly few are mad enough to advocate even part privatisation of the armed forces (there was some talk in this regard during the heyday of Thatcherism though taken seriously by very few) but in times of austerity the idea of spending money on defence rather than cutting the deficit or taxes has little traction.

This is not helped by the fact that not infrequently defence spending results in vast overspends with equipment or forces requiring far more than originally budgeted for.

The only political constituency which routinely supports increasing defence spending (the odd, mad uncle above) tends to be the odder elements of the old right: the quintessential Tory colonels in the shires (though they often gravitate to UKIP nowadays). They seem annoyed by the decisions not provide the new carriers with cats and traps and to disband assorted famous regiments and still smart about giving back Hong Kong.

A couple of generations ago such people were concerned about the decision to withdraw from east of Suez and scrap both the two new larger carriers to replace HMS Eagle and Ark Royal and scrap the TSR 2. As such this constituency is essentially always dissatisfied that we are no longer an imperial power. They provide a perfect example of 1066 and All That’s explanation that history came to an end when the UK ceased to be top nation. Unfortunately their views have little more logic and credibility politically than 1066 and All That has historically.

Defence spending is not centrally, however, about any of those things and sits in an orphaned position as it is often a long term subject rarely beneficial to the party in or seeking power and often involves unknown unknowns or knowns people would rather ignore.

We will never know to what extent the massive defence expenditure of the post war years prevented a Third World War (arguably very little). Similarly we do not know what if any effect the Trident and before them Polaris submarines and their Russian counterparts lurking in the deep places of the world have had in keeping world peace.

Some cost saving defence decisions can be seen with very long hindsight to have been foolish. Had the 1966 defence review not cancelled the two large aircraft carriers and their attendant escorts it is most unlikely the Argentinians would have invaded the Falklands. That would have saved vast amounts of money and hundreds of lives on both sides but politically the benefit occurred to the Tories (not Labour who cancelled the carriers) and that was 15 years later.

Indeed the monetarist policy inspired decision by the Thatcher government to scrap HMS Endurance (and sell the remaining small carriers) helped inspire the Argentinian decision to invade the Falklands which ironically helped Thatcher when her government sent the Task Force to get them back (Michael Foot and shadow foreign secretary Peter Shore’s unstinting support for opposing the fascist Argentinian Junta is often forgotten).

Far more than Foreign Policy machismo, however, defence spending is about jobs and technology.

The jobs defence spending provides are highly important in a number of sectors. It provides employment for predominantly working class young men (and nowadays women) in the armed forces. Some do end up in problems after leaving the forces but many are provided with life skills where otherwise many would have been long term unemployed or worse. The military also provides high skill jobs both leading the army but also in all manner of technical, professional and managerial occupations. Modern militaries are extraordinarily complex and utilise cutting edge technology all of which require very highly skilled employees to operate.

Even more than members of the armed force defence spending provides very high skill manufacturing jobs in the production and maintenance of the equipment used by al branches of the armed forces. Not only do these skills provide very substantial export markets for British technology (BAE systems is one of the UK’s major exporters) but they are also transferrable to other parts of manufacturing industry.

Although the advantages are seen in the UK they are better illustrated in the USA. There is a tendency to conspiracy theory in the idea of the “Military Industrial Combine” and the suggestions it supports warmongering but the vast US defence sector not only provides very extensive export opportunities but also gives their manufacturers an advantage. Boeing’s ability to compete against Airbus is helped by the US government’s very extensive purchasing of its planes: both military and modified civilian. This can help smooth out the peaks and troughs in commercial aircraft purchasing. If the UK increased its defence spending it might well, if most of the funding was spent within the UK, pump prime a highly profitable part of our export industry. It is not unreasonable to hypothesise that more extensive naval expenditure might have kept more of the UK’s ship yards in business.

Defence spending also provides manufacturing which has general benefit. The Global Positioning System we all use in assorted devices comes directly from the US military’s system. Satellite technology was initially rocket technology, actually mainly developed by Nazi scientists. Wernher Von Braun was in both the Nazi party and the SS.

Defence spending will probably sway very few voters at the up coming election and is always a long term issue. However, it is worth noting that it is far more complex than the simple knee jerk right wing proposition it is often presented as. The most classic example is probably that the carriers which brought the Americans victory at Midway, the turning point of the Pacific war, were built by the Roosevelt government as part of the New Deal: not a military decision but an economic stimulus package to help in the austerity and depression of the 1930s.

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  • NMS

  • Ernekid

    The Military Industrial Complex is no conspiracy theory it’s very real. Defence contractors pay millions into political campaigns to get politicians to rattle Sabres and start wars. War is a very profitable business and you can make a quick buck sending other people’s kids to die.

  • Pasty2012

    Given Britain is a part of NATO is there any real need for 4 submarines with Nuclear missiles, Nuclear Bombers and scores of Land Based Ballistic Missiles which are both fired from static and mobile sites. There is no independent “Empire” to keep in check and the US and French both have Nuclear capabilities, the US being the largest in the World. ALL Members of NATO can rely upon each other if attacked and this alone raises the issue of Why Britain needs a separate Nuclear Deterrent eating up the amounts of money that would clear the countries debt in one go and allow the NHS to be funded properly.
    There is NO Need for separate ground forces for each army in Europe spending 100’s of times the money being spent by any country that could conceivably attack Britain or any country within NATO.
    SO WHY is there a need for the large sums of money to be spent on Nuclear weapons unless someone has shares in the companies that supply them ? Money should be spent on the NHS and instead of renegotiating to leave Europe Britain should be negotiating with all other members of NATO to have a centrally funded Nuclear deterrent and land and sea response forces with merely a Coast Guard for the protection off their coasts. That would send a message to the World regarding the Nuclear issue and allow all the NATO Countries to use the resources they have for their own peoples Health and Welfare needs.

  • Starviking

    The MIC certainly gets hyped a lot. For an overarching ‘power behind the throne’ it’s very weak. Looking at all the military companies over the years all that is seen is mergers and closures: the UK went from oodles of companies (Alvis, Vickers, Hawkers, Handley Page, etc.) to virtually one: BAe.

    Similarly in the States – from a multitude of companies to a handful.

    And actually promoting war might not be a goal of a MIC – real world wars nowadays can lead to more spending on operations, less on equipment.

  • Starviking

    The UK only has the 4 Ballistic Missile Subs – we do not have nuclear bombers anymore, and only had land-based ballistic missiles for a short time in the 60s.

    As for the reason why we do not depend on the US and French deterrents: there is not guarantee their priorities will align with ours now, and especially so in the future.

  • Starviking

    We will never know to what extent the massive defence expenditure of the post war years prevented a Third World War (arguably very little). Similarly we do not know what if any effect the Trident and before them Polaris submarines and their Russian counterparts lurking in the deep places of the world have had in keeping world peace.”

    I think this is challengable: no one wants their nation’s cities and infrastructure hit by a massed attack of nuclear weapons.

    Some cost saving defence decisions can be seen with very long hindsight to have been foolish. Had the 1966 defence review not cancelled the two large aircraft carriers and their attendant escorts it is most unlikely the Argentinians would have invaded the Falklands. That would have saved vast amounts of money and hundreds of lives on both sides but politically the benefit occurred to the Tories (not Labour who cancelled the carriers) and that was 15 years later.”

    Of course, if we had built the carriers* no-one would have known what pitfalls we had missed, and we could be complaining about the cost of oil from the UK-protected gulf increasing by a few pence.

    * And if we means Harland & Wolff, perhaps greater employment in East Belfast leaves less disaffected folk with the free time on their hands to join various loyalist paramilitaries.

  • Mister_Joe

    I can’t conceive of any situation whereby the UK would unilaterally use Nuclear weapons against any State unless we have a very serious falling out with the USA and foolishly take them on. So why spend any monies to replace Trident? It just smacks of pretending that the UK is still a superpower. Yeah, right.

  • carl marks

    I have yet to be presented with a viable argument as to why we need nukes!
    No one has come up with a moral or strategic argument to retain them, Britain only reason to have them is to maintain a illusion of a superpower.
    Only a madman(or women) would ignore defence but equally only a madman would spend much needed billions on weapons with no chance of ever been needed and only a completely immoral lunatic would consider using them.

  • submariner

    Carl that’s because there isint one. As someone who served on a Nuclear armed submarine during the cold war i know more than most the capabilities of these weapons. But the cold war is long over and the main danger comes not from a Nuclear armed state but from terrorists.I firmly believe that the Nuclear deterrent is well past its sell by date and should not under any circumstances be renewed it has become no more than a comfort blanket for the Colonel Blink types who believe that Britain is still a superpower

  • Deke Thornton

    AFAIK the missiles are ‘dual key’, meaning US permission to use them. They cannot be fully armed or fired without American consent. I’m not sure about France but they (no pun intended) are in the same ‘boat’. Not having them might annoy the Americans who sell them to us and we might lose our place at the UN Security council. Pakistan and India have them (the countries we spend billions on overseas aid to). The former -along with Iran- is the risk state. Israel is an unknown variable, as is Russia. Anyhow, if we ever use them, I suspect the number of days the flag flies over council buildings will be resolved.

  • Gopher

    People get too wrapped up in materiel, its not the Nukes per se its the fact that Britain will use them, just like Thatcher had to scrap the Carriers during the Cold War to keep a large army on the Rhine because Europe could not be trusted to fight. Back then Nato operated “flexible response” meaning that if it could not stop the Warsaw Pact conventionally it would nuke their spearheads.. The Russians appeared to take that seriously, Dresden whilst not nuked after all was in their occupation zone and they took a pile of rubble courtesy of Bomber Command and the 8th Airforce formly known as Berlin so they understood America and Britain are cold blooded killers. 70 years of peace in Europe wernt bad.

    Interestingly the first person to predict the change in strategic warfare away from nations to individuals was one Arthur Harris his prediction of how an enemy will lay us to waste is the most prescient I have ever read. He also understands weapon systems. The Ballistic missile submarines future is problematical whilst everyone knows the submarine and the missiles best years are behind it, until you hit upon the next epochal system its your only defence against Putin unless you want to spend billions more than the cost of 4 subs and the *threat* which incidently is free on tanks planes and guns and bring in conscription to man them. You could get the white flag out and welcome your new Russian secretary of state. Off course the Belgains and Dutch (Srebrenica) will fight and Germanys 225 tanks will die glouriously. So until then Trident is cheap. Trident however is no defence against the Jihadis. As Harris pointed out back in 45 the only defence against Jihadis with nukes is world unification.

  • Pasty2012

    Only 4 Ballistic Missile Subs, funny thing is the Iranians only want 4 Ballistic Missiles as well but for some reason some countries say that they shouldn’t have them as they are not entitled to have a “Nuclear Deterrent” against the Israeli Nuclear weapons. As for relying on a central Nuclear Deterrent along with the US and French it would seem that you do not trust the “Allies”. The US and French are signed up to the NATO Agreement which says that they will come to the assistance of all NATO countries when in need. However the idea of having a shared deterrent would mean Britain would not need 4 Ballistic subs so they could have 1 under water at all times when a shared deterrent would mean either a US, French or British sub could be under water and providing “a Deterrent” against aggression from hostile countries. What Singular need does Britain have for Nuclear Weapons outside of NATO? Seems that you are building a reason why other countries need to gain access to their own Nuclear Deterrents.

  • Pasty2012

    There is NO Need for the British to have Nuclear Weapons, the days of Empire have gone and they will not be returning. If the intention of having these weapons is in place of a dummy then 1 should be enough. The French have some Nuclear weapons and the Americans lots of them, so why does British resources have to be used funding these? The NATO countries can easily come to an agreement and timetable of when either a French, British or American Nuclear sub is under the water ready to never be used. They don’t each need to have one under water at the same time. Money saved from coming to such an agreement can be directed at the NHS and Education which is more beneficial to everyone than 4 Nuclear subs for each country. If it’s Right and Just to tell the Iranians that they shouldn’t have Nuclear Weapons as a “Deterrent” against the aggression of Israel then it is also Right and Just to say Britain shouldn’t have them. However as a compromise people could live with NATO having them and them being held under a central command. I am sure most people would rather most of the Billions being spent on “British Only” Nuclear weapons being spent on their kids heath and education.

  • Croiteir

    as the nukes belong to the Yankees I would tend to believe that

  • submariner

    Deke unless things have drastically changed since I was serving on board a Nuke i have to say you are wrong. There was no dual key and the decision to fire came from No 10.

  • Starviking

    “dual key” literally means – two keys need to be turned to launch. That is true for Trident.

    However, the other meaning applies for “shared weapons”: warheads for use by one NATO ally, but provided by another.

    The UK had US warheads on some tactical nukes, and these did require US arming. The last of these were removed from the UK inventory in 1984.

    The warheads on the UK Trident system are produced in the UK, and require no US permission to use. If they did, CND would be pushing that fact – and they don’t.

  • Starviking

    The nukes belong to the UK, and were produced at AWE Aldermaston.

  • Starviking

    Hi Pasty,

    I can’t find a reference to Iran wanting 4 ballistic missiles. Could you provide one?

    As for NATO, all alliances have a shelf-life, and geopolitics often throws up surprising switch-arounds.

    France is well-know for treading their own path when it suits them: leaving the command structure of NATO in the 60s is one example. The US? A strong ally, but one with isolationist streak in the political background.

  • Starviking

    One correction: the decision to scrap the carriers was made in 1966.

  • Starviking

    The problem with sharing a deterrent based on the politics of 3 different nations with 3 different classes of nuclear submarines it that you get all the expense of supporting those 3 different classes of sub.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Yip especially the education part. I recall getting an invitation to attend a Navy jobs fair in Scotland, all because I had a physics based degree. Navy + Scotland + Physics Degree … easy to assume they were desperately trying to head hunt people from a science background to get involved in the role.

    It’s clear that Trident is struggling to find the nuclear physicists to man (or woman) its roles these days.

    In other words I know the UK is struggling to find scientists to work their nuclear arsenal, sure they tried to recruit me didn’t they?

    Why man Trident when you can work at CERN or be the next Brian Cox?

    Given the vast majority of physical scientists don’t even go into science and engineering i.e. STEM roles, but the financial sector and management, a good proportion emigrate, a good proportion go overseas … then those who do STEM roles mostly prefer civilian roles, computing, manufacturing, design engineering, teaching and medicine.

    Credit must also go to the British engineers who are working at containing Chernobyl power plant wreckage.

    Another problem is unlike nuclear energy plants, nuclear waste plants and nuclear medicine even nuclear physics research … Nuclear weapons operators and manufacturers have to be BRITISH citizens, so the immigration quick-fix is gone. And to some extent these BRITISH citizens also have the mad uncle mentality to join the military, rather than say help Ukraine and Belarus contain radiation or something humanitarian like that.

    Heavens forbid people who hijack planes might hijack submarines too.

    That means not only people willing to endure years of quantum mechanics and the standard model, but also have the militant fears of the Manhatten Project to be willing to press the button to create a Doomsday scenario.

    Every year the UK government spends billions of pounds decommissioning nuclear power-plants, these plants are the biggest nuclear threat to these islands and there is eternal tax and spend needed to ensure these nuclear threats are managed and maintained.

    There is no profit in any state or any terrorist in making nuclear weapons to bring the UK to its knees, when a conventional missile or even a cyber attack on Sellafield would do more damage for a lot less bucks.

    Even super rich ISIS wouldn’t splurge their cash on a Trident and as for Russia, Russia in this globalized economy probably provides the nuclear fuel to run it.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Russia, USA, France … pretty much the three states with a nuclear threat the UK could try to eliminate a nuclear threat from … the first two could easily wipe them out, the last given its proximity they’d be wiping themselves out.

  • Kevin Breslin

    4. There remains a pressure to reduce the total of military and civilian numbers within the
    MOD but the specific competent manpower requirements to sustain the DNP have to date
    been safeguarded. Whilst this remains the case, there are still a number of areas where the
    functional skill set is operating on a “one man deep” basis and the sustainability of the
    NSQEP skill set remains fragile.

  • Croiteir

    Nope – they are American. The are procured to the British under the Polaris Sales agreement modified twice since, by request of Thatcher to Carter and RayGun.

  • Starviking

    Nope. The nukes are British. The missiles are American.