Substantial cuts in the defence budget should be a priority

With Britain currently fighting two wars, many commentators are claiming that the cuts in defence spending envisioned in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) should be cancelled. There is some logic to this, but only if you believe that the wars Britain is fighting are providing substantial benefits which outweigh the costs. In reality, they are probably doing the opposite, making the country less secure at considerable expense.

The problem with the SDSR was not that it cut defence too far, but rather that it missed an opportunity to cut it even further. A serious strategic review would avoid conflating vital and secondary interests, and focus on the former. It would consider the threats to those vital interests, design a strategy to counter them, and from that identify the military capabilities that the country required.

Had the SDSR done this, its drafters would have had to admit that Britain’s vital interests are not threatened by the sort of danger for which military force is an appropriate response. Much of today’s armed forces is entirely inappropriate to the country’s security needs and can be safely dismantled.

A sound strategic review would conclude that since there is no chance of any foreign state directly attacking the UK, most of the country’s traditional heavy war fighting capabilities (main battle tanks, fighter aircraft, etc) can be eliminated. It would also recognise that military intervention of the type practised by the UK in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya has done more harm than good, and so would eliminate those elements of the armed forces geared to such interventions.

If defence planners fear that doing all this will make it difficult to re-create capabilities if the international situation changes, then the solution is not to maintain large armed forces in being (creating the temptation for governments to use them in inappropriate circumstances), but rather to retain a core capability in the reserves. The government should retain in the regular forces only what is strictly necessary for defence.

Even if Britain were to cut its defence spending by 50%, it would remain the ninth largest spender in the world, and through NATO the UK would be allied to countries that collectively account for two-thirds of the world’s defence expenditure (and which would still account for over half of the global total even if they all followed Britain’s example and cut spending by half). It is impossible to say that Britain would not be well defended and could not protect her vital interests. No country would suddenly invade the United Kingdom; terrorism would not suddenly increase; the economy would not collapse. At the same time, many lives would be saved as futile military interventions came to an end. In fact, by doing less and spending less, Britain would probably be more secure, while the British state could repair its public finances and put money back into the pockets of taxpayers. Substantial cuts in the defence budget should be a priority of any future British government.

Professor Paul Robinson is the author of Chapter 7 of Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes.

Member of the Advisory Council

Professor Colin Robinson is a member of the Advisory Council to the Institute of Economic Affairs and is the Chair of Economics at the University of Surrey. Colin is the sole or joint author of over 25 books and monographs and about 160 journal papers, including studies of the international oil, coal and gas markets, North Sea oil and gas, nuclear energy in Britain, British energy policy, privatisation, utility regulation and the British water industry. He continues to write regularly and is now Emeritus Professor of Economics.

4 thoughts on “Substantial cuts in the defence budget should be a priority”

  1. Posted 22/07/2011 at 14:00 | Permalink

    I wholly supported most of the views expressed in the book as a whole. Chapter 7 I found rather more difficult.
    i) I thoroughly agree that the campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan certainly did more harm than good – I think the jury is still out on Libya but unless there is a substantial increase in committment it hardly ranks on the same scale. What does the author think of the comparable Kosovo campaign I wonder?
    ii) I think it is worth pointing out that defence is rather unlike most elements of the economy – there is not a simple equation between cost and benefit. Nor is there a simple definition of what is the ‘national interest’ – it is not just a simple matter of invasion of sovereign territory or defence against terrorism (which contra most defence experts’ views, has little relation to the UK armed forces real purpose). Defence is, in the final analysis, a proper sphere of state action unlike health or social security. I fail to see why these areas are given priority – that’s not to say defence spending out not be cut, simply that other areas of government ought to be cut first.
    The purposes of the British armed forces are not necessarily to be used – in fact, in a good deal of cases if they were used it would be an indication of failure – most obviously the nuclear forces, but this is also true of many conventional capabilities. Nor are they really a ‘deterrent’ in most cases – the Falklands are something of an exception. Much of the unstated but major justification for UK defence forces – including their deployment into Iraq and Afghanistan (although these were ultimately unwise as they have damaged the long-term development of the forces and led them down a blind alley) – is to give the UK a ‘seat at the table’ and a position in the international system. Whether this is desireable or not is, of course, up for debate, but I think it is an issue not even addressed here or in much of the debate over defence, which seems to focus on the immediate conflicts at hand.
    iii) I agree that the SSDR completely missed the chance to shift the UK’s defence position, although hardly surprisingly. There is a failure to acknowledge that the real area of UK national interest lies in the maritime sphere, and this would be an appropriate area for the UK to specialise in and thus reap maximium benefit for expenditure. Thus a good deal of the Army and RAF could be cut away – there is little need for land-based fast jets. Instead of cutting armour, I would propose cutting personnel from the Army and the over-manned and purposeless RAF, whose existence ought to be questioned. Personnel are the most expensive element of the armed forces, not equipment. We should avoid forces designed for counter-insurgency which results in protracted and unrewarding campaigns (Afghanistan) and focus on a rapidly-deployable maritime force something like the US marine corps, backed by a strong two-carrier navy (plus the nuclear forces). Unlike armies, maritime forces cannot be built up quickly from reserves but they have far greater value and roles in peacetime. This would achieve substantial savings plus a UK defence posture which actually reflects a need to participate in international politics and would represent the UK in the defence sphere which it truly needs to be active.

  2. Posted 23/07/2011 at 03:17 | Permalink

    I agree to Whig, when he says that its hard to estimate the cost and benefit of a military campaign. I am not an expert on defence but know a fact or two about the business world and would like to share a similar scenario. Recently a number of busines mangers working for some of the top firms in the London I met, shared their experience that they have been asked to quantify their company’s spendings on charitable campaigns. These are purely commercial enterprises we are talking about, yet they have been asked to give thier analysis on the money they spent as part of their goodwill and brand building. The very same can be said for a military campaign. Controversy theories aside, how much of a moral responsibility has been fulfilled and is there a way we can gauge the satisfaction/dissatisfaction of the people invaded or the people who paid it thorugh their taxes. Not an easy question I suppose.

  3. Posted 03/08/2011 at 11:11 | Permalink

    Arrant nonsense.

    Herewith link to a considered view as to why:

  4. Posted 26/10/2011 at 11:14 | Permalink

    Despite the issue on deficit reductions, the Social security benefits seems not affected. The Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) will add about $42.57 monthly for the average retired American in 2012. The average monthly Social Security payment is $1,182.40 at this time. Due to low inflation, there was no COLA adjustment for Social Security in 2010 or 2011. The increase serves as a welcome news for seniors in this tough economy. However, many will see much of that increase eaten by the increment in Medicare premiums. Source of article: Social Security benefits to increase for the first time since 2009

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