An Appropriate Contribution?

NIS researcher Steven Hendry on how the UK can best direct shrinking military resources at a time of spending cuts


This week has seen the release of both the National Security Strategy (NSS) and publication of the results of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The NSS describes the threats that the UK faces in the coming years, whilst the SDSR sets out how the armed forces will counter these threats whilst cutting just under 8% from their budget.

Just days before the announcements were due US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced concerns about the consequence of cuts in the defence budgets of the UK and other European nations.

Asked if the US administration worried about the consequences for NATO of spending reductions by countries such as the UK, Clinton replied that "It does, and the reason it does is because I think we do have to have an alliance where there is a commitment to the common defence”. She went on to state that it was vital that “each country has to be able to make its appropriate contribution”.

Clinton's comments were followed swiftly by a report from the National Audit Office giving details of the previous Labour government's legacy on Ministry of Defence (MoD) spending. In the final year of the Labour government, spending in the MoD rose £3.3bn beyond what was planned.

Faced with a multi-billion pound black hole and facing up to cuts in the defence budget, Clinton's challenge begs the question as to what is Britain's appropriate contribution.

A recent editorial in the New York Times sets out the view of our closest military ally. Spending billions on replacing the UK's Trident nuclear weapons would require the MoD to commit a significant portion of its budget to the programme over the next decade, putting pressure on equipment budgets and troop numbers. The newspaper's editors stated that plans to maintain troop numbers in Afghanistan were “welcome” but that “there is no need for Britain to press ahead with the submarine now”, concluding that “Britain will not be able to deliver if this government decides to sacrifice troop numbers for nuclear symbolism”.

We now know that the Government has decided to delay replacing Trident and that it will extend the service life of the current Vanguard class submarines. In the short term this gives the MoD room to manoeuvre in its attempts to stabilise the deficit in the equipment budget, deferring some of the costs till the end of the decade. However, even though the Ministry says it has been able to shave £1.2bn off the bill for replacing Trident, there will still be a huge sum to be paid at some point in the future if the government continues with its plans to replace Trident. This money will have to come from elsewhere in the defence budget.

The SDSR states that cuts in personnel numbers will occur across the armed forces, including a reduction in the number of Army troops by around 7,000 by 2015. This should set alarm bells ringing in NATO headquarters if the New York Times is correct in its assessment that what our allies appreciate most about our contribution to the alliance is adequate numbers of well trained and appropriately equipped troops. Only time will tell whether the government has managed to get the balance right in preserving its Trident pet project without cutting the numbers of service personnel too deeply.

Announcing the results of the defence review, David Cameron stated that the main decision to replace Trident nuclear weapons will not now be taken until 2016. The next five years provide an opportunity to ask serious questions about whether the UK needs to continue to possess nuclear weapons and to debate their value to the country. Should the USA's self-styled closest ally be embarking on the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons when President Obama is espousing a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons? What message does replacing Trident send to aspiring nuclear states both within and without the Non Proliferation Treaty regime? Does the possession of nuclear weapons truly represent an appropriate contribution by Britain to mutual security in the post-Cold War era?

These questions become all the more pressing when the decisions made on defence are set in the wider context of massive cuts in public spending, rather than artificially isolating them as the SDSR has done. Can it be right to consider spending billions of pounds on new nuclear weapons when front-line services which low income families rely on are facing cuts and half a million public sector workers face losing their jobs? Scrapping Trident completely might not only prove to be the right decision militarily, but also the most appropriate contribution that the Coalition government can make to sustaining Britain's economic and social welfare over the years ahead.

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