• Toby Irwin

Defend the Realm, Defend the Budget

Updated: Jan 6, 2019

Defence spending has always been determined by immediate national security threats. It is this paradigm that drove the arms race with Germany before the First World War, and was equally this mindset that determined defence cuts after the collapse of Nazi Germany and later Soviet Russia. Since the mid-20th century, the security of the United Kingdom has been connected intrinsically to that of Europe and the wider Atlantic community through the NATO framework. One could be forgiven, as a policymaker in Whitehall, to look out and see the world defined and protected within liberal institutions, and economic interdependence forestalling any chance of war. This is a naïve position though, and neglects the threats still present to the United Kingdom in 2018. Reliance on NATO and European partners is acceptable and sufficient only so far as that cooperation is not only formidable but also reliable. The United States, traditionally seen as the guarantor of European security, is withdrawing and pivoting to confront the rise of China. European states have substantially reduced their capabilities, seriously pre-supposing their ability to survive in an international system still rampant with power politics and sovereignty violations.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Royal Marines, now facing further cuts, on an Operation in Afghanistan.

Since the 1990s, the French army has reduced from 548,000 to 213,000. The German Bundeswehr has fallen from 545,000 to 180,000. The German Air Force’s typhoon fleet currently has an operational capability of 3%. * The United Kingdom itself is also seriously lacking. Since the 2015 Strategic and Defence Review the armed forces have lost the Albion class of amphibious assault ships, has seen planned cuts of the Regular Army from about 70,000 to around 50,000, removed the armoured brigade from the Army’s warfighting division, cut the number of F-35B jets to be purchased and also significantly reduced the strength of the Royal Marines. The UK has always been a maritime nation, its strength and security coming from the sea ever since Tudor times. Mark Urban notes this recent insufficiency.

“This is the first generation in centuries to step back from a commitment to sea power, a period of history that spans times when the nation was in imminent danger of invasion as well as those when Albion seemed impregnable, times when Britain stood alone and others when it had strong alliances. Yet through all those changing times, it maintained a powerful navy.” **

The introduction of the Queen Elizabeth Class of aircraft carriers is a move in the right direction but is not nearly enough. A report from June of this year by the Ministry of Defence notes the need for rejuvenated funding for the Armed Forces. Not only is new funding needed to procure and develop new equipment and personnel, it also needs to be injected into the maintenance of British military fundamentals. For the Royal Navy at least, this is conceptualised as the ability to:

- Command with Authority

- Inform through information processing

- Prepare for deployment

- Projection of resources

- Protection on operations

- Sustaining of fighting capability

- Operation of military conduct ***

All of this might seem unnecessary. After all, as already noted, many now see the world as peaceful and that the role of the military is now largely limited to peacekeeping and humanitarianism. However, the government and other analysts discount this as neglecting real and actual threats that continue to threaten the UK. In a government report, certain threats are highlighted as not only an intensification of terrorism and cyber threats but the re-emergence of state-level threats. For the UK, this threat is from Russia. The report notes:

“Russia is central to the discussion of resurgent state-based threats. The 2015 SDSR described Russia as having become more “aggressive, authoritarian and nationalist”.31 The NSCR, which was published shortly after the Salisbury nerve agent attack, is more direct in describing “a well-established pattern of Russian State aggression”, citing Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea alongside its fomentation of conflict in other regions around its borders, its involvement in supporting the Assad regime in Syria, its repeated violations of the airspace of its neighbours and a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption, which has included attempts at subverting democratic elections in other states.” ****

The defence of the realm is the chief and foremost concern of all states in the international system. We cannot be fooled into believing the system is fully composed of status-quo powers, for it itself invites violence and hostile revisionism. The United Kingdom must be ready to respond to events in Europe to protect its interests as the world continues to march on into an uncertain and turbulent world order.


** From Mark Urban’s Book, ‘The Edge: Is the Military Dominance of the West Coming to an End?’ (2015) p16.

*** From the Royal Navy’s ‘BR1806 British Maritime Doctrine’ 3rd ed. (2004)

**** From the House of Commons Defence Committee’s ‘Beyond 2 per cent: A preliminary report on the Modernising Defence Programme’ (June 2018) p10.

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a second year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying Modern History and International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.