Austerity has left its mark on the British military leaving it weakened and in danger of being ‘depleted’. During 2010 defence funding was slashed by 8% with an aim to lessen spending on supportive areas such as administration. With Boris Johnson having found the magic money tree and providing funding to starved areas of government, is it time the military received a similar increase, or will a cash injection do little to change an already endangered defence force?
The Current State of the British Military
For the ninth year in a row the number of fully-trained military personnel has fallen, with critics calling this a crisis in recruitment and retention. Significant proportions of each branch are reserves with reservist numbers set to rise.
Whilst this may seem like welcome news given the reduction in fully-trained troops, an increased reliance on reserves can lead to a weakened force. History, even recent history as with the Falklands War demonstrates the power of discipline in the face of poorly trained soldiers, as Argentina found out to its detriment. Additionally, Argentinian troops were not supplied or prepared adequately, which provided a significant advantage to the British troops. Given that the total number of troops has dramatically declined since 1982 alongside serious budget decreases, whether Britain could defend the Falklands in a similar situation today is worryingly unclear.
Money Well Spent?
“Vanity projects” such as the new Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales aircraft carriers highlight a deficit of common sense in MOD military spending given that both lack adequate support ships and planes. This has led to the carriers being unprepared for action until 2023 at the earliest, as the required planes and lighter support vessels needed won’t be ready in time. This is mainly due to the money for these vessels being diverted into the nearly £8 billion budget for the two carriers.
Returning to the Falklands question, the two light aircraft carriers were vital in the defence of the islands. However, they were only so effective because of the superior British logistical and light naval support. Both Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales fail miserably on these grounds, both lacking this necessary element.
Should the government be throwing more money at the MOD to solve these failings?
Whilst a larger budget would allow for the deficit in support vessels to be reduced it is arguable that many of the issues the military suffer from have been caused by reckless spending and selling of perfectly functional ships. Consider HMS Ocean which was sold to the Brazilian government in 2018 despite a £350 million refit and no like-for-like replacement. Such a vessel played a key role in humanitarian missions during the 2000s and various Middle East offensives. If the MOD continues to spend money only on ‘big ticket items’ like the F-35 fighter jets rather than the less headline worthy supporting elements of the military, flaws within the service could be more exposed.
If the efficacy of the military is in question due to flashy over-the-top spending rather than through the pursuit of reckless efficiency (as has been the case with the NHS) more money is surely not the solution.
Has the Role of the Military Changed?
Maybe its not a terrible thing that the military’s budget and numbers have been reduced, and it could be a chance for the role of the military to evolve and focus more on social and civil ills. Just after the lockdown began British troops valiantly erected the Nightingale Hospitals during a dramatic surge in cases with hospitals set to be overrun. The use of our highly skilled engineers meant that the large facilities were built quickly with hospitals such as the East London hospital only taking 9 days. With the threat of a second COVID wave still alive and well, these feats of speedy engineering could become a vital crutch for an infected public to rely on, showing how important the emergency engineering abilities of our military is.
Similarly, during the flooding in 2019 and earlier in 2015 the military have consistently proved their might by protecting vulnerable communities in short timeframes and difficult environments. Instead of spending billions on ineffective headline grabbing equipment why not divert money into flood defence preparation? With floods and pandemics becoming more likely in the coming years due to climate change such an investment could help protect the public from these domestic threats.
A Move Away from Middle East Interventions to Solving Domestic Woes.
If the government are looking to replenish the armed forces maybe it should do so in a way which brings benefit to the British people rather than entanglement in Libya, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Furthermore, the government could actually increase the wages and benefits of those who risk their lives defending our country by not spending money on jets that are consistently delayed and eye-wateringly expensive, such as the F-35’s. Such a move may even lead to more recruits signing up, especially if there is less of a risk of deployment.
More money doesn’t necessarily mean a better military. The military’s purpose has changed, and the way it spends its money should too.