Star Wars posturing
Boris Johnson’s plan to squander billions on the armed forces in order to extend Britain’s ‘global influence’ is fully supported by Starmer’s Labour Party, notes Eddie Ford
Last week Boris Johnson declared that “the era of cutting our defence budget must end.” He went on to announce an extra £16.5 billion spread over four years in ‘defence’ spending - or war making capability, to be more accurate. This is on top of the manifesto commitment to increase the existing £41.5 billion military budget by spending 0.5% above inflation for each year of the parliament - though rumours swirl that the ministry of defence had hoped for as much as £20 billion extra.
The prime minister was doubtlessly determined to bring some uplifting news to a stressed-out nation, hammered by the coronavirus pandemic, when he promised the largest real-terms increase in the budget since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership - at last putting the ‘great’ back into Great Britain. Hence, according to Johnson, this “once-in-a-generation modernisation” of the armed forces will extend Britain’s “global influence.”
The money, it seems, will also “unite and level up our country” - naval yards and engineering factories in those ‘red wall’ constituencies - and “pioneer new technology”. Naturally, more weaponry means that the British state can “defend our people” and “way of life” - which must bring comfort to the millions who cannot afford to pay their rent or bills, or even eat properly. Swelling with Nelsonian pride, the prime minister told us that the new dosh would see a “renaissance of shipbuilding” that would “restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe” - not to mention the largest defence spender in Europe and the second largest in Nato after the US. Back on the map! Even better, beamed the socially isolating prime minister, the new four-year funding deal would protect “hundreds of thousands” of jobs and create 40,000 new roles.
Actually, Johnson’s announcement had originally been intended to be linked to an “integrated review” of the UK’s foreign, defence, development and security policy after Brexit. As it happens, this was a pet project of Dominic Cummings. But his abrupt departure from No10, means the exercise has been pushed back to late January or early February. However, we already know how it is going to be paid for: borrowing at very low interest rates, pay freezes in the public sector and cuts in the foreign aid budget. Spending 0.7% of national income on aid was a manifesto commitment - but what the heck it will please the rightwing tabloids.
General Sir Nick Carter, the chief of the defence staff, reminded us that during the Covid crisis the armed forces “have stepped up to the plate to provide some of the resilience that the nation has needed” - and thus needs to be rewarded, he might have added. The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said “letting go” of some older weapons would create “headroom” for new investment. There has been much speculation about scrapping tank regiments - Wallace was concerned that the country’s “adversaries are currently investing record sums of money and indeed in some areas overtaking our capabilities”, thus developing “the ability to attack us”. He told Sky News that the extra £16.5 billion “will allow us to fix the problems that we’ve inherited”.
One of the problems is, of course, the notorious MoD waste - something identified by Cummings in a blog post this March. He wrote that the procurement process has “continued to squander billions of pounds, enriching some of the worst corporate looters and corrupting public life via the revolving door of officials/lobbyists”. Straight from the horse’s mouth.
Naturally, as staunch patriotic defenders of British imperialism, Labour was delighted by the Tory spending plans - saying it signalled “a welcome and long overdue upgrade to Britain’s defences after a decade of decline”. However, grumbled Sir Keir, this was a “spending announcement without a strategy” and complained with complete predictability that spending on the armed forces under Tory-led government over the past decade had fallen by £8 billion in real terms, with the regular forces being reduced by a quarter.
Anyway, what will all this money be spent on? Firstly, a new generation of warships and fighter jets. There is now the go-ahead to build eight Type 26 and five Type 31 frigates to replace the Type 23 that have been in service for more than 30 years - not to mention developing “the next generation of warships”. The idea, or hope, is that, once the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales become fully operational by 2023, the UK will have a carrier strike group “permanently available” and “routinely deployed globally”. There will also be investment in the Tempest - the sixth-generation jet fighter that is being developed for the UK and Italy to replace the ageing Typhoon. Expected by 2035, it will be capable of flying unmanned.
Next on the menu are thrilling advances in artificial intelligence, such as autonomous machines that can work out their own battle plans and a new National Cyber Force that will ‘defend Britain against hostile states’ and terror groups online - like the 2017 WannaCry attack which took down parts of the NHS and other organisations by scrambling their data. Actually, in reality, the NCF has been up and running since April, but is now emerging from the shadows with its 500 specialists from the MoD, GCHQ, MI6 and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. The ambition is to grow the force to about 3,000 over the next decade - its operational mission being to degrade, disrupt and even destroy communications systems used by people and organisations deemed to be posing a threat to the UK.
Furthermore, the largest chunk of the extra money will be spent on an RAF-led ‘Space Command’ - or new ‘Star Wars programme’ - to combat enemy threats outside the atmosphere, though sadly we are not going to see British astronauts armed with laser rifles. The main job of the new ‘space command’ will be to tackle the ‘threat’ from nations developing anti-satellite weapons, such as China and Russia. It will use a rocket base in Scotland to ferry British military satellites into orbit - what happens if the country declares independence is another matter. Additionally, an extra £1.5 billion will go on military research and development.
Unable to contain his enthusiasm, Johnson outlined how world advances in technology would make ammunition “redundant” and new “energy weapons” would be able to destroy targets “with inexhaustible lasers” - truly exciting stuff if you are that way inclined. He also spoke about soldiers being “alerted to a distant ambush by sensors on satellites” and using AI to work out how to respond in real time. In the future, Johnson predicted, replies to enemy action could involve “ordering a swarm attack by drones” or looking to paralyse aggressors “with cyberweapons”.
When it comes to the global league table of spending on armed forces, Britain comes sixth, according to the 2020 edition of ‘The military balance’ published by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (using average market exchange rates).1 The IISS data shows that in 2019 the US, China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and India retained their respective positions as the world’s top defence spenders. Emphasising the continuing US hegemony, in that year its spending on defence grew by 6.6%, widening the gap between it and China.
When it comes to defence spending as a percentage of overall GDP, the winner is Saudi Arabia on 8.0% and then Israel on 5.3% - though in the case of Saudi Arabia it is far more about buying protection from other countries like America or Britain.2 They are followed by Russia (3.9%), US (3.4%), South Korea (2.7%), India (2.4%) - with China, France and Australia all level on 1.9%. Using figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UK is currently on 1.7%, but that is projected to rise to about 2.2% with Boris Johnson’s new spending. None of this takes into account potential record-breakers, like North Korea, Syria, Yemen and Libya, for which there is no reliable data.
No10 has insisted that the extra cash for the armed forces is not an attempt to impress Joe Biden, as he readies to begin his presidency. But there can be little doubt that the Biden administration will be committed to the preservation of Nato, and the European Union too - not something you could say about Donald Trump, who seemed quite willing to abandon Nato and aimed to break up the EU. Indeed everything indicates that Boris Johnson was banking his strategy, insofar as he has one, on a second-term Trump presidency - meaning his upgrading of the armed forces was originally designed to impress Donald Trump. Britain playing Sparta to the new Rome made a certain sense, but a Britain adrift from the EU boasting about having the biggest navy in Europe is just plain ridiculous. Now he has a lot of making up to do with president Biden.