In its latest issue, the Economist reports on the state of Britain’s armed forces. It answers the question posed in the title of the piece, “Losing Their Way?,” with a resounding “Yes,” blaming underfunding, recruiting shortfalls, and a loss of institutional confidence. The joke among Americans in Afghanistan, it reports, is that ISAF – the International Security Assistance Force –stands for “I Saw Americans Fight.”
As the Economist points out, given the casualties Britain is taking in Afghanistan, this is wounding and unfair. But like most military jokes, it captures an essential truth: the British armed forces are in bad shape. The Economist’s survey of the reasons why this is so captures only part of the problem. It’s true that Britain’s forces need more money; they actually receive only 2.3 percent of GDP, not the 2.6 percent that the Economist credits them with.
But money is only part of the problem: procurement and doctrine matter too. Britain persists in ‘buying British’ – or, worse, buying European – even when that strains the budget, and even though buying jobs with defense spending is a uniquely inefficient form of welfare. Britain desperately needs to latch on to a simple idea: the purpose of spending money on the armed forces is to improve their ability to deter and to win.
And Britain’s doctrine is a mess. In the field, as the Economist emphasizes, it has failed to learn the lessons of counter-insurgency that the U.S. was painfully reacquainted with in Iraq. On the level of defense policy, Britain borrows heavily from the U.S., but doesn’t spend enough to make it work. And on the level of strategy, official guidance wanders vaguely across the map, lumping everything from terrorism to crime to bad weather together as vital threats to national security.
But the Economist is quite right about one thing: Britain needs to conduct a full defense review. The current government, heavily invested in defending its failures, is not the one to carry it out. The next British government must commit itself to such a review, and ensure it is not based on presuppositions designed to yield cheap conclusions. Defense is the first duty of the state. Right now, the British state is in grave danger of defaulting on this duty.