The British Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has published a “Strategic Security Review.” The IPPR is not just any think tank: in the 1990s, its work formed the basis for many of the domestic programs that New Labour undertook when it came into power in 1997. It has since lost a little of its former eminence, and has never been a leading voice in defense and security affairs, but it is still one of the largest, best-funded, and best-connected think tanks in Britain.
Among the conclusions of the “Review,” which was composed by a commission that included co-chairman Lord George Robertson, a former NATO Secretary General and British Secretary of State for Defense, is the finding that Britain should consider the “complete cancellation of some equipment programs.” Specifically at risk are the new Type 45 air defense destroyer, the Astute class of hunter-killer submarines, Britain’s two new aircraft carriers, and the F-35 fighter, commonly known as the Joint Strike Fighter. The F-35 was co-developed by Britain and the U.S.
The Review is based on the argument that there “is a ‘black hole’ in the defense budget,” and that given the pressure on defense procurement and the need for savings, procurement cuts can best be made “where we are members of an alliance that already possesses the relevant capabilities in abundance.” That is a polite way of saying that if the U.S. chooses to buy something, Britain can afford to buy nothing.
The Review is an astonishingly short-sighted document. The funding shortfalls of the British armed forces are well known, but they do not exist because some monstrous ‘black hole’ gobbles up endless resources. The shortfalls exist because, when Tony Blair came into office, Britain spent about 2.7% of GDP on defense. It is now fighting a war in Afghanistan and spending about 2.2% of GDP on defense. Lord Robertson should be well aware of this dilemma, for it was under his watch that Labour produced the 1998 Strategic Defense Review, which simultaneously argued that Britain had taken its post-Cold War ‘peace dividend’ and that defense spending should continue to decline. That incoherence has led directly to the failings that Lord Robertson now laments.
But the 1998 Review was not all bad: it did, at least, argue Britain needs “a balanced and coherent spectrum of capabilities,” which is precisely what IPPR’s Review rejects. The 1998 Review was right: Britain, within the limits of a reasonable defense budget, needs (like all democracies) to have a range of capabilities that offer it good odds of deterring and winning in a future that cannot be safely predicted. The IPPR’s vision, on the other hand, is much more like the supplementary 2003 Review, which argued that, since the U.S. would always be there, Britain “does not need to generate large-scale [military] capabilities across the . . . spectrum.”
All of this is part and parcel of the Europeanization of Britain’s defense and security policies, whereby Britain spends less, relies ever more on the U.S., cuts its defenses and so diminishes its sovereignty, and wastes what money it does have on inefficient joint European procurement projects. It is a sign of the times that the IPPR’s Review tamely accepts the British government’s recent decision to buy another round of Eurofighters, while taking an axe to the Anglo-American F-35.
It is ridiculous to say that simply spending more money is the key to better defenses: money is not the be-all and end-all of the armed forces of any democracy. And procurement programs can and should be cancelled if they do not contribute to the defense of the nation and its interests. But spending does matter: at 2% of GDP, the argument that the defense budget is a black hole is impossible to credit.
Britain, like Europe as a whole, is deep into a dangerous cycle where budget cuts lead to capability cuts, which then lead to overstrain and a search for more cuts, which relieve the strain but permit the forces to do even less. Absent the will to increase spending, there is no way out of this cycle. As we warned last month, and as the IPPR’s Review demonstrates yet again, this cycle is advancing apace in Britain