James Hamblin: We send £350m a week to the EU. Let’s spend it on our Armed Forces instead.

With the Prime Minister’s triggering of Article 50, Britain is now irrevocably on its way out of the EU. As we expand the horizon of our vision beyond the shores of Europe and out into the wider world, we need to have an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses as a country.

A study by the organisation European Geostrategy rated the UK as Europe’s only global power. The report highlighted that the UK has “a wide international footprint and [military] means to reach most geopolitical theatres”.

While this is undoubtedly good news, there are also significant concerns surrounding the current state of the Armed Forces that the government must take seriously.

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A report from the National Audit Office in January estimated that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) needs to spend an additional £5.6 billion over the next decade in order to meet its future procurement programme. However, the Times (£) has now claimed that in actuality the figure is at least £10bn. Part of this shortfall is attributed to cost overruns in the replacement of the four Vanguard class Trident Submarines and the need for extra money to support existing military assets. In other words, the armed forces need more money to fulfil their current role in providing us with vital defence assets such as our nuclear deterrent.

During the EU referendum, Vote Leave infamously claimed that we sent £350m a week to Brussels as our EU membership fee and called for it to be redirected towards the NHS. The £350m figure has been debunked countless times; it’s a gross figure that doesn’t accurately represent the amount we actually send to the EU. But even the net figure, which is closer to £165m a week, or approximately £8.6bn annually, is enough on its own to make up the total decade-long defence funding shortfall in just over a year.

This would be fitting – because the other part of the defence spending shortfall has come from raised procurement costs due to a weaker pound. The fall in the pound, of course, came about as a result of the vote to leave. It would be quite appropriate, then, if leaving the EU could also free up the money necessary to make up for the shortfall that our vote to leave initially helped to cause in the first place.

After the referendum, Vote Leave defended its claim by saying that redirecting this money to the NHS was only a ‘suggestion’ and that once we leave, it would be up to the British government of the day to decide what that money would be spent on. In that case, I have a different suggestion: Lets invest some of that money in bringing our armed forces up to scratch to meet the requirements of a post-Brexit Britain.

There is already a strong case for increasing our spending on defence. The UK’s Armed Forces are under-manned and under-equipped to carry out the tasks we expect of them. As a former naval reservist, I am particularly concerned with the state of the Royal Navy, which was described in a recent report from the House of Commons Defence select committee as having a surface fleet that is “at a dangerous and an historic low”.

This leads to overstretch, as while our navy has shrunk, its mission has not. The navy currently has 14 standing commitments (Appendix 3), ranging from protecting UK domestic fishing waters, to providing the Fleet Ready Escort that protects our strategic nuclear deterrent, to participating in the multinational anti-piracy task force off the Horn of Africa. The navy is now so small that if were asked to generate a Carrier Task Group to undertake a particular mission – such as, say, Lord Howard’s absurd suggestion of a military invasion of Gibraltar – it would not be able to meet these other commitments at the same time.

The navy also lacks adequate stocks of the weapons and supplies it needs to carry out its job. As just one example, the Harpoon anti-ship missile is due to be retired at the end of next year, leaving the Royal Navy’s frigates and destroyers with no Anti-Ship hitting power beyond their sole 4.5” gun. As campaigning website savetheroyalnavy.org points out “this state of affairs is unacceptable, dangerous and risks making the navy a laughing stock”.

Of course, there are always many worthy competing claims on the Treasury’s purse strings. At a time when public services are being asked to find efficiencies, it is right that defence is no exception to this. Where savings can be found, particularly in defence procurement, they must be carried through.

I am not calling for a programme of mass rearmament. We need to plug the gaps in our defences simply to enable our military to meet its current workload.

To those who argue that we are already meeting our NATO commitment of spending 2% of our GDP on defence, I would say two things. First, that is a minimum, not a target; 2% is the very least that should be expected of any responsible government. Second, there are concerns that the 2% target is only being met through “creative accounting” practices within the Ministry of Defence. To lecture others on their own levels of defence spending while facing questions about ours undermines our credibility both with our allies and our opponents.

I did not vote for Brexit; but the deed is done, the British people have spoken and I accept the result. I am therefore determined to find the opportunities that Brexit presents. I firmly believe that Brexit must be viewed as an opportunity to raise our sights and renew the Armed Forces to deal with the global security threats we face in the 21st century. If we are to maintain our status as the Europe’s only truly global power and continue to act as a force for good on the world stage, we require nothing less.

 

James Hamblin is a former naval officer and an activist with Hillingdon Conservatives. He works as a security analyst at a major financial institution. Follow him on twitter.

Showing 1 reaction

  • commented 2017-04-14 14:59:33 +0100
    It is very well suggesting that the £350 million subscription fee that currently goes to the EU can be used to plug the funding shortfall in the defence budget.

    But it is a known that those who voted Leave did so on the understanding that it would be ploughed into the NHS after Brexit. It cannot be spent twice!

    The good news about leaving is that taxpayer subsidies lavished upon a whole host of industries and sectors by the EU, like on agriculture for instance, will come to an abrupt end. So why not extend this withdrawal of support to the defence manufacturing industry too?

    The fact of the matter is that the longest lasting distortions in the market are due to public subsidies handed over to certain industrial players like defence equipment manufacturers, who have consistently failed to deliver equipment to the Armed Forces which is fit for purpose, adequately sustained in-service and constitutes value for money through-life.

    At a time when this Conservative Government is making repeated and permanent cuts in public spending, it cannot afford to subsidise failure in the Defence Industry any longer.

    The best way to wean Defence Contractors off public subsidies is for Government to consider exercising its power of coercion to replace the subsidy with Private Sector funding. Not only will such a bold move ease the pressure on the Exchequer, but it will also go some way towards tackling the budget deficit – and with it, the bourgeoning national debt – which currently stands at £1,800 billion, and rising.

    This innovative proposal is at the heart of a modern Defence Industrial Strategy that puts the National Interest first, not military equipment manufacturers’ commercial interests. It comes in the form of written evidence submitted to and published by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee which has just completed its inquiry into Industrial Strategy.

    The submission observes:

    “It is called the Private Sector for a reason – so that it can use Private Sector funds, not Public Sector subsidy to innovate, grow, create jobs and make a profit. It is the job of Government to foster an environment which causes this to happen, within the context of a modern Industrial Strategy.

    If the Government is going to intervene in the market with public funds to stimulate economic activity and boost export-led growth, then provision of this subsidy should be made conditional upon Private Sector players making an equivalent contribution of investment capital to increase the competitiveness of their own products and services, both in the domestic and export markets.

    As for the Ministry of Defence, there exists no evidence that its long-standing policy of securing input of Private Sector investment capital into defence equipment programmes is being applied, which means that they continue to be funded exclusively by the taxpayer – yet, the Intellectual Property Rights for the resultant fully engineered equipment, which rightly belong to the Exchequer, is simply handed over to the main Contractor for nothing in return!

    Accordingly, to avoid repeating mistakes of the past, a revamped Defence Industrial Strategy should have at its heart, a built-in mechanism which elicits Private Sector capital into defence equipment acquisition programmes, as it’s first and foremost priority.

    This submission shows how to go about doing exactly that.”

    And it concludes:

    “At a time when senior members of this Government are firmly behind the view that this country should put economic security first and balance its books at the earliest, there exists an excellent opportunity to introduce a Defence Industrial Strategy which gradually replaces the public subsidy given to Defence Contractors with Private Sector funds.

    Ask not what Government can do for Business, but what Business can do for Government.”

    The full submission can be downloaded as a pdf file via this link:

    http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/business-innovation-and-skills-committee/industrial-strategy/written/36606.pdf
    @JagPatel3 on twitter