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.
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.