Looking back on the last five years of the Coalition Government, it’s now clear that one of its biggest mistakes was the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). When first published, it looked like a contorted mess. With the collapse of the old order in much of the Arab world a few months later, it appeared to have been a disastrous misjudgment. And following the rise of Islamic State and an aggressive turn by Russia in 2014, it finally dissolved to dust. In reality a cost-cutting exercise calibrated to enable Britain to manage little else but another Afghanistan or Sierra Leone-type operation, SDSR 2010 made no plausible provisions for the scale of threat the UK and its allies now face to the south and east of Europe. With a new defence review scheduled later this year, the logical path would be to take the opportunity to correct the 2010 review’s most egregious errors – not least because the economic crisis that prompted many of them is receding into the distance. But the steadfast refusal by either of the main parties to commit to a respectable level of defence expenditure – a stance against both requirement and reason – is now one of the most important stories of the 2015 general election campaign.
Currently, the defence spending debate is centred on the notion that the UK should continue to abide by the NATO target of all member states spending at least two per cent of their GDP on their respective militaries. In reality, only four countries – the US, Greece, Estonia and the UK – actually meet this level at present. However, the UK is already resorting to accounting trickery to meet the two per cent figure, and is projected to crash below it in about a year, even using fiddled numbers. The problem has also been given an added suggestion of hypocrisy in light of David Cameron’s call at a NATO conference last year for member states to protect their own defence spending, whilst steadfastly refusing to do the same himself.
Some have argued that maintaining the two per cent target would mean giving defence expenditure an unfair precedence over almost all other departments, given that even those that are ring-fenced are only protected to the point that their budget will rise with inflation. Matching spending growth to economic growth is a privilege so far only awarded to international development. But in doing so, they forget that defence rather missed out on the Labour spending binge of the late 1990s and early 2000s – despite several wars – but was not spared during the post-2010 cuts. They also ignore the inconvenient truth that the UK does not exist in isolation: with last year seeing notable increases in the defence expenditure of several states that have interests that potentially rival those of the Britain, keeping to the two per cent level will at least allows the UK to tread water.
But is arbitrarily spending a set proportion of GDP on defence – or indeed in any field – a good idea? Whilst it may provide some benefit in terms of long-term planning as GDP fluctuations tend not to be that violent in advanced developed economies, the answer is generally no. However, when you are falling down a cliff face, you do not have the time to measure the branches you are passing for tensile strength before you grab onto them. This is the real truth behind the call from the defence community for the next government to adhere to the two per cent target: the UK’s political leadership has so steadfastly ignored the rational, well-constructed arguments of those in favour of sustaining a prudent level of security expenditure that this type of symbolism is all that is left. Even if by some miracle the branch they have grabbed onto happens to be able to do the job, it should not detract from the fact that the fall it would have saved defence from should never have happened in the first place.