Spending Priorities: The Army Or The NHS?

12 mins. to read
Spending Priorities: The Army Or The NHS?

Crunch Point

Consider the agenda for the next COBRA meeting chaired by Minister of Defence, Ben Wallace MP, and attended by the top brass of the military, the emergency services and the civil service, as well as all the main intelligence chiefs.

First up – Ukraine. How should we best support it, given the prospect of a spring offensive by Russian forces? Should we be better prepared for the hybrid warfare that might ensue? Could the head of the National Cyber Security Centre, Lindy Cameron OBE please give a brief synopsis of the current level of threat to our computer networks? And what about those of our NATO allies in eastern Europe which are most immediately under threat?

What can we infer from recent intelligence about the movement of nuclear-capable rocket launchers, by rail, in southern Russia? Is the British Army brigade in Estonia adequately equipped if the war escalates?

What is the latest on the Chinese “weather balloon” heading eastwards with the prevailing winds and now entering Irish airspace? Do we have the capacity to stop it in its tracks if and when it reaches Wales? Would the diplomatic consequences be worth the satisfaction of its destruction?

How has the devastating earthquake in eastern Turkey and northern Syria affected the remaining areas controlled by Islamic State? Should we be concerned about Chinese military aircraft penetrating Taiwanese airspace? What is the current operational condition of our two aircraft carriers?

How should we react to Israel’s latest pre-emptive strike on Iran? How credible is the latest intelligence that Iran already has a nuclear weapon? How can we best protect supplies of liquefied natural gas from Qatar to the UK, in the event that the Straits of Hormuz are closed by the Iranian Navy? How would the Saudis respond in that eventuality and what leverage do we have in the region? Could Iranian drones, which have been deployed by the Russians in Ukraine, with devastating effect, be deployed against NATO?

What is the current level of Chinese naval activity in the South China Sea? How can we best support our Australian allies to deter Chinese incursions?

You get the picture. We live in challenging – and dangerous – times. And there is no sign that things will cool down much over the remainder of this decade. At least we are a country with a proud military history, with one of the most potent militaries in the world to protect us − a military admired by allies and feared by foes. Or at least this used to be the case – so what happened?

Diminishing Credibility

Over the last month or so, some of our closest allies have questioned whether the UK is a serious military power anymore. A high-level US general told Wallace that he doubted that the British Army is still a serious fighting force. French parliamentarians wondered whether, by aiding Ukraine, the UK was cutting into its own defensive muscle, as our ammunition reserves become depleted. NATO itself is questioning whether the UK has the resources to fulfil its obligations.

The British Army has been denuded by successive Conservative governments since 2010. Dr Liam Fox MP, as David Cameron’s defence secretary, cut it by one fifth, even as it was fighting an ultimately losing campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Further cuts followed, with the Army now down to about 85,000 personnel if you include the Royal Marines (which are actually part of the Royal Navy). So, the British Army is at its smallest for four centuries − that is since before the English Civil War (1642-51).

Reportedly, the Army is finding it a challenge to provide 5,000 combat troops to bolster NATO’s rapid-reaction force, hence NATO has requested Germany to remain in charge for another year. It is doubtful that the British Army could provide and sustain over time a 10,000-plus combat force as it did in Iraq from 2003 to 2007 and in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2019. The Chilcot Inquiry (2016) concluded that the British Army did not have sufficient resources to conduct two campaigns at once. The report described the country’s performance in the city of Basra, where British forces had to make deals with the same local militias that were attacking them, as “humiliating”.

Tobias Ellwood MP, Tory chair of the Commons Defence Committee and a former Tory leadership candidate, told the Financial Times last month that British armed forces would “last about five days in a war”. He claimed that the Army was seriously short of surface-to-air and anti-tank missiles.

Last month, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) ruled out the repair of older tanks, with the result that the British Army now faces tank shortages. Of its contingent of 227 Challenger 2 tanks (down from 1,200 in 1990), only around 100 are categorised as “battle ready” – and 14 of these have been gifted to Ukraine. Under the current procurement programme, no new tanks are likely to enter service until 2027 when 143 Challenger 3s will arrive. By contrast, Poland has 900 tanks.

Further, the Royal Air Force has seen its fleet of fighter jets halved since 2010. The Royal Navy’s two world-class aircraft carriers lack aircraft and are short of convoy surface warships required to protect them. HMS Prince of Wales keeps breaking down. We are paying the price for the years of “experts” persuading poorly informed politicians that the chances of conflict close to home were extremely remote.

Cameron sold off our remaining Harrier Jump Jets – which made all the difference in the Falklands War (1982) − to the US on the cheap. Theresa May commissioned a briefing to remind her what was the point of spending money on the armed forces at all. Boris Johnson cut the Army further. Liz Truss wanted to hike defence expenditure to three percent of GDP – but, as with so much else she proposed, she never explained how she would achieve this. Rishi Sunak talks the talk but has yet to put his money where his mouth is.

All this has consequences. If the UK does not combine military heft with soft power, there can be no “special relationship” with the US. We are just another bunch of eurotrash who sit under Uncle Sam’s defence umbrella for (almost) free. It’s not just Donald Trump who thinks like that. And if the Americans don’t take us seriously – what must the Russians and the Chinese think?

Apparently, Wallace is lobbying for an additional £11bn over two years in the forthcoming Budget. But much of that is an inflation uplift anyway. And any new funding will come too late for the coronation of HM King Charles on 6 May. At HM Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in June 1953, 30,000 troops paraded through London. In May this year, there are likely to be around 3,000.

Wallace, who is a former captain in the Scots Guards, recently told parliament that the British Army was “hollowed out and underfunded” – an extraordinary remark for a serving defence secretary to make. We shall know if he has got what he wants soon after the 15 March Budget.

The word is that the Treasury, while sympathising with the senior soldiers, airmen and women and naval officers, is reluctant to sign blank cheques for an MoD with an appalling record on defence procurement. The Treasury has a point: there has been a litany of botched procurement contracts, amongst them the Ajax armoured vehicle, assembled by General Dynamics UK in South Wales. This is consistent with Whitehall’s litany of botched IT projects which have also cost billions. It is easy to forget that the Test and Trace programme rolled out during the pandemic cost something like £37bn – enough to buy several frigates and still have change for quite a few new tanks and F-35 fighter aircraft, as well as all the men and women required to animate them.

UK government figures state that it has provided £2.3bn in military support to Ukraine and £560m to the MoD to replenish depleted stockpiles. These numbers are likely to grow.

Why Old-Fashioned Tanks And Artillery Still Matter

Russia’s war in Ukraine has fundamentally shaken up preconceptions about how the military budget should be spent. Before Putin’s invasion, it was fashionable in Whitehall to think that tanks and artillery were obsolescent, having been superseded by missile technology and hybrid warfare. Military thinking has now changed.

In a recent essay in The Spectator, the military historian Andrew (Lord) Roberts pointed out that in almost every conflict since the Napoleonic Wars it has been heavy artillery that has created most battlefield casualties (about two thirds). Even in the First World War – which we generally think of as the trench warfare in Flanders, though it was global in scope and often mobile – artillery killed more men than machine guns did. It is the same with the Russia-Ukraine war today. This is why the British Army has donated about 30 150-millimetre guns to the Ukrainian cause. Another six such guns reside with the British battalion in Estonia (shortly to be increased to a brigade of about 5,000 men). But does that leave enough heavy artillery for the UK to defend itself if the need arose? Roberts thinks not.

About 6,000 shells are being fired by each side in Ukraine every day. On that basis the British Army has about one week’s supply in reserve. Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO recently opined that Ukraine is consuming shells at a faster rate than they can be replenished. That means that the British Army has to join the queue to top up its stocks. BAE Systems produces shells for our 150 millimetre and 105 millimetres in Washington, Tyne and Wear. Each 155-millimetre gun costs up to £10m. Thales SA manufactures the shoulder-carried anti-tank NLAW rockets in Belfast.

The British Army deployed heavy artillery in Kosovo (1999), both Gulf Wars and in Afghanistan. Yet the MoD has consistently prioritised nuclear submarines, new fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force and, more recently, cyber-security and drone capability. Whitehall talks about “meeting the threats of tomorrow” with a £242bn, 10-year procurement plan. This includes spending on our commitments under the AUKUS pact and the next generation of Tempest jet fighters, though these will not come into service until the 2030s.

The Challenger 3 will have a newly designed turret and main gun. In February, the MoD hinted that the current order of 148 will be increased, even though new orders are likely to be at increased prices given inflation. The fact is that you cannot fight a land war without artillery and tanks – and tanks can only operate effectively when supported by infantry.

France and Germany are supposedly replacing equipment sent to Ukraine, but it is probable that they are eating into their stocks too. Denmark has reportedly donated its entire stock of French-designed Caesar artillery cannons, manufactured by Nexter Systems (owned by the French government). The Estonians have sent all of their howitzers (manufactured by BAE Systems) to Kyiv. Russia, meanwhile, is already on a war footing with armaments manufacturers working flat out.

It is not surprising then that the NATO allies have encouraged arms producers to increase supply. But suppliers want firm, long-term orders – money on the table – before investing in increased capacity. Until now, munitions have been ordered on a just-in-time basis. That now has to change. The Estonians, on the front line, have proposed that the entire EU coronavirus vaccine-production apparatus be applied to stimulate the supply of artillery shells.

The US, France and Germany have all announced plans to increase their military expenditure significantly. On present trends, it is probable that UK defence expenditure will be exceeded by France and Germany by 2025-26. UK defence expenditure is hovering around the two percent of GDP mark: but the US spends more like four percent of its much larger GDP, and China and Russia even more than that.

Unfinished Business

The purpose of our armed forces is to defend the nation and its interests – and also to deter those who would be aggressive towards us. Collectively, NATO failed to deter Putin from his aggression against Ukraine.

Putin’s Kremlin spent two decades meddling in Ukrainian politics while governments in Kyiv flip-flopped between being pro-Moscow and pro-Western. In 2013, President Obama turned a blind eye to the red lines he had drawn in Syria as Putin stepped up his intervention in the Syrian Civil War. In March 2014, Putin annexed Crimea, admittedly almost without bloodshed – and the West just fulminated. On 17 July 2014, a Malaysian Airlines jetliner flying on a scheduled route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over eastern Ukraine – almost certainly by pro-Moscow separatists who were receiving help from the Russian military – with the loss of 283 passengers and 15 crew. Again, Obama and the West did nothing. When Putin’s tanks pressed across the border towards Kyiv on 24 February last year, he thought the war would be over in weeks and that the West would just take it on the chin – once again.

Yesterday, the European Council for Foreign Relations argued that Western military support helped sustain Ukraine through the first year of the war − but if Western allies want a Ukrainian victory, they need to adopt a more proactive strategy

It is interesting that there has been a shift of sentiment on the part of institutional investors towards the defence industry of late. Relatively recently, many investment funds of an ethical bent abjured investing in companies which manufactured armaments. But even the Church Commissioners – the fund that manages the Church of England’s £9.2bn endowment – have indicated that buying shares in selected defence companies can be ethical. This may be further to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby’s visit to Ukraine during which he witnessed evidence of war crimes in Bucha and elsewhere.

The NHS budget at around £180bn per annum is nearly four times that of our defence budget. But the general consensus is that our “broken” NHS and its supposedly underpaid staffers (though British doctors are the best paid in Europe) is in desperate need of more funds – indeed, it can only be fixed with more and more money. Thus, the British Army and the other armed forces are in a constant state of competition with the NHS for cash.

We shall find out on 15 March if Wallace was heeded in cabinet. I can only say that if geopolitical tensions continue to rise – as is quite probable – there are scenarios in which we might bitterly regret underfunding the Army. Deterrence is much better than war.

Afterword: “Government By WhatsApp”

Regarding the Daily Telegraph’s exposé of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp threads, readers may recall that I coined the phrase “government by WhatsApp” here when Dominic Cummings turned nasty back in November 2020.

My advice to politicians and readers is to delete all those messages now − even if it means vaporising your mobile phone. Though, even then, the person you sent the ill-judged message to might still disseminate it. Better still, prevention being better than cure, don’t transmit sensitive stuff on this platform any more than you would by email.

Sometimes the old ways are best. If you are into conspiracy, may I suggest whispered conversations on park benches, preferably using code words to denote your mark. Dress inconspicuously and carry a copy of the Daily Telegraph. If you saunter through St. James’s Park in Westminster this spring, you’ll see what I mean.

Listed companies cited in this article which merit analysis:

  • General Dynamics (NYSE:GD)
  • BAE Systems (LON:BAE)
  • Thales SA (EPA:HO)

Comments (3)

  • Paul says:

    Thank you Victor, for these facts. I love to confront reality……no matter how evil……..I am a betting man……………my odds are 60/40. In favour that I will attain Enlightenment at the hands of a Nuclear Russian Tsara bomba……as I live in Birmingham part of the year…….therefore I am just not worried about attaining zero carbon by 2030……as It looks to me like 75% of the British people will be gone. I AM INVESTING IN LARGE AMOUNTS OF LOCAL ORGANIC GRASS FED BEEF AND LAMB for my body…….as I feel I am going to be needing all that testosterone. Sold even more of my shares.

  • philip baker says:

    So we have 85,000 troops if you include the marines. We have 72 ships in the Navy. We have 466 aircraft in the RAF. With what seems a reasonable fighting force we are unable to stop an invasion of our country by an armada of criminals.
    The total number of recorded migrants crossing in 2022 was 45,756.
    Each and everyone is a criminal as soon as they get as they pay and get on the boats to head illegally to the UK. Most are young men of fighting age, they are not interested in our country or our way of live.
    Each and everyone of these criminals, should be repelled. If we reduced this number to zero by using our forces we will have Billions more for all our forces.
    No government cares but we could stop it tomorrow. Most people want these invaders stopped. Use our forces to protect our borders, who cares about Ukraine we are already being invaded.
    When we were invaded in 1066 Williams forces are thought to have been no more than 12,000 at most.
    We will realise we have been invaded when it is to late.
    I can solve this, we can solve this, it is if we want to.

  • Lawman says:

    The first priority of any Government should be ‘Defence of the Realm’. The reduction in staff numbers, equipment & material since 2010 is shameful – and dangerous.

    It is NOT a question of ‘Throw more money’ at them. Reform of public procurement will save £millions. Same with the NHS: reform of the existing structure. Dangerously, the tail end of the current government will do nothing.

    Will Labour do better post 2024? In the spirit of the 1945-51 governments (Joined NATO, developed the A Bomb) we most hope so. The other danger is that Trumpist Republicans gain power in the USA. Worrying,

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