What the Conservative manifesto should pledge on defence

Article published by The Daily Telegraph, 5 May 2017.  © Richard Kemp

Decades of cuts have left the UK’s defences hollowed out, unfit for purpose and facing a £10 to £20 billion funding gap. Successive governments saw few votes in defence, reinforced by fear of using military force after Afghanistan and Iraq.

But today this country faces a range of worsening threats on a scale unprecedented since World War II. Global Islamic jihad will need to be countered by force for generations to come. Iran’s aggression across the Middle East is exacerbated by its nuclear ambitions that are beginning to trigger a nuclear arms race in the region. Russia’s intent to re-establish itself as a superpower represents increasing peril. The torrent of illegal immigration into Europe threatens our stability and will only worsen.

These are just some of the threats we know about today. Tomorrow, new and unexpected menaces will emerge. We lack the fighting power to confront them and the resolve to defeat them. History shows that such weakness encourages adversaries.

We need a full spectrum of military capabilities to proof against the uncertainties of tomorrow, ranging from nuclear deterrence to special forces strikes against individual terrorists. But we must also summon up the will to actually use them to deter powers such as Russia that seek to limit our freedom, prosperity and security; and to annihilate avowed enemies such as the Islamic State.

We cannot do this alone. We are the closest strategic ally of the US, a relationship that must be strengthened post-Brexit. NATO remains essential for the defence of the West, yet has opted out of the major strategic issue of our time – fighting Islamic terrorism – and has become increasingly moribund with lack of financial and political commitment among most of its members. The next government should lead reform of the alliance so it again becomes a guarantor of peace and security.

Increasing EU obsession with defence integration, including research and procurement, threatens to further undermine NATO by duplicating effort and diverting resources. We must not join this misguided venture, despite temptation to do so as a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations. Instead we should exert pressure against the EU’s mantra of defence decision-making autonomy from NATO.

Despite the success of our security services in preventing terrorist attacks at home, the threat from Islamic jihadists will increase. We must take bold action against them, including deporting terrorist suspects and excluding those seeking to return to the UK after fighting jihad overseas.

We should arm all police to defend our citizens. Meanwhile we need to overcome reluctance to deploy troops onto the streets of the UK when necessary.

At the other end of the spectrum, faced by certain nuclear proliferation, Trident and its successor are more important than ever. As a political not a military tool, it should be removed from the defence budget and funded directly by the Treasury to prevent displacement of costs onto essential conventional forces.

Generating the broad spectrum we need demands full resourcing of all existing and planned capabilities including the Navy’s hunter-killer submarine programme. We must re-invigorate our amphibious forces and commit to a new class of smaller vessels for coastal patrolling including fishery protection and stopping illegal immigration along our unguarded coastline.

The 2015 SDSR commitment to a 50,000-strong warfighting division should be implemented in full. There must be no reduction or delay to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme or the planned investment in Apache helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft.

Although every effort should be made to procure autonomous vehicles, weapons, aircraft and ships for the future, at present we still need real people. Proposals to reduce the Army below 82,000 regulars and 30,000 reservists must be rejected and recent excessive cuts reversed.

All of this is vital and cannot be achieved within the current spending level of 2% of GDP. The defence budget must increase to a minimum of 3% as it was before the mid-90s when the threat was not as great.

Where will the extra cash come from? Savings in EU contributions and slashing the £13.3 billion annual overseas aid budget. Through that budget we fund the armed forces of China, India and Pakistan while starving our own. This profligacy must end and the defence of our country again become paramount.