NATO Summit: what now for British defence policy?

NATO Summit: what now for British defence policy?

David Cameron entered last week’s NATO Summit under intense pressure. Not only was his brief to reinvigorate the flagging Alliance, he was also preoccupied with Russia’s covert war in Ukraine and calls for British airstrikes in Iraq. It was even rumoured that Tory Whips were gauging party support for military action. But the Prime Minister enjoys relative popularity in NATO circles; Britain boasts a long tradition of military investment and intervention. Despite the trend of western disunity and declining defence budgets, Mr Cameron was able to return to Parliament and declare that NATO remains a ‘vital alliance’.

Determining the relevance of NATO in 2014 was the primary focus of this year’s Summit, but it also shed light on the future direction of British defence policy. In an opening speech, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon stated: ‘we’re determined here in the United Kingdom that NATO remains strong and resolute in facing down those immediate close-by threats.’ He emphasised that the UK is committed to European security and ‘has made…comprehensive Immediate Assurance Measures’ against Russian aggression by deploying Typhoon fighters to the Baltic.

Whilst the narrative of deterring Moscow and reassuring anxious allies predates Mr Fallon’s appointment, the decision to ‘[augment] major military exercises in Eastern Europe’ is a relatively new tack, and the first of its kind since 2008. The initial tranche of deployments will see 1,350 troops and over 300 armoured vehicles take part in October’s Exercise Black Eagle in Poland. The wider operation will culminate in 2015, and see 3,500 British personnel assigned to various show-of-force exercises within the region.

In conjunction with Mr Fallon’s statement, it was announced that the MoD will be investing £3.5 billion in nearly 600 new reconnaissance vehicles over the next decade. Under increasing international pressure, it seems the Coalition is finally awakening to the reality that Britain’s military capabilities must enable it to uphold international security, both unilaterally and within NATO. The detrimental cost-cutting measures recommended by the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) have proved a colossal gaffe, and invited ridicule from influential figures such as former Chief of the General Staff, Lord Dannatt.

Although Britain is by no means Europe’s worst offender, its armed forces are stretched by the demands of Whitehall’s vacillating foreign policy. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond pointed out in his own address that despite being a leader within NATO, Britain’s efforts are ‘nowhere near good enough’, and more needs to be done to ‘demonstrate that we maintain the political will to…defend ourselves and our interests.’ An indication of how that ‘political will’ may play out came from the Prime Minister himself. He expressed his commitment to a ‘multi-national rapid response force…deploy[able] anywhere in the world at very short notice’, since ratified in the Wales Summit Declaration as the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF).

This NATO capability will be separate to plans for a British-led expeditionary force in partnership with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark. It will specialise in ‘operations and training small units’, and draw upon experience form Anglo-French joint operations. Finally, and most significantly, Mr Cameron announced that the second of the two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers will be brought into service despite speculation that it would be sold. Ignoring the astronomical cost, HMS Prince of Wales will offer much greater global projection and represent ‘an investment in British security, British prosperity and our place in the world.’

It is difficult to fault the Coalition’s policy commitments to not only NATO but also the betterment of Britain’s defence capabilities. These are initiatives long overdue and will (belatedly) confront escalating security challenges. Government procrastination has been inexcusable but symptomatic of a pan-Europe neglect of defence policy, owing in part to lengthy campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. By sending troops to Eastern Europe, David Cameron hopes to appease both the NATO high command and Washington, but also throw a bone to the impatient fringes of his own party. It is the politically safe option. Assuming cool heads prevail in Ukraine, British troops will be an extravagant occupation force. Poland will replace Afghanistan as a ‘frontline’ posting once the withdrawal is complete later this year.

Yet, the familiar conflict between defence policy ambition and the realities of budget limitation rages on. The Army 2020 programme has called for a much greater reliance on reserves in order to minimise the expense of a standing army. However, just prior to the Summit, the National Audit Office warned that the MoD ‘needs to increase the trained strength of the Army Reserve to 30,000 by 2019, [yet] its strength has remained at around 19,000 for the last two years.’ The problem is compelled by the fact that the ‘size of the regular Army is reducing faster than originally planned’ and that ‘the [MoD’s] approach to recruitment has put planned savings at risk’.

In a bizarre contrast to the Prime Minister’s latest round of commitments, the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI) has stressed that ‘UK defence spending is set to fall  below the NATO 2 per cent target for the first time’ next year. Although it will still amount to 1.88%, it is hugely symbolic, and an ominous sign for the upcoming 2015 SDSR. Should the associated Spending Review prescribe further cuts, defence expenditure could fall ‘to between 1.5 per cent and 1.6 per cent of GDP in 2015/16.’ Policy makers will have to tread on egg shells to ensure that vital capabilities are preserved and that scope for development remains.

In the wake of the Summit, Britain finds itself back at square one, experiencing the same problems the Coalition sought to address in 2010. Government bluster casually proposes airstrikes and a joint expeditionary force, yet makes no attempt to align ambition and reality. This growing capability gap is straddled by Jekyll and Hyde; one moment a proud NATO leader, the next a penny-pinching accountant. Throughout the Summit, British officials commanded all 28 members of the alliance to invest more in national and international defence capabilities, yet Mr Cameron has fallen short of his own rhetoric. It would be amusing if not so profoundly alarming.

Jake Rigg

Jake Rigg

Jake is the Managing Director at Keene Communications, specialising in government relations activities on financial services, tax and competition in the UK and the EU. He also specialises in planning and stakeholder engagement.

He was formerly Head of Policy at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). With degrees in history and economics from the Universities of Oxford and London, Jake is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving and advises several governments on public policy. He also advises clients on CSR and philanthropy activities.
Jake Rigg

About the Author

Jake is the Managing Director at Keene Communications, specialising in government relations activities on financial services, tax and competition in the UK and the EU. He also specialises in planning and stakeholder engagement. He was formerly Head of Policy at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). With degrees in history and economics from the Universities of Oxford and London, Jake is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving and advises several governments on public policy. He also advises clients on CSR and philanthropy activities.