Come friendly bombs and fall on Abbey Wood

Well, the Prime Minister has announced the Government’s ‘Strategic Defence and Security Review‘. It’s a dreadful mess, a dog’s breakfast, a bugger’s muddle, an appalling nightmare, a train wreck on a cruise ship drifting into an iceberg with a jumbo jet crashed on top, to paraphrase some of the coverage. There’s not much more to be said about it, honestly. The Leader of the Opposition is entirely correct that it’s a ‘spending review dressed up as a defence review‘. And I also agree that it was ‘chaotically conducted’ and ‘hastily prepared’. True, true, all true.

And yet why does my skin crawl watching the Opposition front bench while he says these things? Because of course the question on everyone’s mind is ‘how in the hell did things get this bad?’ for which the answer is in no small part because those guys had ten plus years in Government during which time they ran the place into the dirt. That said, having taken an afternoon to stew in righteous anger I’ve had a few other thoughts which I thought I might share with you readers, please feel free to add your own remembering our injunction to ‘be polite, be sensible’, constructive in other words.

1. We are where we are not entirely at the hands of feckless Government ‘decision’-making. Sad to say, but still palpably evident, that the armed forces are atrociously led. We have far too many generals, as we have noted here in the past as have many others; more the worse far too many of them are no good. German U-Boats didn’t sink half the Royal Navy, neither did the Russians or the Chinese, it’s been sunk by our own admirals. The logical next step seems too obvious to need mentioning…

2. I struggle to think of a single major defence procurement contract over the last decade which cannot be described as catastrophically overspent, mismatched, over-sold, obsolete or near-obsolete junk-on-arrival. The Directorate of Equipment and Services I understand employs about 26,000 people. The Israelis get by with 400 in there equivalent institution. Is the IDF less well-equipped? Again, with apologies to Betjeman, the next step seems plain…

3. £38 billion. That was the defence overspend before these cuts were announced. God knows what it is now. We could argue about the details, a carrier here, a fourth-generation fighter aircraft there, whatever… details. The thing to grasp is that this is not Year Zero for the UK military, it’s worse than that. It’s more like Year -5 or -10 because that’s what it’s going to take to move all the accumulated bad decisions, and even worse non-decisions, through the system. It will be years before we get to zero and can start to work on building the armed forces we want and need. So, yes, this was a spending review not a strategy review; and, yes, it was hastily conducted. But so what? I’m thinking that given that all the smart choices that might have been taken for the 2010-20 timeframe have been long since foreclosed we might as well spend some time thinking really carefully about 2020-60.

4. The National Security Strategy, which I confess I am still pondering and reserve the right to change my mind on this tentative conclusion: is actually not bad, says many sensible things. One of the things it makes quite clear (on page 27) are the priority risks to the UK which are divided into three tiers in descending order of severity. The bulk of the armed forces, as currently constituted, really only seem relevant to the Tier 3 threats. Why is this the case in 2010 when people have drawn up similar lists since the end of the Cold War? Good question, see Point 1, for a start. For 20 years or so, actually probably more like 50, defence planners in this country have been making the classic Milkshake Mistake ‘assuming as if all habits were deeply rooted traditions instead of accumulated accidents.’ In other words, as we think about defence in the 2020-60  timeframe we ought to consider the possibility that all of the things the forces talk about as deeply needful may all be accumulated accidents, virtually none of it ‘fit for purpose’. Don’t get me wrong, I think defence spending at 2 per cent of GDP is less than half of what is right but even so, dream, if we had a big fat chequebook I would not advise buying what we’ve been doing so far. 

So, where to go now? There’s a bleak Russian proverb which I think apposite: we thought we’d finally hit the bottom [of the barrel, well] ’til we heard someone scratching from below.’ Let’s pause for a moment and take stock. Is this as bad as it gets or is more and worse to come? Once we reckon we’re at the nadir then let’s start afresh. Personally, I’d run it like the Dragon’s Den, the BBC show where budding entrepreneurs get to pitch an idea to a panel of zillionaires willing to invest their own money. Send an invitation to every single officer in the armed forces regardless of rank. What’s your vision for the RAF, British Army, Navy, Marines? The best idea wins, ‘Congratulations, Captain X. You are now Chief of the General Staff.’

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20 thoughts on “Come friendly bombs and fall on Abbey Wood

  1. It just so happens that for an accumulation of reasons, the British peoples have a comparative advantage when it comes to fielding and leading highly effective military forces. This may seem entirely counter intuitive to people who view them, especially the English, as polite tolerant and courteous to a fault. Others, the French Spanish and Germans for example, have historically made much more of a public display of their tradition of bellicose masculinity. However in war above all other things results matter.

    The fact is that 100 years of experimenting with incremental Socialism have proven that the British are simply not good at it. Perhaps somewhere there is an isolated and homogeneous society that will prove amenable to centralized bureaucratic administration and that will yield a high rate of productivity under the such a regime. No one has found such a community and if the North Koreans can’t pull it off then maybe no one can.

    So here we have a situation where you can do something better than other people can and do something else no better than or even worse than other people can. It does not seem very hard to say what your rational choice should be. Fire not just 20,000 civilians from the MoD but another 2.50,000 tax eaters infesting the landscape and free yourselves from the administrative leash of Brussels. Do that and you will be able to double your armed forces, while increasing your national wealth.

    How large should the military be? It should be possible for a healthy society to maintain an efficient military establishment when not engaged in existential general conflict with an expenditure of about 4-4.5% of GDP. That should enable you to keep approximately 3% of the population between 18 and 40 years old under arms on active duty with thrice that as trained reserves earning superior education and health benefits. The UK has about 6 million residents between 18 and 24 year old (source: National Statistics Office http://www.statistics.gov.uk/statbase/Product.asp?vlnk=15106). It would be reasonable to expect 10% of them to be serving at any time. Would this be a larger forces structure than is now supported? Yes but not outrageously large in historical terms. Is there a reason to support a force of that size? Ask yourself this question. Are there threats and insults to yourself or your allies ignored because the Prime Minister lacks the tools to deal with them? Are there bullies thieves and homicidal criminals who extort wealth or threaten your nationals or interfere in your domestic institutions with impunity because they do not fear you?

    If what you want is a safe peaceful world where your people can travel and conduct their business inoffensively and in safety and where outside potentates will not send money and agents to undermine your institutions then shift your priorities and deconstruct the welfare state while rebuilding the armed forces that you are so good at.With luck and if the model of the Royal Navy that kept the peace for decades holds true you will be able to build it and rarely use it. That will prove that you built it large enough.

    • Pericles says:

      ‘Are there threats and insults to yourself or your allies ignored because the Prime Minister lacks the tools to deal with them? Are there bullies thieves and homicidal criminals who extort wealth or threaten your nationals or interfere in your domestic institutions with impunity because they do not fear you?

      If what you want is a safe peaceful world where your people can travel and conduct their business inoffensively and in safety and where outside potentates will not send money and agents to undermine your institutions then shift your priorities and deconstruct the welfare state while rebuilding the armed forces that you are so good at.With luck and if the model of the Royal Navy that kept the peace for decades holds true you will be able to build it and rarely use it. That will prove that you built it large enough.’

      This could be seen as the ‘Sparta doctrine’. However I note that there seem to be pretty few direct threats to justify this course, and that other states (Sweden, Norway, Denmark but many more could be added to the list) have got by for centuries without taking these extreme options. The path you suggest might be applicable if we were nineteenth century Prussia, but we’re not. One needs to ask what the real threats to our security are. The SDSR, deeply DEEPLY flawed as it is, has at least got to the stage of recognising that one cannot always have guns AND butter, and that there is a distinct shortage of existential military threats facing the UK. I find the consistent British urge to go back to the eighteenth/nineteenth century paradigm in terms of its security framework curious, not least because it’s not as if the whole of our history happened between 1700 and 1914.

    • David Betz says:

      ‘…there is a distinct shortage of existential military threats facing the UK.’

      Indeed, I found myself in the alarming position of listening to Simon Jenkins and Newsnight and agreeing with almost more than half of his argument, including the premise above.

      Someone on this site said once, I think it might have been you actually, that if you’re looking for direct threats to the sovereignty of this country then you needn’t look far. Its name starts with E and ends with U.

      I would argue, however, that while existential threats are few, nil actually, at present there has at the same time been a proliferation of more minor ones which ought not to be ignored.

      I too think the ‘Sparta Option’ is fanciful and unnecessary. Anyway I thought we purported to be the Athenians… That said I must admit that it has some appeal to me. It sort of comes down to that graph on government spending which shows nearly £200 billion a year on ‘social protection’ and over £100 billion a year on NHS–costs which on current demographic projections are set to skyrocket, all things being equal.

      That’s A LOT of butter. That much butter makes for a lard-arsed society. A diet is in order. As I said in the post I, personally, think we spend too little on ‘guns’ at 2 per cent GDP. But really that’s neither here nor there at the moment as I’d like, for what it’s worth, to take a shot at your question about why certain people (I count myself among them) look to the 19th century paradigm.

      It’s not the relevance of the security framework–though I think there is a case for a certain relevance clearly the context has changed dramatically in many other respects. It’s more the feeling that Britain has become a very flabby place, literally, yes, but especially psychologically. It’s as though we’ve been on a fifty year post-Imperial donut binge wallowing in indolence with an admixture of self-pity and self-loathing, half the political class in full embrace of mediocrity and the other half living in nostalgic stupor.

      It’s time that we got over it and I like to think that the natural national state we will return to when that happens will look something like it did in that era when the British people seemed to possess in much greater abundance individual initiative, personal and social discipline, inventiveness and intrepidness. I get this eerie feeling walking around London particularly that we are failing to live up to our blessings and our potential. As if the statues, if they could, would admonish us for our decadence.

      Anyway, some might argue that this is just me, an Anglophile-immigrant (a returnee!) railing at his Culture Mother for failing to live up to his expectations. Might be some truh there…

    • Quintin says:

      The first priority of this government is the safety and security of the Realm. Now, on past occasions, you and I have had different views on that what constitutes the Realm – you maintaining a far more restricted view of the same than I. In addition to the width and breadth of the Realm, I was mindful to include our international commitments: our role in the UNSC, our role in NATO, our role in the Commonwealth – whereas you were inclined to depreciate the importance of these.

      To that effect, though your ‘guns and butter’ (or probably more accurate: ‘guns and cream’) statement is appropriate, it is once again not only applicable to this tiny chalk island in the North Sea. There is more to it than that. This is becoming a question on the size of the Realm, the determination of which is the allocation of guns vs butter.

      So let us take a look at the butter… judging by our trends in health spending, this population is either incredibly healthy or incredibly sick. Yet, in reality we are not. Why is that? Are we not getting the bang for our buck (or should I say pills for our buck)? Judging by our trends in education spending, this population is either incredibly smart or incredibly dumb. Yet once again, we are not? Why is that? Are we not entitled to a value-for-money service in exchange for what we’re paying in taxes? Or is ours not to reason why, but to pay or die? Is it a matter of ‘well, I was going to pay taxes anyway. Who cares how it is spent?’ Or do we accept that Public Service accountability is a principle of good governance?

      By all means – let’s have butter (or pills)… butter is good. But if we are going to slice off chunks of the Realm in order to provide that butter, I for one would like to see it done in a manner that is well-spent and appropriate… once done, it’ll be done forever and there will be no return.

      And I am currently not convinced of this value for money. This proposition is unacceptable to me – somebody is taking the Mick.

    • Pericles says:

      Two words: aging population. Or in brief:
      ‘The population of the UK is ageing. Over the last 25 years the percentage of the population aged 65 and over increased from 15 per cent in 1984 to 16 per cent in 2009, an increase of 1.7 million people. Over the same period, the percentage of the population aged under 16 decreased from 21 per cent to 19 per cent. This trend is projected to continue. By 2034, 23 per cent of the population is projected to be aged 65 and over compared to 18 per cent aged under 16.’
      http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=949

    • David Betz says:

      And not just any aging population but a population of baby boomers determined to ride the gravy train all the way to the grave and damn the cost to their children and grandchildren. It’s almost Churchillian in complete reverse. We shall defend our entitlements, whatever the cost may be.

    • Quintin says:

      Just so that I can get my head around this…

      A 1% increase in a demographic group over a period of 25 years has caused health spending to soar, whereas a 2% decrease in an opposite-aligned group for the same period has caused education spending to…? To do what? Allow for free higher education for everyone?

      How many words was that?

    • Pericles says:

      Education costs are a slightly different thing as you are no doubt aware-costs are going up since 1950s due to successive governments opening up the country’s ivory towers. Thus a demographic decrease is not reflected by numbers actually making it through the university gates, which are higher than ever before historically. You cannot spread limited resource thinner and thinner indefinitely with expanding student numbers, so cost of education consequently rises. This does not invalidate in any way the earlier point that, with an ageing population, you will either have to face rising health care costs or begin to implement involuntary mass euthanasia. But more generally meanwhile, we need to be careful of the popular myth currently being propagated elsewhere that defence is somehow particularly suffering because a lot of ‘butter’ in terms of social welfare spending elsewhere is being ringfenced for scroungers and thieves. In 2008/09, 13½ million people in the UK were living in households below the most commonly used low-income threshold (£119 a week for a single adult with no dependents, £206 for a couple with no dependents after tax). This is around a fifth (22%) of the entire population. They are hardly the ones to blame for the fact that we now have aircraft carriers with no planes to fly on them.

    • Quintin says:

      face rising health care costs or begin to implement involuntary mass euthanasia

      So if we do not whip out the old chequebook whenever our Beloved NHS Leaders demand ever increasing budgets, our old people will just keel over and die? Or would we need a programme to help them?

      Does this happen all over the world?

    • Pericles says:

      It isn’t exactly radical left-field thinking. Ageing is not the sole explanation but it is a significant part of most explanations. In Sweden for example ‘during the period 1976–1985 the per capita health care expenditure increased modestly for the ages 0–74, but 54% for persons older than 74 years.’: ‘The impact
      in Sweden of aging on health care expenditure’ by Ulf-G. Gerdtham. This report meanwhile gives a balanced overview but still places ageing as part of the key reasons for rising health care costs in OECD states: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/57/17/23435997.pdf ‘Overall, the OECD has projected recently that total health-care spending will increase by an average of nearly 2 percent of GDP over the period 2000 — 2050 as a direct result of population ageing.’
      See also:
      http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSLDE65S1CY20100629
      http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37061384/ns/health-cancer/

    • Also, there is a perfectly good model for a budget consolidation that didn’t result in freezing codgers, aircraft carriers with no planes, etc. That carried out by Kenneth Clarke and Gordon Brown between 1995 and 1999. Notably, Clarke chose to split the adjustment equally between cuts and taxation.

      I wonder what happened to him?

    • It would be unfair to summarise this as “Give me my ideological prejudices and a tax cut and it’s ponies for everybody!!”

      But not that unfair. Do you honestly believe that North Korea is an interesting or informative comparison? Really?

  2. Ed says:

    Some of my trademark seriousness hidden behind apparent facetiousness:

    Send an invitation to every single officer in the armed forces regardless of rank. What’s your vision for the RAF, British Army, Navy, Marines? The best idea wins, ‘Congratulations, Captain X. You are now Chief of the General Staff.’

    This reminds me of a The Onion headline from 5 Nov 2008: Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job. By the way, it does sound like a good idea, except for one thing: who judges whether it’s the best idea?

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  4. Paolo says:

    To spend as is earned, is a system to go to crack. The situation UK – Europe – USA is equal, is not possible to keep on buying weapons (carrier – JSF) to this rhythm. To use to the best the resources, is the road to cross.

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