Former British Defence Secretary John Hutton on why defence should be a priority in the UK 2015 General Election campaign.
A cursory glance at the front pages of any newspaper today will make depressing reading. The world is not a peaceful place. The very real threat posed by international terrorism, the growing reality of cyber warfare and now the spectre of armed conflict between two states in Europe should all surely combine to make security a top order political priority once again. But is it?
There is a general election due in less than 3 months and yet defence is not going to rank as a priority in any of the main Parties election campaign.
We know this because the Parties have already set out their shop windows. There will be some debate about the future of our nuclear deterrent but otherwise a conspiracy of silence will prevail.
The election will be fought largely on the issues of the economy, taxes and public finances. The coalition Government have reduced defence spending in real terms with cuts to all three Services. Significant capabilities have been lost. It is hard now for the RAF to maintain even a token presence in the skies above Iraq. The Army is to be reduced to 80,000 full time soldiers. It is hard to imagine how it will be able to mount a sustained full scale operation in future. Although the Navy is to get new aircraft carriers they will require significant additional frigates, submarines and aircraft in order for both to be operational. It is not clear where these will be coming from.
To make matters even worse, it is highly likely that whoever wins the next election, further cuts will be made to our defence forces. The Government has promised to ring fence spending on health and overseas development. Education will get a similar deal. It is not clear yet what a Labour budget would look like but there have been no promises made on defence spending.
The silence is deafening. And the consequences of this are now clear for all to see. Gradually our armed forces are being hollowed out and their capabilities brought increasingly into question. And one of the consequences of this death by a thousand cuts is that recruitment to the armed forces is getting harder and harder. Are we rapidly reaching a crossroads? What does being a permanent member of the UN Security Council really require of us? Do we want to be in the premier league of nations or not?
It is never fashionable to call for additional resources to be spent on defence. This is particularly true in times of austerity where real choices have to be made between different political priorities like education, health and law and order. But this is a time when I hope all of the main Parties look carefully at how we can maintain effective and capable armed forces which can protect us at home and overseas. A good place to start would be to commit to meeting the NATO recommended spending level of 2% of GDP. Who is going to step up to the plate?
John Hutton is Chairman of the Royal United Services Institute