Defence is a moving target. The invariable aim is the security of the state and the protection of citizens, but circumstances, resources and threats change in such a way as to make any precise calibration of what is needed truly difficult. Add in the long development cycles of modern weaponry, the vested interests of the defence industry, budgetary panics, and the shifts in the public mood which can constrain the use of military force, and the wonder is not so much that we get it wrong but that we sometimes get it right. In Britain we certainly got it wrong in 2010 when we stripped out things we then belatedly realised we still needed, like maritime reconnaissance and some of our air squadrons – and then along came Russian penetration missions in or near our airspace, and we found it a strain to register our disapproval of these incursions in the usual way. We gave up our carrier capacity for a period of years, and cut manpower in all three services but especially in the navy and air force. All this diminished our strength: the Falklands and Iraq missions would not be remotely possible today.
Five years later the time has come for another strategic defence review. David Cameron presented it on Monday as if it was an innovatory response to the dangers of Isis in the Middle East and Russian assertiveness in eastern Europe. As a politician he can hardly be blamed for putting that slant on it. But in fact this review is not at all revolutionary. It proposes more investment in cyber defences, special forces, counter-terrorism work, all obvious responses to recent threats and all already to some extent under way. It seeks to restore some of the conventional capacities unwisely removed in 2010, and it emphasises the need for mobile and flexible forces ready to go where needed at short notice.
But, although given the catchy name of “strike brigades” the idea is not really new, involves no extra soldiers, and while there is some new equipment, this was already in the pipeline. Such rapid reaction units would be appropriate in several conceivable situations, for deployment in African states threatened by jihadi insurgency, for signalling resolve to Russia in eastern Europe by judicious rotation without upping the overall ante too much, and, controversially, for use in the Middle East should it ever come to that again.
In all such hypothetical cases, Britain would certainly not be acting alone. British defence policy has long been tailored to fit into that of the United States and more recently there has been strong bilateral cooperation with France. But while it falls beyond Mr Cameron’s national remit, it is worth saying that the commitment of the US to the defence of Europe is not what it used to be and that Europe continues to attend to its collective security, as far as conventional forces go, in its usual lackadaisical manner.
In some contrast, cooperation in intelligence, policing, counter-terrorism, and joint diplomacy, as over the Iranian nuclear programme, seems to be improving. Mr Cameron mentioned some of the remaining gaps in such cooperation. His support for President François Hollande’s military and diplomatic campaign after the Paris massacres, whatever the specific merits, should point the way toward more systematic cooperation between European countries. There is no need to revive the once vexed question of European defence versus Nato defence. Both structures are now rather weak. Arguing about architecture if the bricks are not there is not worthwhile.
The overarching question about spending on hard military power is whether it takes resources away from other, equally or more important, ways of protecting our societies. In the British case, while spending on intelligence is obviously up, we are running down a diplomatic service that costs a fraction of what the armed forces cost, and we are thinking of cuts in policing which could be damaging to counter-terrorism work, although that is debatable.
The most fundamental issue of all is whether the maintenance of a nuclear deterrent is compatible with a balanced security and defence policy for a country like Britain. The ballooning costs of Trident, revealed on Monday in the Commons by Mr Cameron, could in the end soak up an even larger percentage of the defence budget than previously estimated. Nobody is saying that all this money, if released, would go to the conventional military budget, or to the other areas, like diplomacy, also important for our security. But even some of it would ease the hard choices that lie ahead.