Stand easy: we can’t afford a war until 2020

With Defence now in purdah, and Labour and the Tories shelving the issue by the device of a post-election review, we must not lose sight of the size of the problem facing the Armed Forces, or of the political courage needed to deal with it.

For as the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Edward Leigh, concluded in the committee’s Major Projects Report last month: “Britain’s defence budget is fundamentally unaffordable.” Even if spending on defence remains flat, the projected deficit will be some £36 billion. This is not a figure that can be willed away by “efficiency savings” or smarter procurement, or even by cancelling Trident’s replacement. Without a fundamental rethink on defence spending, the Forces face the proverbial train crash.

Fortunately, history can show us the way. Ninety years ago, in the aftermath of the First World War, and facing similar financial stringency in the 1920 estimates, Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War and Air, introduced the “Ten Year Rule”. It required the Forces to make their plans on the assumption that there would be no great European war for the next ten years. It was a way of smoothing out the equipment programmes over the medium term, with the aim of having the Forces ready for war in ten years’ time.

And for a decade and more Churchill’s rule worked well. We need the same daring approach today.

Labour’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review, its revisions and the MoD’s recent Green Paper, see defence capability in terms of how much we need (or in truth, what we can afford), not what we need it for. The defence review assumed that: “As a norm, and without causing overstretch, the Armed Forces must be capable of conducting three simultaneous and enduring operations of small to medium-scale.”

This is not prescriptive, however, or even indicative of the sort of operations to be conducted. Not surprisingly, therefore, the service chiefs have sought to prepare for the full spectrum of war rather than to fight a particular enemy. Affordability became a matter of buying a little of everything rather than concentration of effort. But such are the eternal overheads of military campaigns — combat support, logistics, communications etc — that the costs of an operation are never directly proportional to the size of the force deployed.

“Small to medium-scale” is misleading when it comes to costs. For example, one brigade places much the same demands on lines of communication as three brigades. You cannot significantly reduce operational overheads by saying you will deploy only a small fighting force. What you can do, however, is make sure that the men and equipment are useable across the fullest spectrum of conflict so that few stand idle; too much equipment needed for the high end of the spectrum of conflict has little utility lower down the spectrum. It is this (undeniably prudent) full-spectrum approach to defence planningthat has made the defence budget “unaffordable”.

The answer, as an interim contingency at least, is to tell the Forces to plan on an assumption that there will be no war against another nation’s conventionally equipped forces — the high end of the spectrum of conflict — for ten years, and that this ten years begins anew each morning, unless told otherwise.

This would force the MoD to prioritise and to overhaul its R&D and procurement so as to shorten the lead time for new equipment, in turn allowing the rule to be progressively reduced to a safer seven or even five years. It would give the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and intelligence services a real focus in security policy: continuous assessment of the ten-year assumption. With a properly constituted National Security Council making the assessments, and a quadrennial defence review enshrined in law, as in the US, defence capability would be closely calibrated with sound strategic judgment. As the elder Moltke said, first reckon, then risk.

For it would indeed be a risk. Critics can point to the debacle of 1939, but the problem with Churchill’s ten-year rule was not its concept but that there was no formal mechanism for review, so that when in the early 1930s the underlying assumption became unsafe, political expediency (appeasement) trumped rearmament. A National Security Council and a formal defence review would avert that danger.

This is not to advocate that we turn our backs on high-end-spectrum war. Recent debate, however, has focused too absolutely on the nature of future war rather than on possibilities and probabilities. The question is where to take the risk. Just as in the 1920s and 1930s, when, for example, the RAF put what little money it had into infrastructure — airfields, apprenticeships and R&D — so the Forces, while organising and equipping to fight their current wars, would contingency-plan vigorously, and above all imaginatively, for the worse-case scenarios of the future. Winning today’s wars would anyway reduce the risk of war tomorrow.

If, however, the next government lacks the courage, the intellectual honesty, to prioritise, or genuinely believes that war at the high end of the spectrum looms within a decade, then it simply has no alternative: Britain will somehow have to find a way of paying for its “fundamentally unaffordable” defence budget.

Allan Mallinson, the author of The Making of the British Army and a former Army officer.