A new model for Britain's Defence Forces: Part V Britain's historical defence spending

Historically, democracies have not been good at anticipating rising aggressor nations and preparing a commensurately strong defence. Furthermore, there is a long-established trend (that is not unique to the UK only) of preparing for the last war rather than anticipating the next, and its change in nature. Consequently, the 2015 Strategice Defence Review has built-in limitations and flaws that are of an institutional nature and repeat the errors of the past centuries’ military planning. To avoid what could prove to be a terrible error, we have to form a defence policy from basic principles commensurate to the external threats we face. The core question is: “What percentage of our GDP should we be spending on defence that is appropriate to the current threat scenario we face?”. The answer starts with guidance from the past and the plots of expenditure and manpower levels over the past 115 years.

The first observation is that, surprisingly, the correlation between GDP expenditure and military manning levels is very high as the ratio of the manpower cost to higher technology seems to remain relatively constant. The second observation is the massive spikes in GDP spending and manpower of WW1 and WW2. Both consumed roughly 50% of our GDP for their duration. Irrespective of the horrendous human cost that these wars entailed, these spikes are a clear reminder of the terrible cost of the failure of deterrence and the financial cost of a war in which a nation fights for its very existence.

Post WW2 spending remained above 10% for the Korean War and the peak of the Cold War around the 1970s was at 5% to 6%. For the duration of 25 years, this allowed Britain a sustained and capable level of force projection. Then towards the end of the Cold War in its last five years, spending dropped to around 4% as the threat from the USSR steadily receeded. Naturally, at the end of the Cold War, there was a peace dividend as there always has been in Western nations and average expenditure dropped to around 2%. However, at this lower level of 2%, we have been pairing back our armed forces year after year, with the effect that they have been hollowed out to the point of being wholly unfit for their purpose. At what stage will the government and the nation realise that the times of peace have passed and that the defence spending needs to be returned to at minimum the 4 to 5% levels that were standard during the extended period of the Cold War?

With the long lead times of modern weapons, we cannot wait until a war seems imminent or breaks out. Instead, we need to build in higher levels of defence spending and commensurate capability well in advance. Sadly, the geopolitical signals of impending danger are loud and clear, ringing in our ears and yet, our nation is still asleep at the switch which should trigger an increased expenditure on defence.

This blog is an extraction from my recent paper on "A new model for Britain's Defence Forces". If you would like a free copy please contact christel@eaml.com.


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You say that we fight the next war with the last war uppermost in our minds, bigger guns, faster planes, more stealthy submarines...but we're doing the same again. The next threat to the UK is from a potential enemy within. And they are playing the long game with bomb and womb. Our borders are wide open, our cities, transport systems and shopping centres all soft targets for low tech savagery. I put 35 tons of cargo on a ship from the Caribbean to Southampton and it was unloaded this end without anyone checking what it was. It could have easily contained five tons of explosives. Or anthrax. Some bright spark said a while ago that the next nuke won't be delivered by intercontinental missile but by Fed Ex. A strike on London, on the scale of 9/11 would be catastrophic for the UK economy because London is the UK's powerhouse, we have nothing else close, whereas the US has dozens of major cities that can take up the slack if one is severely affected. A huge 5th column has been growing in size in Britain for many years, right under our noses. France is slightly ahead of us in this nightmare. Anyone for a European city break? I doubt it.