Britain should boost defence spending

Forget “global reach”, US isolationism means we need to focus on Europe and anti-terror

Over the past three years the RAND Corporation has been wargaming what would happen if Russia attacked the Baltic states. Without a significant increase in conventional forces stationed there, it concludes, NATO’s Eastern Flank would be over-run.

RAND Corporation’s wargame map: Estonia seen from the north

Under all outcomes, NATO loses control of Riga and Tallinn 60 hours after the shooting starts. After that the West faces three options: a costly and massive Iraq-style counter-attack; nuclear retaliation or acceptance of the new facts on the ground.

RAND concludes that, if NATO deployed seven brigades to the Baltics — including three US tank brigades — it could make any attack so costly as to deter it (although not to hold the three states for any great length of time).

All wargames are imaginary, so let’s imagine this scenario happens in February 2017, just after Donald Trump takes over. As you can see, just by imagining it, the outcome is not going to be determined by the number of brigades at all, but by politics.

For the entire period since 1989 NATO’s assumptions have rested on the idea that, politically, the East European peoples are so hostile to Russia, and so proud of their own new conservative nationalisms, that they would be prepared to turn their own cities into rubble to resist Russian aggression.

Politically, those conditions are evaporating.

First, the Eurozone crisis — in which two of the Baltic states joined in the economic coup against Greece — has severely depleted appetites in southern Europe to defend these states.

Next, Vladimir Putin’s relentless promotion of the European far right, and their xenophobic nationalist agenda, together with his promotion of an anti-imperialist left, which believes America is a bigger threat than Russia. This has been designed to produce a Weimar effect: the conviction that our societies are not worth defending anyway.

If, on top of that, one or more European countries were to elect a far right leader NATO would be in complete disarray. The liberal and leftist section of the French population is not going to war led by Marine Le Pen.

Trump changes the global security situation

The final piece of the jigsaw is Donald Trump. Trump has called into question America’s Article 5 commitment to mutual defence in Europe. Whatever his advisers make him say now he is in office, you cannot un-call it.

The range of outcomes, should there be any kind of clash on NATO’s eastern border — diplomatic, ethnic or military — is significantly wider and more negative.

You’ll have read about increased NATO troop deployments to the Baltics but these are peanuts compared to what RAND estimates is needed even as a baseline figure.

There are four extra NATO battalions being stationed in the Baltics and eastern Poland: the UK’s troops will be in Estonia. Air forces are being strengthened — again with UK involvement. Ditto the NATO flotilla in the Baltic. The UK is taking over running a multinational brigade standing at very high readiness to redeploy to the Russian border. Most of its forces will be British. The UK and German bases from which those tanks and heavy lift aircraft would depart would, naturally, be high on the target list if a serious diplomatic breakdown happened.

So what can, and should, Britain do? What should Labour, which I am a member of, be doing in the face of the new and changed situation.

The first thing, obviously, is to avoid conflict in the Baltics. Especially since all projected outcomes from it are catastrophic.

One of the side-effects the way Putin wages war — promoting vicious proxy paramilitary forces prone to shooting down civilian airliners and using chlorine gas — is to make the populations of democracies justifiably scared. Nobody wants Riga turned into Aleppo. Nobody wants to see the kind of inter-ethnic fighting that happened when pro-Russian nationalists activated in Ukraine.

There’s a whole layer of people justifiably outraged at what Putin and Assad have done to Syria, who want the west to be tougher — enforcing a no-fly zone in Aleppo, or a no-bomb zone, or drawing political red lines in Ukraine, or increasing sanctions. Trump’s election makes this much less likely to happen.

Trump is an unreliable ally for the democracies of Europe and — together with Putin’s own use of soft power — will create further unreliable allies in Europe itself.

Only this week Moldova — a country already divided by a Russian military enclave on the east bank of the Dniestr, elected a pro-Russian president. Its pro-EU political faction in parliament is set to lose power because, as I reported two years ago, neoliberal economics has not delivered.

And then there is Turkey. Under Erdogan Turkey is not only starting to look like a mirror image of Putin’s Russia, with a politicized oligarchy of crooks, widespread jailings, closures of democratic media and a military war against an ethnic minority. Because Erdogan wants these things so much, his AK party elite are becoming resigned tomoving — if not right out of NATO and the EU accession process — then into Putin’s orbit on the regional issues (Syria, Iran).

A 1930s moment for the left?

For the British left, this is likely to be a moment similar to what happened between 1935 and 1937. People tend to lump together the appeasement and re-armament debates of the 1930s. But they were separate issues until war broke out in 1939.

It was entirely logical (if unpalatable) to appease Hitler, staying out of the Spanish Civil War, criminalizing the people who fought there, then acquiescing as Germany absorbed Austria and the Czech Sudetenland. The reason? The West’s armies were weak and popular support for war was non-existent. America was committed by law not just to neutrality but to depriving democracies in Europe of military supplies.

In this situation, however, it was logical to re-arm. But this took some persuading. Then as now, all Western countries were strapped for cash.

In 1935 the Labour conference approved the idea of League of Nations intervention against the Italian conquest of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Labour’s pacifist leader George Lansbury resigned. But Labour’s new leader, Clement Attlee — who denounced appeasement — opposed the idea of government borrowing to finance extra defence spending.

The reasons were: there was no proposal to borrow to spend on services and anti-poverty measures; no centralised planning of the defence industry; and a tax on profits to pay for the extra spending was defeated by the conservative back bench.

Only in 1937 did Labour’s position fully change, to promote re-armament using command-planning methods to suppress profiteering, while allying themselves with the anti-appeasement wing of the Tories.

Even then the pro-Soviet left of the Labour movement, and the strong pacifist wing of all parties, fought a rearguard action against re-armament and in favour of peace with Germany. If you are totally new to this period of history and want to understand why the Communists wanted Britain to make peace with Hitler, google the words “Stalin-Hitler Pact”.

Let’s start by stating the obvious: the threat from Russia is not the same as the threat Britain faced from Germany in the 1930s. But the range of outcomes from the tension is getting more unpredictable.

There is certainly increased tension between Russia and members of a military alliance Britiain is part of — and that poses the question of what we are prepared to do to ease that tension, in terms of deterring aggression and pursuing multilateral negotiations.

Today, for very different reasons to the 1930s, there is a strong pacifist movement allied to Labour and the liberal left. We see beheadings and torture on our cellphone screens, in deep horrific detail. We remember the criminal irresponsibility of Blair and Bush over Iraq an Afghanistan. We distrust the propaganda machines of our own states, with good reason. We intuit, rightly, that the Geneva Conventions have been eroded and that any future war would, even if it did not go nuclear, be very ugly.

For all these reasons I support making the UK’s commitment to mutual defence of NATO allies conditional on a vote in parliament.

But it makes sense now for EU states to think about their own strategic defence in the face of a Russian state that wants to undermine democracy and make Europe “multipolar” — as both Putin and his ally Marine Le Pen put it. In turn that asks new questions about defence priorities for the UK.

End the strategy of global reach

I have argued before that the Cameron government’s sudden and unexplained commitment of the UK to a strategy of “global reach” in SDSR 2015 — with two aircraft carriers, an expeditionary force strong enough to invade a small country, and a naval base in the Gulf was pointless. And that was before Brexit.

With Trump in the White House and Britain headed out of the EU it is even more pointless.

(Unless you are one of the fantasists that thinks Britain will be using isolated frigates to defend “sea lanes” for all the bilateral trade deals it will sign with white Commonwealth countries post Brexit etc. etc.)

In resource terms, Britain should focus its defence thinking on Europe. There needs to be a conventional force in Europe big enough to credibly deter any attack on the Baltics. Britain needs to be part of it. At the same time there needs to be an effort — as Jeremy Corbyn stated — to demilitarize the Baltic frontier through negotiation.

In the RAND wargame, NATO flew in some extra infantry and light armoured battalions and tried to defend the two capitals — Riga and Tallinn- with disastrous outcomes. RAND calls for the deployment in advance of seven manouvre brigades including three US tank brigades to be stationed in Estonia and Latvia.

My hunch is, even if this were to happen — and it will not now that Trump is in power — the strategic outcome would be the same. NATO forces would inflict greater damage on the Russian military but they would still lose.

Therefore the problem of how many British battalions you can station amid the marshy forests of Latvia and Estonia — physically, financially or politically — is secondary.

If you look at the Force 2025 concept, around which the British military is currently being re-equipped and re-organised, you would have to commit the entire air, naval and heavy ground forces to a Baltic conflict, even if the Americans came across with their three heavy tank brigades (and under Trump they won’t).

The UK’s national security is faced with two threats. One is jihadi terrorism, which current security, intelligence and policing has managed to contain, for now. The other is no longer simply a theoretical attack by Putin on the Baltics: it is the strategic breakup of Europe in the face of US isolationism and Russian adventurism.

Instead of obsessing about boots on the ground of Estonia, I would now be thinking long-term about giving Britain as many strategic defence and security options as possible should Europe actually go “multipolar”.

Therefore British defence policy should focus on the following. I throw this out there as a sketch rather than a finished thinking because it is important for the left to take part in this debate early, not let the defence think tanks, and the Army vs Navy lobby within the Tory party, set the agenda.

A post-Trump defence rethink

1. End the policy of global reach. Refocus defence thinking on Europe — not just the Baltics but UK allies and partners in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cancel the naval base in Bahrain. Refocus all the land forces towards missions in Europe and most of the naval forces likewise. If the technical mix of forces needed for Europe is different to the Army that’s emerged from Iraq/Afghanistan, then change it. Keep and renew the deterrent, and provide enough naval forces to make it work properly.

2. Increase defence spending above 2% of GDP. Borrow and spend to fund both this and the investment in infrastructure, healthcare and education we desperately need.

  • Labour needs to avoid the trap the Attlee/Bevin leadership created for itself by obsessing with justified concerns over borrowing and profiteering. Since Labour has signed off on renewing Trident, you can only keep Trident and an expanded conventional force with more money.
  • Borrowing money to spend on defence buys you good, high-skilled jobs; enhanced R&D; resilience in the face of a bad world situation and — if you do it right — rekindles social cohesion. It also demands an industrial policy — which Labour is good at and the Tories don’t care about.

3. Commit to the common European defence strategy. It’s nonsense for the Brexiteers to go on complaining about a “European Army” now. If you want to do forward defence of the Baltics, with Trump sending nice messages to Putin from the Oval office, you have to increase co-ordination with the big militaries of Europe: that means Poland, Germany, France — and in the south Greece. The Europeans this week signed off on a basic concept. Britain should — even during the process of Brexit — remain engaged with and shape this concept.

4. Economically it becomes even more vital to pursue a soft Brexit with minimal diplomatic rancor and disruption to the EU economy. If you want to defend yourself at all in this newly dangerous world, you don’t want an economy with its GDP tanked by 7.5% and its tax take reduced by £66 billion, as the Treasury suggested hard Brexit would lead to.

5. Make the UK armed forces look more like the UK population. In May 1940 the shock of Dunkirk was amplified by the distance many people felt from the UK’s military culture. The plan for an expanded Territorial Army should be embraced and its status enhanced. The labour movement in the UK needs to start thinking about what a democratized and socially engaged UK armed forces would look like, and what pro-active links it wants to build with the military as an institution.

Never forget Iraq, but the world has changed

I realize that to left wing people whose entire attitude to war was shaped by Iraq, Afghanistan (and for my generation Ireland and the Falkands) this article is going to read like a cup of cold sick. Pro-Putin luminaries of the far left labelled me a B-52 liberal for supporting Trident renewal, despite the fact that I strongly opposed — and still do — the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Likewise to that other faction of the left who wanted the USA to intervene to protect democratic forces in Syria and Ukraine, realism over the new problem of US isolationism might not be very welcome to hear.

People inside Labour and the mainstream press who want to kick Corbyn for being “soft” on Russia are completely wrong: his comments at the weekend were sound — because unless we actually want to go using any of these half formed and as yet undeployed brigades, we had better take seriously stabilizing our relationship with Russia in Eastern Europe and demilitarizing the borders through negotiation.

However, I don’t think many politicians, in either Labour or the weak and dithery May administration, have properly digested the massive change the election of an isolationist Trump presidency brings to a) the global situation b) our own national security.

That’s understandable — as there are still illusions being peddled that Trump is just Ronald Reagan with bad hair. But he is not.

The facts have changed and we need to be prepared, as our grandfathers did in the 1930s, to change our minds:

  • to borrow money and spend more of it on defence;
  • to engage with collective security of Europe in the knowledge that Americans just voted for a man who does not want to.