Cutting militarism

IssueMay 2010
Feature by Matthew Biddle

As politicians warn of post-election cuts in public spending, the question arises: how much could be saved by reducing Britain’s military presence worldwide?

This is what many Britons think the government should be doing. In a 2007 Daily Telegraph poll, 55% of respondents felt Britain should stop trying to “punch above our weight”, and reduce the country’s foreign military involvement.

In real terms, military spending – like public spending in general – has increased under Labour. After its recent low of £27.1 billion in 1997, annual military spending rose £9.3bn to £36.4bn in 2009.

Britain remains one of the top five military spenders worldwide, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Two of the biggest reasons are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In March, Gordon Brown revealed these wars had cost Britain £18bn so far. Chancellor Alistair Darling announced that £4bn from next year’s treasury reserve will fund the war in Afghanistan.

We attempted to discover the savings that would result from pursuing a “defence-only” military budget, but it seems little research has been done in this area.

Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Information Security Council (BASIC) suggested that this policy would require different equipment, which could be purchased relatively inexpensively.

In late March, several MPs declared the current military budget faces a £36bn hole over the next decade.

The navy is getting six new frigates at £1bn apiece. Work has already started on the Clyde and in Portsmouth on two new aircraft carriers with a combined price tag of £5bn. The carriers are to carry 140 Joint Strike Force fighters at £67m each – around £9bn in total. The RAF has also ordered over 100 Typhoon Eurofighters at a cost of over £20bn (much of it already spent).

Malcolm Chalmers, a professional fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Services, said: “Unless defence shoots up in priority – and there’s no indication that’s going to happen – current capabilities are not affordable.”

Over the next five years, Chalmers foresees a 10-15% reduction in military spending.

Scaling back

As for Trident replacement, Greenpeace estimates the cost of replacing Trident over 40 years at about £97bn. If Trident was not replaced, the main cost of winding up Britain’s nuclear arsenal would be dealing with the radioactive materials involved.

Nick Ritchie, a research fellow in the department of peace studies at the university of Bradford, points out: “Whatever happens with Trident, we’re going to have to pay to decommission it eventually.”

Paul Ingram of BASIC argued that cost should not be the crucial argument for decommissioning Trident: “If Britain decided to get rid of Trident and the perception was because of cost, nuclear weapons would be seen as something for those who can afford them, who are powerful.”

Ritchie suggested expensive endeavours could be delayed: “Is it economically sustainable to try to be a world power?”