Saturday, March 22, 2008

Reinventing the State Chapter 21: A Rational Defence Policy

Well it has been a while, but my copy of Reinventing the State has turned up again, so here I am.

Tim Garden offers a useful primer on the issues behind defence expenditure, and I can do little but endorse some of the key points.

Defence is a world of escalating costs and overstretched forces. Procurement necessarily has very long lead times that equipment coming into service was commissioned when demands were very different. Recruitment and training decisions have similarly long term effects.

The Eurofighter was concieved during the cold war, and while a very capable aircraft it doesn't not have enough of a role to justify its cost; although as far as I can see it is much too late to cancel to see any worthwhile savings.

Inevitably new equipment is more capable and expensive than its predecessors. And wages also have to rise faster than inflation, leading to cutbacks even when funding is maintained in real terms. (Much the same, it has to be said, can be observed in healthcare, and perhaps much of local government.)

While the military can surge its effort to meet an emergency, it cannot sustain surge levels year after year - attempts to do so affect retention and equipment, causing a deterioration in quality and capacity over time.

Faced with this, Tim charactersises three options for our contribution to international tasks:

a. Punching above our weight
b. Matching national commitments to resources
c. Sharing the burden more equitably internationally

Punching without funding above our weight is the cause of overstretch and a decline in the quality of the armed forces.

Matching our commitments to our spending would mean a big cutback in our commitments. While we would like to get out of Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan is more finely balanced. And there are operations we do wish to support such as UN-sponsored humanitarian operations.

Better multinational co-operation is clearly the way forward. Tim contrasts well the 4 principle multinational agencies: the UN, NATO, the EU, and the ad hoc US-led coalition. The UK "has a special position with respect to all four multinational actors. This compounds the problem of over-tasking as we try to show continuing commitment to each." And each merits different handling.

We should look to the EU and NATO to find economies of scale and pooled capabilities where appropriate. It should raise eyebrows that arms suppliers are national champions rather than competing on merit for custom, even within the EU.

What we can't afford to do, in either sense of the word, is stand alone in the world.

In defence, perhaps more than any other policy area, we need to reinvent the role of the state by accepting that the sovereignty of the state can be most effectively exercised through international collaboration.

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