Political uncertainty clouds everything and defence is no exception to this.
The shaky relationships of NATO are disturbed by the trade disputes between President Donald Trump and other members of the alliance.
NATO’s Brussels Summit was conducted in an atmosphere of anxiety over Donald Trump’s intentions towards the alliance which he did not entirely dispel. Meanwhile, there is no let-up in the rhetoric and the assertiveness of President Vladimir Putin, and the Middle East, where we have both allies and interests to protect, is increasingly unstable.
At home, the Secretary of State for Defence contrived to have defence taken out of the National Security Review and promised a better financial deal for his own department. The Prime Minister‘s commitment to increase expenditure on the National Health Service, and the intransigence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, have thwarted Gavin Williamson’s ambition. The inadequacy of the present defence budget, and its impact on morale, equipment and capabilities, is there for all to see.
Two immediate financial measures would provide some relief. Reinstate the arrangement to fund the nuclear deterrent separately out of public expenditure and not out of the Ministry of Defence budget. Give up including things like military pensions in the calculation of the NATO two per cent of GDP target, and spend the whole sum on personnel and materiel.
Brexit or no Brexit, we and Europe have to maximise military effectiveness. Mr Trump has a point. Europe has had defence on the cheap and we can no longer expect this to be the case. The UK should not be slow to point out to other European members of the alliance that if we can achieve two per cent, then why can’t they? According to a recent study, if the 28 European Union members of NATO, together with Norway, were all to reach the two per cent GDP standard, £114 billion more of defence expenditure would be available and Europe would then contribute a third of overall NATO spending.
But it is not how much is spent but how it is spent which matters. Too many European allies hold inadequate stocks of munitions or spare parts and tolerate poor maintenance of equipment. So, for example, in some countries more than half of military helicopters are not available at any one time.
Brexit or not Brexit, European cooperation in defence and security is essential. It is not sustainable that 500 million Europeans should be largely dependent on 330 million Americans for their defence. But to be clear, what is needed is not a new structure to rival NATO but intergovernmental cooperation harnessed to political will.
Twenty-three EU members of NATO have already signed up to a clumsily named initiative entitled Permanent Structured Cooperation. Although associated with the initiative, the UK, because of Brexit, is not a member. But there is a leadership role available for London in enhanced European cooperation. After the United States, we have the largest defence budget in NATO, together with firmly established and close military relationships with the Americans.
The essence of the Atlantic Alliance is in Article 5 of the NATO founding treaty, which provides that an attack on any one member of the alliance is regarded as an attack on all. Nothing in enhanced cooperation among European allies can be allowed to dilute the universal Article 5 obligation.
Outside of the EU, the contribution of the UK to defence cooperation will inevitably be less influential than it would be were we to remain in membership of the EU. We shall have to learn to live with that and, at times, it will not be easy. But cooperation is essential.