15 Jan 15. Brunei, Cambodia, South Korea, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam are just some of what are now a large and increasing number of Southeast Asia nations that have and continue to significantly increase spending on defence. To the long list of nations mentioned above can now be added Japan which this week has confirmed the intention to spend a record Yen 4.98 trillion (£28 billion, $42 billion) on defence in the next fiscal year.
Do these nations recognise something that we in the United Kingdom and Europe are failing to do? The answer is quite simple and it is yes. For a start they appear to recognise as we do not that the level of threat posed by large and far more powerful nations than ourselves such as Russia and China pose in terms of international stability.
There can I think be little doubt that China is increasingly now flexing its muscles particularly in the Southeast Asia region. While it is true that Russia has its own internal problems that threaten its ability to maintain a sixteen year annual increase in defence spending this year due to how a combination of western sanctions and the halving of the oil price over the past year has wrecked the Russian economy no one is under any illusion that Russia poses a massive threat to international stability. In any case most will know that Russia has already more than doubled its spending on defence since the year 2000.
Russia continued incursion into Ukraine and the interference in the affairs of a sovereign state are an object lesson for all of us. Closer to home and as we have seen around our shores and in the skies over recent months as Russian planes and submarines have tested our own air power and maritime capabilities we should be in no doubt about the constant threat that Russia still poses. Suffice to say that the increased number of incursions by large Russian Tupolov Bear bomber aircraft into UK airspace and that thankfully are quickly repelled by Royal Air Force Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) Typhoon jets despatched from RAF bases at Lossiemouth or Coningsby pose as great a threat today as they did during the height of the ‘cold war’. So do the increased number of incursions by Russian submarines increase the level of threat that we face?The sad fact that as an island race with a long and proud maritime history that in order to find Russian submarines in our waters we are now forced to ask US and French governments for assistance beggars belief.
Despite the increased level of threat to international peace and stability and despite promises made at the NATO summit last September that all member states would work toward spending a minimum 2% of gross domestic product on defence it seems that few have any intention of holding to the promise. No sooner had the NATO summit communique been signed, sealed and delivered to waiting observers one noted that Germany announced a further cut in defence spending. Further cuts can be expected in UK defence spending too when the next government publishes SDSR 15 late next year or into 2016. Given that UK gross domestic product is actually rising due to increased economic activity it strikes me that by 2017 if not already UK defence spending could fall below 1.7%. What is it I wonder that stops the UK government and others particularly in Continental Europe from getting the message that the level of threats against the UK are rising/ What is it I wonder that leads those in authority to believe that we are any less in danger today than we had been twenty years ago?
The sad and very tragic events in France this past week are a timely reminder that no European nation can afford to let its defence and security guard slip. All credit to the French Government in how they handled the crisis last week and in how they have subsequently decided to increase levels of military security across the nation. What if that situation had occurred over here I wonder – would we have had the same level of police and army security available to swamp the area in question?
From a personal standpoint I simply dread what might emerge out of the next UK defence and security view, the so called SDSR 2015. Certainly I have little if any confidence that what will emerge in what I imagine will be painted as the continuation of working toward Future Force 2020 will provide sufficient levels of future defence capability to meet the potential threats. Neither do I have confidence that the powers that be, whoever they are at that time, will combine the needs of defence, security with foreign policy objective. Defence, national security and foreign policy should always be intertwined. So too should defence industrial strategy be intertwined with the need to ensure that we maintain sovereign capability.
As a nation before we do anything else we must work out where it is we want to be in the world and why. Having simple objectives that we wish to continue playing a significant part in world affairs is simply just not enough. We are still a permanent member of the UN Security Council and yet we no longer have a powerful enough national infrastructure to support it. Where has the incentive gone? Why do we lack motivation and drive that others appear to have and whatever happened to diplomacy and leadership? With the US which I might add spends more than double the amount of GDP on defence than we do, increasingly concerned over the decreased level of capability that we now have and our ability to play a leading role in future conflict it is no use our Government harping on about the UK still being in the top five in terms of defence spending.
Last week’s announcement from the US government that there would be a reduction in the in the number of US bases in Europe brought about a timely reminder that the US sees the larger threat being in Southeast Asia and that from now on Europe must spend more on defending itself. That move does not defile an intention to walk away from Europe or NATO responsibility in any way but it is a message that says get your act better together. It is no use the UK attempting to dress the closure of Mildenhall and other US bases in the UK and Continental Europe as being singularly positive because they have decided to base the two proposed European F-35 squadrons due in 2020 at Lakenheath. Of course I am pleased that the US has decided to base the two squadrons here in the UK but the fact that the US intends to reduce its overall investment over here means that we must take up the slack.
We need real and meaningful defence strategy to emerge in SDSR 2015 and yes, we need good policy execution too. We need all three of our armed forces to be on side and speaking as one and we need good leadership from the top of all three and from Joint Forces Command. We must also allow those in charge of the military to have a strong voice in the affairs that govern defence strategy and policy and the ability to freely speak their minds.
We must at some point soon also decide whether we wish to remain a permanent member of the UN Security Council and back this up with renewed commitment not only to Trident replacement but also to spending on defence. Most of all, we need good leadership and through this we need not only to know where it is that Britain wants to be in the world but how we are going to approach it.
I began this piece talking about Japan so I’ll finish on this too. Japan joins India in recognising the constant threat to its borders and that to achieve this requires additional AWACS and maritime patrol aircraft capability, more helicopters, maritime patrol vessels, amphibious vehicles and fast jet capability. There are of course lesson in this for us as well. But just as it is for we to ask ourselves as well, it is equally fair to ask whether Japan can afford to spend more on defence at a time when the internal economy remains in a moribund state and the nation carries such a high level of debt? A vexing question this might be for some but the only answer is that in facing the constant threat that the nation does from both China and Russia Japan has no choice but to boost the strength and capability of its defence force.
So why the concern? Increased aggression by Russia in Ukraine, border disputes between Japan, China and Russia and the fact that Russia has more than doubled its expenditure on defence since 2000 are reason enough for countries such as Japan to raise the stakes in defence capability. While the US and Japan have recently boosted the defence pact alliance that has long been in place recent incursions by Chinese coastguard ships around the disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea have been a timely reminder to the Japanese of the constant threat they remain under. The US alliance with Japan will remain a crucial element of Japanese defence and deterrent capability. China and Russia fully recognise constraints that Japan continues to be under so long as the pacifist constitution that has existed since the end of the WW2 remains. Both nations continue to play to the weakness of the Japanese constitution but while China would appear to pose a larger threat to Japan than Russia currently does few in Japan are prepared to believe that Russia poses a constant threat to regional peace and stability.
Malaysia, another fast growing nation in the Southeast Asia region has also been increasing its spending on defence in recent years as it chose to modernise equipment capability and Singapore, which pro-rata to its size has the largest budget for defence spending of SS12.3 billion (US$9 billion) is yet another that fears the increased threat of regional instability has been raising spending on defence. India which although is often perceived to see Pakistan as its major threat now sees China as a far bigger threat. With some borders that have never been properly defined there have been regular incursions into what is perceived to be Indian Territory by Chinese forces.
For the record, during 2014 India had planned to increase spending on defence to Rs2.03 trillion (US$37.7 billion) from a revised Rs1.78 trillion. Pakistan too has also been raising spending on defence at a very high level and was expected last year to spend Rs627 billion (US$ 6.32 billion) according to some press reports and that would represent an increase of 15% on the year before.
Another nation to highlight as one that has been increasing spending on defence for some years is South Korea. Facing a specific additional threat from neighbouring North Korea, the Seoul Government raised spending on defence last year by 4.2% to W 35.8 trillion (US$33 billion). So too have those that are perceived as being the main threat also been stepping up spending on defence. None less so than China itself and which last year alone had an official defence budget of $132 billion, up 12% on 2013 and that may in fact be very much higher than this. For comparison purpose total US spending on defense was in the region of £740 billion last year and the budget for 2015 is $756 billion. The UK defence budget for 2014/15 was planned at £36.43 billion ($60 billion).
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