Julian Lewis: The government must show its commitment to our 'hollowed out' Armed Forces

Posted On: 
4th October 2017

The spending decisions of successive governments have left our defences ‘hollowed out’, warns Defence Committee chair Julian Lewis

HMS Elizabeth, the UK's newest aircraft carrier, arrives in Portsmouth. The Royal Navy is 'way below the critical mass required for the many tasks which could confront it', Lewis warns
Credit: 
PA Images

As I write this, on a Sunday in September, a national newspaper is reporting the former First Sea Lord George Zambellas’s warning that the United Kingdom is in danger of becoming a “Third World nation” in military terms; that the Royal Navy is being “hollowed out”; and that there is no scope left to make significant “efficiency savings” in Britain’s Armed Forces.

All this must be laid at the door of successive governments having failed to invest adequately in defence – a conclusion which should surprise no-one familiar with the Inquiries of the Defence Select Committee. In April 2016, we published Shifting the Goalposts: Defence Expenditure and the 2% Pledge (HC 494), which charted the remorseless reductions in defence as a proportion of GDP over the previous 50 years.

During the same half-century, spending on Health and Welfare in particular ballooned. Here are a few especially notable dates:

1963: The year that the rising graph of welfare crossed the falling graph of defence. That was when we were spending no less than 6% of GDP on each.

Mid-1980s: The last time we faced a major Russian threat coupled with a severe terrorist offensive inside the UK. Then the graphs of defence, education and health expenditure largely coincided, with 5% of GDP being spent on each.

1995–96: The first financial year when we spent as little as 3% of GDP on defence – which was still 50% more than the 2% figure we are supposedly spending today. (It is especially worth recording that the post-Cold War “peace dividend” defence cuts had been made in the early 1990s, yet we still did not drop below 3% spending on defence until 1996–97.)

By contrast with those landmark years, we now spend 6 times on welfare (12%), nearly four times on health (almost 8%), and 2½ times on education (still 5%) what we spend on defence, as proportions of GDP.

The Defence Committee returned to this sorry seascape of relative decline in November 2016, when we issued Restoring the Fleet: Naval Procurement and the National Shipbuilding Strategy (HC 221), focusing on what had happened to the size of the Royal Navy to leave it with its present “woefully low” numbers of warships. Like Admiral Zambellas in his recent analysis, our report concluded that: “At 19 ships, compared with 35 in 1997, the Royal Navy’s Frigate and Destroyer fleet is way below the critical mass required for the many tasks which could confront it.”

Those 19 ships consist of just six new Destroyers, which are suffering from engine design problems, and 13 ageing Frigates which are due to be replaced by 8 Type 26 Global Combat Ships and at least five Type 31e General Purpose Frigates. If the cost of each Type 31e can indeed be kept to the planned £250m, as the government intends, then there is, at last, some prospect of starting to reverse the appalling shrinkage in the size of the fleet.

Yet, even though its size is so small, the Royal Navy – like other elements of our Armed Forces – is struggling to find the necessary numbers of recruits to man what vessels it still has left. Hence the increasingly frequent references to our Armed Forces being “hollowed out”. It is profoundly to be hoped that any easing of the cap on public sector pay will see our sailors, soldiers and airmen at the head of the queue.

Finally, Northern Ireland: in the aftermath of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, convicted terrorists face a maximum 2-year gaol sentence (with release after serving just 12 months), no matter how many innocent people they murdered. In reality, few if any will be brought to trial – it being left to the victims’ families to sue them in the civil courts, if they dare. Given this situation, it is an outrage that former soldiers are being reinvestigated for alleged crimes dating back 40 years or more.

As the Defence Committee concluded in our April 2017 Report (HC 1064), this is “wholly oppressive and a denial of natural justice”. The government should have the courage, and the decency, finally to draw a line by enacting forthwith a Statute of Limitations covering Troubles-related incidents up to the date of the Belfast Agreement.  

Dr Julian Lewis is Conservative MP for New Forest East and chair of the Defence Select Committee