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Britain is not prepared for World War Three


Lord Dannatt

Lord Dannatt

4 min read

It is commonly held that there are no votes in defence. At the forthcoming general election, it is just possible that defence will get more than its customary cursory treatment.

It is not just the usual suspects, including myself, arguing that the United Kingdom is not prepared for a war, nor are our armed forces capable of conducting high intensity operations for an extended period. Some of our closest allies and Nato partners have expressed their doubts about our readiness and capability, national newspapers have given front page coverage to our inadequacies, and the House of Commons Defence Committee has been explicit in its criticisms of the state of our armed forces. This is not a party-political issue but fast becoming a national emergency.

Further aggression against another European country, almost certainly a Nato member, will plunge Europe and the United Kingdom into war

As much as we might be concerned about the situation in the wider Middle East region, the direct threat to the security of this country comes from Russia. President Vladimir Putin has brought war back to Europe and he must be defeated. It is essential for the peace and stability of Europe that Ukraine continues to be fully supported in opposing and reversing Putin’s aggression. There can be no compromise and no negotiations. Were Putin to retain one square kilometre of Ukrainian territory then his use of force contrary to international law will have succeeded. 

The prospect of further aggression against another European country, almost certainly a Nato member, will plunge Europe and the United Kingdom into war through the common cause enshrined in Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty. Involvement in a Middle East war would be discretionary; involvement in a European war would be a treaty obligation.

To prevent war we must pay the price of deterrence. A bully exploits weakness but respects strength. Theodore Roosevelt stated that successful international diplomacy was achieved when one spoke softly but carried a big stick. There are many parallels drawn with the 1930s – though at Munich, Neville Chamberlain spoke loudly but only carried an umbrella. Neither Britain nor France carried a big stick. The price paid was the devastating Second World War and the Holocaust. Had Britain possessed a well-trained force with modern weapons in the late 1930s and been prepared to deploy it to Europe when Hitler was flexing his muscles, both the war and the Holocaust could have been prevented. 

In 1935, we spent less than three per cent of GDP on defence but when war came in 1939, we were forced to ramp that up to 18 per cent; and in 1940 when we were fighting for our very survival, the figure was 46 per cent. Such is the disastrous cost of war as a consequence of not investing in deterrence. Today we spend around 2.3 per cent on defence and this has bought us a wholly inadequate defence capability. I make no criticism of our men and women in uniform nor of their leadership, but our armed forces today are too small, poorly equipped and lack sustainability.

There will always be a drive to get better value from the £50bn that we currently spend on defence, but the absolute quantum is too small. During the cold war years, we spent around five per cent of GDP on defence. As a result of the deterrent capability that level of spending bought us, the cold war never turned hot. The successive rounds of taking peace dividends have now put us at risk of war once more. 

The parallels with the 1930s are not simply an historical indulgence, they are real. In 1940 our army was defeated in France because we had failed to rearm and modernise. Are we doomed to let history repeat itself? 

Late last year I gave Grant Shapps a copy of Victory to Defeat: The British Army 1918–40 which I co-authored with Dr Robert Lyman. I hope he has read it. I gave a copy to John Healey as well. 


Lord Dannatt, crossbench peer and former head of the British army

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