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Covid-19 shows that sometimes the worst-case scenario really does happen - we must learn the lessons for defence

Members of the armed forces take swabs at a drive-in coronavirus testing facility | PA Images

5 min read

The coronavirus crisis should serve as a warning not to cut corners when it comes to the safety of our country 

Since the middle of the 1990s, the defence of Europe has been living less on borrowed time than on borrowed money – principally from the United States. For 25 years, the “free-rider” accusation has gradually become a threat to the cohesion and continuation of NATO. When President Trump originally threatened to cut back the US contribution unless European Nato allies invested more in their own defence, people like me hoped that this was just “shock therapy” designed to alert Europeans to their need to keep Washington onside. Yet, if that were the intention originally, it has failed to yield the desired result except, unsurprisingly, in former captive members of the Warsaw Pact, such as Poland and the Baltic States.

With hideous irony, it was on the eve of this year’s D-Day anniversary that reports emerged of a White House instruction to the Pentagon to cap US forces in Germany at 25,000 – a reduction of 9,500 personnel or 27.5% of the present total. Given that the President’s principal complaint is Germany’s failure even to try to reach NATO’s commitment for each member to spend at least 2% of its GDP on defence, it may be that some of the US forces drawn down from Germany will be deployed to other NATO states felt to be more deserving; but the omens for that do not look good.

But the UK does not have cause for complacency about its role in bringing about this low point in US-NATO relations. As the Defence Committee has often explained, six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent “peace dividend” cuts we still used to spend fully 3% of GDP on defence. The Blair and Cameron Governments successively reduced this to 2.5% and 1.8% respectively, when calculated on a like-for-like basis. Only by changing the method of calculation, legitimately but misleadingly, have we maintained our notional present-day figure of 2.1%. See, for example, HC 2527, Shifting the Goalposts: Defence Expenditure and the 2% Pledge – an Update, published last July. 

Even more troubling has been the diplomatic disaster of our flirtation with Communist China. The Cameron-Osborne love-in with Beijing continued during Theresa May’s short-lived premiership. Her statement in front of the Liaison Committee in May 2019 that the telecommunications giant Huawei is “a private Chinese company” was no slip of the tongue. Her unofficial deputy, David Lidington, had made the same preposterous assertion one week earlier when asked if the then Government accepted that “Huawei is intimately linked with the Chinese Communist Government and their deeply hostile intelligence services”.

The coronavirus crisis has belatedly put an end to the wearing of such rose-tinted spectacles. Even if China is eventually absolved from creating covid-19, the Communist regime’s lethal incompetence (or worse) in controlling its spread – and in communicating warnings – to the outside world will never be forgiven. 

As a result, it is now increasingly probable that Boris Johnson will restore our damaged relationship with our Five Eyes allies, draw back from the brink, and agree to disinfect our broadband networks completely by a specified date. Only then will we be markedly less vulnerable both to backdoor entry and to denial of service in any period of confrontation with China. 

After the Virus

The Government will, nevertheless, be on a hiding to nothing if it seeks to claw back, in the short to medium term, even a fraction of the billions spent on emergency measures during the past few months. Such colossal sums will not be recoverable for decades – if ever. Their addition to the national debt is on a scale comparable to the funding of a country’s armed forces in a war of survival. Most of our allies and our adversaries find themselves in a similar situation.

It would be entirely the wrong lesson to draw, therefore, that our defence budget should undergo further punishment on top of its already manifest inadequacy. What covid-19 teaches us, yet again, is the need to prepare in peacetime for crises to come. 

When the inevitable Public Inquiry is held into how the pandemic was handled, much attention will focus on what prior exercises were held, what conclusions were reached, what recommendations were made, and how many of them were carried out.

If it emerges that Government chose to ‘take a chance, hope for the best and keep its fingers crossed’ that a pandemic would not happen on its watch, it will undoubtedly be condemned for failing to invest in procuring, for example, strategic stocks of PPE and the capacity speedily to replenish them.

There is a strong parallel here with the perpetual reluctance of democratic governments to invest in adequate armed forces in peacetime, at the cost of more popular expenditure on other public services. Time and again, we are told that “defence is the first duty of government”; but just as frequently we find that governments gamble on wars not breaking out suddenly, at very short notice, or no notice at all. Yet, that is what usually happens.

Keeping the country safe – from predators as well as from pandemics – requires major peacetime investment. We should not be forced to make unacceptable choices (as we nearly did during the abortive original National Security Capability Review) between vital assets like amphibious assault ships, on the one hand, and capacity to meet so-called “21st Century threats” in cyberspace, on the other. 

We need flexible forces capable of deterring, containing and, if necessary, defeating a whole spectrum of potential threats: from nuclear blackmail, through conventional aggression, to all the ambiguities of conflict in the “Grey Zone” of hybrid warfare.

The lesson of covid-19 is that sometimes the worst-case scenario really does happen. It should serve as a warning not to cut corners where the safety of our country is at stake.


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

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