Douglas Carswell

23 NOV 2015

We need new defence thinking to fight the new wars

Today, the Government launches the Strategic Defence and Security Review. This is an opportunity to rethink our strategic assumptions, and it is all the more essential that we do so in light of the recent Paris attacks.

Put simply, jihadist terror blurs the boundary between external defence and internal security. Our secret intelligence agencies are as much on the front line as our troops serving in northern Iraq or Cyprus. Defence spending must reflect this.

We need to strengthen our partnerships with democratic allies around the world, not merely those members of NATO with whom we joined forces to counter the old Soviet threat.

With unprecedented pressure on our public finances, and some extraordinary new and demanding security challenges, now is the time to rethink how we convert money into military muscle. The brutal truth is that we have not always been very good at getting bang for our buck.

That tended not to matter during the post-Cold War interlude when we could all sleep safely at night under the protection of the American hyper power. Long may the Pax Americana continue - but even Uncle Sam was not able to avert the Paris atrocity.

We face what academic Mary Kaldor has termed "new wars" – asymmetric threats waged between a combination of states and non-state networks. This is not a reason to carry on with clumsy Cold War era defence procurement, but all the more reason to ensure that we are nimble in developing and researching new weapons.

For too long, UK defence procurement has been plagued with problems. Major projects routinely come in late and over budget. Some, like the Nimrod MRA4 spy plane, never get off the ground at all. Complications in these projects and others have left us without key military capabilities.

UK defence procurement elevates the vested interests of defence contractors above the national interest. Elements of the defence budget have been spent as if they were part of a job creation scheme. This needs to stop.

Even in World War II, we relied on our allies for key munitions and equipment. Britain's defence industry today would not function without collaboration with foreign manufacturers.

Successive governments have consolidated the UK defence industry. In doing so, they sought the advantages of scale. What they also did was constrain supply.

In any market where supply is constrained, the seller sets the terms of trade. So, too, in defence. This is just one of the reasons why "defence inflation" is so high. Its also explains why despite having the fifth largest defence budget in the world, our armed forces are often ill equipped.

Ministers need to move towards more "off the shelf" procurement. Yes, there are certain weapons systems that we need to manufacture entirely ourselves. But there are many bits of kit that frankly we should buy off allied countries.

Various governments have tried collaborative production of different weapons systems – with mixed results. We ought to do more to try joint purchasing to shift the terms of trade away from contractors and drive down costs.

Thanks to the UK's absurdly complex procurement system, the UK defence budget currently has to pay for more than 10,000 officials to manage different contracts. Think of it as PFI gone mad.

Yet in the last Parliament, the regular army was cut by 20,000. Ministers last week announced an additional 1,900 intelligence officers. How many more we might we yet have if we did not have such a cumbersome procurement system?

The West faces serious threats. We do not have the luxury of misspending. Now is the time to change.

This article was first published by The Telegraph.

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