It is easier to assert that Britain needs a modern military capability than it is to say what that means. The existence of dangers – from terrorism and cyberwarfare to nuclear proliferation and a pattern of Russian provocations – is beyond question. But to identify a threat is not the same as knowing how to handle it and, since the imagination can always conjure a worst-case scenario, the shopping list of desirable hardware can be long and very expensive.
But resources are finite; compromise is inevitable. Military chiefs always want bigger budgets, and ministers, keen to show voters that they take no chances with national security, are reluctant to contradict the khaki lobby. Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, has gone a step further, noisily demanding cash from the prime minister and the chancellor.
Mr Williamson has let it be known that he requires an annual budget uplift of up to £4bn. He has been emboldened to push this case by the recent decision to allocate an extra £20bn to the NHS. If austerity is eased for hospitals – the argument goes – why shouldn’t defence be next in line for largesse?
The military has been squeezed since 2010. But it also has a record of wasteful procurement. Philip Hammond knows this better than most since he strived, as David Cameron’s defence secretary, to bring rigour to the system. Now chancellor, Mr Hammond is unimpressed by Mr Williamson’s posturing. He is right to be sceptical. The defence secretary’s short cabinet career has been marked by transparent self-aggrandisement, unsupported by proof of competence.
The dilemma at the core of this dispute is not new. It is the latest chapter in the prolonged agony of Britain’s adjustment to its status as a large regional power – a big player by European standards – and not the imperial superpower it collectively remembers once being.
There is a hole in the defence budget because the UK has made costly commitments to sustain a self-image as a nation capable of projecting force around the globe. These include renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent and new aircraft carriers complete with new fighter jets to be carried on them. Either the ambition – sometimes described as the maintenance of “tier one” power – must be scaled back or money must be diverted from other departments. In reality, the tier one aspiration is a rhetorical prop. The UK will never equal China or the US for military capability. It cannot match Russia or India for volume of weaponry. The UK has some world-class features in its security arsenal – its special forces and intelligence services, for example. But it is not a superpower and should not bankrupt itself pretending to be one.
To recognise that limitation is not weakness or defeatism. It takes cultural confidence to reach the hard-headed view of how the nation’s resources can be marshalled to maximise power and influence in the world. Pretending that such choices don’t need making is the backward-looking and cowardly path: one that diminishes security in the long term by dodging necessary strategic analysis.
Maintaining the fiction that Britain is a stand-alone military force of global dimensions defers the business of cultivating the best regional security arrangements. It is a symptom of the Brexit delusion: that the UK has no need of Europe and is somehow greater without its neighbours. No outside observer believes that to be the case. Theresa May doesn’t believe it either, which is why she promises an intimate ongoing security partnership with the EU.
Austerity has been hard on every public service, including the armed forces. The military is a deserving recipient of adequate funding, especially in a volatile international climate, but its appetite for funding is not so special that it needs no interrogation. The right response to shifting security threats is a strategically focused calibration of priorities and available resources. Posturing by the defence secretary, fuelled by naked personal ambition and tinged with imperial nostalgia, is not conducive to getting a realistic appraisal of what size and military capability most effectively serves the nation and its allies.