The illegal invasion of Ukraine has shown we cannot take risks with our defence capabilities especially when Russia is involved. Putin invaded Ukraine because he thought the West is militarily and politically weak, and he was right.
All talk in Westminster and Whitehall has been about cutting soldiers and tank numbers for the past few years – cyber and space technologies are the answer apparently. But mass armour and soldiers have a quality all of their own, as the Ukraine war is showing.
You still need boots on the ground to take and hold ground – no amount of cyber wizardry can replicate this; drones cannot hold territory. The cost of living crisis we are experiencing would not be half as bad if there was not a war in Ukraine, but the risk taken on our defence has contributed to it and found us all wanting.
I rarely agree with the Labour Party on anything, but rebuilding a viable defence force for the 21st Century is one thing they are right about. Whilst some public sector employees strike for even more money, the British military have been stretched to plug the gaps they leave, and do jobs during the Covid epidemic which have little to do with protecting this country. It is clear now that while building Nightingale hospitals, as well as conducting counter insurgency and special forces operations around the globe, the “heavy” metal required to deter the likes of Putin has been allowed to rust in tank sheds.
We must rebuild our forces and develop our domestic defence industry. The UK has a brilliant defence industry which is sometimes overlooked by governments wanting to save a few quid on foreign produced equipment. If we continue to gift equipment and ammunition to Ukraine, which we must, we should also develop domestic industry to sustain our forces in future and restock our ammo.
In equipment terms it appears our armoured capabilities, tanks, armoured fighting vehicles and artillery are most in need of renewal. The Challenger 2 tank must be upgraded or replaced with a completely new tank as a priority. It is difficult to estimate our ammunition stocks, but some commentators suggest we have only a few days’ supply remaining. Whatever the state, it is clear that ammunition stocks must be replenished. Procurers of military kit in government need to understand that companies today cannot afford to have stock “on shelves” for “just in case” and their strategy for supply to the military must realise this immediately.
To rebalance and update defence capability, we must be prepared to up defence spending to 2.5 per cent as a minimum, but more like three per cent of GDP. If the Germans, a defensive nation, can see that three per cent is a minimum, surely our leaders in Westminster can as well? If a party which produces the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, who opposed sending weapons to Ukraine and is critical of Nato, is able to judge that our defence spending must go up, perhaps we have got it badly wrong since the end of the Cold War?
If Ukraine is not the wake-up call to remind all that the first duty of government is to properly protect the nation, we really are in trouble. Pound for pound we still have the best fighting men and women in the world, but at the moment, this lightweight capability may be challenged against our heavy weight adversaries.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a former commander in the UK and Nato Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Forces