The following is a critique of the defence policy outlined in the Liberal Democrat Manifesto published for the 2019 General Election  and presumably still extant at time of writing (June 2020). Manifesto commitments are reproduced verbatim followed by my commentary.
This article was submitted by Stuart Crawford, a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Crawford now works as a political, media, and defence and security consultant in Edinburgh and is a regular commentator and contributor on military and defence topics in online and other media, including the UK Defence Journal.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the UK Defence Journal. We aim to encourage debate around defence as part of our new ‘Views on Defence’ series, a look at opinions of major political parties and other organisations in the UK in the run up to the Modernising Defence Programme defence review being released.
Page 91: A Secure Defence in the 21st Century
The Armed Forces play a vital role in the defence of the nation: government should have a deep sense of duty to properly support service personnel and veterans. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour have shown a commitment to this: the Conservative government in particular has spread chronic low morale, misspent money on vanity projects and failed to recruit and retain people with the skills needed for 21st century warfare. Liberal Democrats are the only party who understand the new challenges faced by the Armed Forces and who are committed to properly supporting them.
Comment. This is bland, anodyne and says nothing of any consequence on what the party thinks the armed forces are for and what they ought to do. It talks vaguely about “new challenges” and the need to support the forces without saying what either of those might be. Do we actually know?
- Commit to the principle of collective self-defence as laid out in the North Atlantic Treaty and spending two per cent of GDP on defence in line with NATO recommendations: as the economy grows after we have stopped Brexit, this will mean an extra £3 billion over the parliament.
Comment. In 2017 the UK spent 2.1% of GDP on defence, so this signifies a reduction on past spending. Most commentators agree that for the UK to continue to maintain a full spectrum military capability spending needs to be at least 2.5% of GDP and preferably rise to 3%. The party should raise its commitment to 2.5% as a minimum.
- Strengthen our armed services and address critical skills shortages by recruiting STEM graduates to be armed forces engineers, providing ‘golden handshakes’ of up to £10,000. [Copied verbatim from the 2017 GE Manifesto]
Comment. The opening phrase “strengthen our armed services” is hopelessly vague. Strengthen them how? In what areas? To what purpose? The commitment to STEM graduates is fine but why the emphasis on engineers? Why not doctors and medics, for example? What is really needed, given the parlous state of recruitment and retention across the armed services, is a commitment to provide better conditions of service – pay, housing, working environment, family support, pensions, care after service, veterans’ support to mention but some.
- Promote an international treaty on the principles and limits of the use of technology in modern warfare.
Comment. What does this mean? There are lots of international treaties like this. What aspect are we talking about here?
- Recognise the expansion of warfare into the cybersphere, by investing in our security and intelligence services and acting to counter cyberattacks. [Copied verbatim from the 2017 GE Manifesto]
Comment. Fair enough, but how much investment? Would this be new money in addition to the existing defence budget or a reallocation of funds?
- Maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent. We propose continuing with the Dreadnought programme, the submarine-based replacement for Vanguard, but procuring three boats instead of four, and moving to a medium-readiness responsive posture. This would mean replacing continuous at-sea deterrence – instead maintaining the deterrent through measures such as unpredictable and irregular patrolling patterns. [Copied verbatim from the 2017 GE Manifesto]
Comment. I suspect this is an attempt at compromise to show that the party is essentially anti nuclear weapons philosophically but also serious about defence. This policy is neither fish nor fowl and needs radical revision.
My personal view on Trident is as follows:
- I believe that from a moral and ethical standpoint it is so indiscriminate as a weapon – sophisticated targeting systems notwithstanding – and is so powerful that huge collateral damage to people and property is unavoidable, and that accordingly no civilised country would ever use it.
- I don’t believe it is truly independent in that I cannot imagine the UK ever employing it without at least the tacit approval of the US (although I also understand that technically it can be used independently) nor do I think it is a universal deterrent – it didn’t deter the Argentinians in 1982, nor the Iraqis in 1990, nor the Taliban and/or Al Quaeda. Nor do I truly believe there exists a credible nuclear threat to UK interests from so-called rogue states like Iran or North Korea. (It may stop the UK being bullied by Russia in the final analysis but I’m not convinced of this).
- I believe that Trident is essentially a political weapon, not a military weapon, whose main function is to maintain the UK in the front rank of global powers and guarantee continuing national membership of the UN Security Council, NATO etc etc, a posture supported by successive Westminster governments over the past 50 years plus.
- Its maintenance, and eventual replacement, places an enormous burden on the MoD’s budget and soaks up vast funds which would be far better spent on the UK’s conventional forces – more ships for the RN, better equipment for the army, better pay and conditions, and better provision for ex-service personnel when they leave the armed forces, a particular interest of mine at the moment.
To summarise, I think Trident is in fact a weapons system which has no conceivable use and which is far too costly when other priorities should prevail. Therefore I do not think it should be replaced when it comes to the end of its lifespan by anything similar.
There is an opportunity here for the party to adopt a radical and innovative approach to the UK’s nuclear deterrent and nuclear disarmament. I would strongly advocate that the best position would be to allow the current system to continue until obsolescence, argue against its replacement by the new Dreadnought fleet, and use the consequential savings (anywhere between £41-£100 Bn depending on whom you believe) on much needed funding of our conventional forces or, indeed, elsewhere in the overall budget.
- Support the Armed Forces Covenant and ongoing work to support veterans’ mental health.
Comment. The Armed Forces Covenant is advisory only and unenforceable. We should commit to embedding it in law.
- Improve the quality of service housing by bringing the MoD into line with other landlords, giving tenants the same legal rights to repair and maintenance as private tenants.
Comment. Agreed, most important.
Further Comment. This defence policy manifesto extract seems to have been written in a void outside the context of current defence developments by somebody/ies who has/ve no idea of defence and security matters.
The problems with the UK’s armed services are clear to see. A huge hole in defence spending, ageing, obsolescent, and lack of equipment across all three services, a real problem with recruiting and retention (retention particularly) and an unrealistic over commitment of scarce resources. This toxic combination can result in low morale were it not for the high standard of training and leadership that the armed forces continue to enjoy.
It is my view that the party’s defence policy should be redrafted to incorporate the following pledges:
- A firm commitment to increase the percentage of GDP spent on defence and security to 2.5% immediately and 3% in due course (5 years?)
- A firm commitment to embed the Military Covenant in law and make its provisions enforceable through the courts as required
- A commitment to set up a representative body for servicemen and women from all three services, separate to the chain of command, as other countries round the globe have done
- A pledge to take veterans’ affairs seriously and to set up a fully staffed Department for Veterans’ Affairs in Government. Palming off veterans’ care to the charitable sector just won’t do any more.
- A radical shift on policy on the nuclear deterrent and nuclear disarmament, with the abandonment of the renewal of the SSBN fleet after the current Vanguard/Trident D5 combination becomes obsolete around 2035-40, effectively delivering unilateral disarmament and a lead to the rest of the nuclear armed powers and at the same time removing an immense burden on the defence budget
- A thorough review of armed services personnel’s pay and conditions of service, with a view to introducing, inter alia, better pay, better housing, better health care, better families’ services, and guaranteeing a job for everyone leaving the services after 9 years’ service or more