The following is a critique of the defence policy outlined in the Liberal Democrat Manifesto published for the 2019 General Election [1] 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?

We will:

  • 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.

CommentThe 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

[1] https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/libdems/pages/57333/attachments/original/1574258742/Lib_Dem_Manifesto_2019.pdf?1574258742

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JohnHartley
JohnHartley
2 months ago

Just after the 1983 election, I was one of the co-founders of “Liberals for a Minimum Deterrent”. The only time I feared for my life was facing a roomful of CND peaceniks. I got attacked by Tories for not backing full fat Trident with 800 warheads, while being attacked by the left for wanting a minimum credible deterrent. 1950s Austerity Britain worked out that 200 Warheads was the minimum credible deterrent. I think that is still about right. Of course the LibDems blew their great chance of being a semi permanent party of government, when Clegg wanted to be deputy… Read more »

Matt
Matt
2 months ago

Just some of my thoughts below. Appreciate open debate, ideas, facts and challenges. Hypothetical; If I can launch a series of nuclear attacks without someone firing any back, it puts me in a VERY powerful position. If I can launch a series of nuclear attacks but they CAN return in kind… it puts us both at a stale mate. Isn’t that what MAD (mutually assured destruction) is all about? Lets suppose we all abandon Nuclear weapons… welcome to WW1 & WW2 all over again. It will be my conventional forces and tactics Vs your conventional forces and tactics. And right… Read more »

Andy P
Andy P
2 months ago
Reply to  Matt

Agree Matt, its horses for course, we have an Air Force because its part of the ‘big picture’ of warfare, we’re building up the cyber side because its part of the defence big picture now too, other countries have it and will use it to their advantage. While not every country has nukes or the ability to deliver them easily to the UK, some do and the doubt that MAD brings levels the playing field. CASD is probably the best way to achieve the MAD side (assuming they don’t know where the bomber is) but its an expensive way of… Read more »

Ian
Ian
2 months ago
Reply to  Matt

On the subject of whether the nuclear threat was of any use in the Falklands war you may find it interesting to read Francois Mitterrand’s (now widely reported) account of his conversations with Thatcher in relation to Exocet.

WeeWill
WeeWill
2 months ago

Can we add to the above a properly funded (which would still be decimals of a percent of the defence budget) and long-term PR campaign to re-engage the public at large. Only with a majority of the population having a better understanding will defence issues get the attention they need and deserve; rather than the lip service paid twice a year in June and November. I’m not suggesting going full USA, although even as a Brit in uniform across there it is nice to get a ‘thanks for your service’ and a handshake from a complete stranger (that might get… Read more »

Matt
Matt
2 months ago
Reply to  WeeWill

Completely agree with you. I find the ‘thank you for your service’ absolutely brilliant. It seems to be ingrained in their culture. I think we could use a little of that here.
And thank you for YOUR service as well as anyone else reading this that has served.
[email protected]

Andy P
Andy P
2 months ago
Reply to  WeeWill

Each to their own WeeWill, I cringed when I got the “Thank you for your service”. Depending on who I was speaking to (no point getting into a debate about it) I’d say “Don’t thank me, I do it for my own selfish reasons”. You have to mind too that the reason the US forces get all these discounts is their pay has historically been pretty crap but they got lots of ‘perks’, I preferred to get my package as hard cash, much easier to get a decent mortgage with that and work towards paying it off. Not that I… Read more »

Bloke down the pub
Bloke down the pub
2 months ago

When I was still at school, back in the day, I wrote a letter to my MP who at the time was Sir Anthony Kershaw, the Chair of the Foreign affairs select committee. At the time, Trident was being proposed as a replacement to Polaris but the pressure on the defence budget was putting the Invincible class carriers under threat of cancellation or sale. In the letter I said that while I supported Trident, it should not come at the expense of properly funding strong conventional forces.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Joe16
Joe16
2 months ago

An interesting review- I would be keen to see the author’s opinions on the other main parties’ manifestos too. I would venture the question: If the author is proposing cancelling the nuclear deterrent, do we need to increase the military budget? I believe that the nuclear deterrent accounts for approximately 25%, which would be the equivalent of boosting it to 2.5% anyway. I also am not entirely convinced by our nuclear deterrent- it wouldn’t help dissuade Russia from their actions in the Baltics either, because they wouldn’t tip that nuclear threshold. Having said that, as a tool of maintaining British… Read more »

Matt
Matt
2 months ago
Reply to  Joe16

Hi Joe16 Would Russia/N.Korea or anyone else really use their nukes? It’s a great question. In life or death defence almost certainly… but as a first strike, I doubt it. And that’s the thing about nukes… doubting whether someone will use them. *Sometimes* it can be a stalemate. But there is one nation that’s used nukes in anger… our ally the USA. A nation we trust… right? And what was the result? Japan surrendering. There is a cost paid in any war whether its nuclear or conventional. I agree with you, debate is a good thing on something as contraversial… Read more »

Joe16
Joe16
2 months ago
Reply to  Matt

It’s a good question, who would use nukes? I would venture that part of the reason the US used them during WW2 was because flattening a city was already a strategic bombing objective for all the major powers. Using just one big bomb can’t have been that much of a jump, radiation fallout (not sure it was well understood at the time?) notwithstanding. These days, the question may be: who has shown themselves willing to do this more recently? Russia in Syria does spring to mind. So, would they be willing to launch limited nuclear strikes- more so than I… Read more »

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
2 months ago
Reply to  Joe16

Let’s consider the Russian playbook you outline (which seems to be the most likely scenario), a limited and sudden conventional land grab, followed by consolidation and nuclear threats to dissuade a retaking of that territory (all of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia to link up to Kalingrad, not just the Russian ethnic parts, there wouldn’t be any half measures). Let’s further assume for whatever reasons that the US isn’t involved, most probably due to an intense Russian disinformation campaign to undermine political will through social media, i.e. promoting the “its not our war” message. I agree that its unlikely the UK… Read more »

Joe16
Joe16
2 months ago

You make and excellent point, a military side to the justification that I hadn’t considered fully enough. And this is why the debate must be had (as a nation, rather than just here). I absolutely think that CASD is the most cost effective form of nuclear deterrent that we could operate, I guess the question is whetehr operating it furthers British defence and political interests sufficiently for it to be worth it. Ultimately, wherever the deterrent cost comes from, it’s going to take up the same sized slice of pie and leave less for the rest. Our best chance for… Read more »

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
2 months ago
Reply to  Joe16

Being a nuclear power probably helps secure the UK’s position as permanent member of the UN Security Council and there is significant competition for countries to gain non-permanent status, so its not unimportant political power for the UK. Personally though I look at CASD purely in military deterrence terms and argue for it on those grounds alone, along the lines I outlined. Some will argue the modern equivalent of “better-red-than-dead” or simply a blind faith that nuclear conflict will never be threatened and advocate for unilateral disarmament. Its a point of view. But in this context, Stuart’s position in the… Read more »

Jonathan
Jonathan
2 months ago

Yes absolutely, it’s a simple truth (with a very complex set of risks and considerations). If Russia has nuclear weapons we must have them. The big issue comes down to what does that nuclear force look like and how does it balance/impact on conventional forces. After all if you have no useful conventional forces the nuclear weapons will become as redundant as conventional forces faced with an enemy that is free to use tactical nuclear weapons without constraint. So the question then is do we need a guaranteed at all times completely safe second strike and substantial strategic response. For… Read more »

Jonathan
Jonathan
2 months ago
Reply to  Matt

More importantly, America did not Primarily just use Nuclear weapons on japan to force an early surrender. Most reviews of the time show that everyone knew japan was spent and just about ready to surrender. The destruction being applied by conventional fire bombing of Japanese cities was just as great as the two nuclear weapons used. As a fighting power and threat they were finished and effectively locked in place in the home islands. The main thrust of the nuclear strikes was a actually a message to our “Friend” Russia. Remembering that’s Stalin had the biggest ground army in the… Read more »

Rfn_Weston
Rfn_Weston
2 months ago

My worry with not replacing CASD would be that as quickly as Osborne shoe-horned CASD into the budget with zero regard to the impact, the second it wasn’t renewed – the funding would be taken from the budget and we’d end up with zero nuclear deterrent, and zero net gain to the overall budget. It’s so blindingly obvious that is what would happen.

Please someone give me one example of political action relating to defence expenditure over the last 20 years that would suggest otherwise.

Joe16
Joe16
2 months ago
Reply to  Rfn_Weston

I agree with the second part of what you said, the MOD would have to fight very hard to keep the CASD funds in their budget, or even a decent percentage of them.
However, our nuclear deterrent has always been in the defence budget- it was never shoehorned in. Pensions and other stuff were, for sure, and they should be returned to the normal budget so that our service people can be properly invested in while they are still serving.
https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8166/

Rob
Rob
2 months ago

I do hope, in the interest of balance, UKDJ will publish similar articles on the Conservatives and Labour. Truth is all of the man parties are lacking when it comes to defence. Just think Putin is now Czar for life and has a history of using illegal military force and the Communist Chinese are becoming more threatening daily, not to mention Hong Kong. The consensus on 2% is now redundant and was only ever a minimum anyway. 3% is much more realistic but after Covid I can’t see anything changing.

Nick C
Nick C
2 months ago
Reply to  Rob

I agree with you Rob, let’s have the good Colonel run his slide rule over the Cons and the Socialists and see where we get to. I also agree with some of the other posts above, being part of the nuclear club is very pricey but it does have its advantages, a seat at the top table is one. And if we didn’t have it and “saved” the money, as sure as eggs is eggs it wouldn’t be used to bolster our conventional needs. What I would also like to see is our glorious leaders opinions about the situation in… Read more »

Stuart Crawford
Stuart Crawford
2 months ago
Reply to  Nick C

I’m happy to have a look at the other parties’ defence policies if folk would like me to do so. I did the Lib Dem’s because they – and arguably the SNP – are the parties whose defence policies I am most familiar with. I’m grateful for all the comments so far. As I have said many times before, it’s only my considered view and I may very well not be right!

Joe16
Joe16
2 months ago

I for another would be very interested to see your review of them! Thank you for this one, it was helpful. I feel that I only ever look at the manifestos of the parties immediately before an election, which is not necessarily helpful when it comes to guaging how they will behave during the cycle of parliament. One of the things that struck me most was that it doesn’t appear that the Lib Dems have updated their public documentation to take account of the fact that there’s really no way of stoppping Brexit now. I know they have fewer MPs… Read more »

James M
James M
2 months ago

Stuart, as a few others have said, we’d love to see your analysis of the policies of the other parties

Ron
Ron
2 months ago

I have taken some time to think about this issue and asked myself the question, does the UK need a nuclear deterrent and if so can we afford it. I came up with the answer can we afford not to have it. As much as I would like to see the end of nuclear weapons the UK as long as other countries have them also needs them for “defence”. As one comment said if we don’t have them we could be held by the threat from a nation that does. I have sometimes wondered if we do need the full… Read more »

Steve R
Steve R
2 months ago

Whilst I 100% agree that defence spending should increase to at least 2.5-3% of GDP, I’ve always been curious; what would we get for such an increase?

– a 9th and/or 10th Type 26?
– all frigates and destroyers armed with NSM until Perseus?
– an 8th Astute?
– all 138 F35s, and maybe then some?
– more Tranche 3 Typhoons?
– more Apaches?
– upgrades for Chally 2?
– more Boxer vehicles, with some more fightiness?

Any combination of these, perhaps?

Ron
Ron
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve R

Steve R, the defence budget in real terms for the UK at the moment is about 1.8% GDP yes I know but its 2% but that includes pensions, UN deployment missions etc. So in money terms its about £50 billion annually. An increase from 2% to 3% is a 50% increase in money terms or an extra £25 billion per year, bringing defence expenditure to £75 billion. If 50% of the extra expenditure went on new equipment over a ten year period then that would be an extra £120 billion in new equipment orders above what is on order now.… Read more »

AlexS
AlexS
2 months ago

Both the LD and the commentary by the Lt.Col. reasoning relating to nukes is very poor. “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.” So you give all power of the nuclear weapons to what you call “non-civilized countries”? It begs belief. “I would strongly advocate that the best position would be to allow the current system to continue until obsolescence, argue… Read more »

r cummings
r cummings
2 months ago
Reply to  AlexS

I agree almost wholly with Col Stewart. (Note – a half colonel is addressed and referred to as Colonel, just as a Lt Cdr is addressed as Commander in the RN). Lib Dem policy is better and rather more robust on defence than I expected. Given that they have, like all the opposition parties, a significant pacifist/anti-war fringe, their stance on the nuclear deterrent is clear and positive. Though a nuclear deterrent is in honesty well beyond our means financially, puts a disastrous wrecking ball through the defence budget and is a bit of political posturing for a country no… Read more »

AlexS
AlexS
2 months ago
Reply to  r cummings

Whyn you say you agree “almost wholly” with Col. (thanks for proper addressing etiquette) when you favor nuclear weapons and he does not?

Anyway “Liberal Democrats” manifesto will even count less than the Tories.
The media forces that drive society do not care much for the Royal Navy.

While the Conservatives seldom conserve anything, Liberal Democrats are driven by narcissism of their peers.
I can see several ships in RN going to “social” and “cleaning the oceans” proposes.
It is their culture.

Ian
Ian
2 months ago

That the proposals on nuclear deterrence are nonsensical (i.e. how can you make patrols ‘unpredictable’ when it’s easy to tell if the boats are tied up on the dock) has been noted on this site before. The author’s comments on the lack of practical uses for Trident seem to be quite common among advocates of conventional military capability who perceive their own budgets to be threatened by the spend on strategic capabilities. This ignores the fact that the whole purpose of a deterrent is not to use it, so much as to strip credibility from the nuclear blackmail threats of… Read more »

Andy
Andy
2 months ago

I don’t think the question is would anyone use them now. The question is in twenty years the situation could be totally different, the rest of the world is building them again, the next nuclear power probably won’t be such a stable country. Once there gone we can’t get them back. So what we rely on USA in nato? Well trump has shown things can change quick and one day we could not have them. It’s a gamble we should never take.
However we should go back to funding it separately