We are defending ourselves against the wrong threats. For decades, UK governments have been fighting not just the last war but a redundant notion of war, spending hundreds of billions against imaginary hazards. At the same time, as we have become horribly aware over the past few weeks, they have neglected real and urgent dangers.
A month ago, just as the coronavirus began racing across the UK, the government boasted that it had raised military spending by £2bn to £41.5bn . Our military force, it claimed, was “the tip of the spear for a resurgent Global Britain”.
Most of this money will be spent on equipment and infrastructure. The UK is acquiring 138 new F-35 aircraft. According to the manufacturers, Lockheed, this “supersonic, multi-role” fighter “represents a quantum leap in air-dominance capability”. It “has the range and flexibility to win, again and again”. But win against what? Can it bomb the coronavirus? Can its “advanced stealth, integrated avionics, sensor fusion and superior logistics support” defeat climate breakdown? It is of as much use in solving the world’s complex and pressing problems as a jackhammer is to a watch-mender.
The most likely role for such weaponry is to wage elective wars in distant nations. Even in these circumstances, the F-35 could be outdated before it is deployed. The decisive weapons in such conflicts are likely now to be drones, not jets. It might have “multiple capabilities”, but all this means is that the UK will bring a Swiss army knife to a gunfight.
Last month Ben Wallace, the British defence secretary, gave a speech in which he characterised international law as “a straitjacket of permissions and authorities that make it hard for us to respond”. And he claimed, like any 19th-century colonial official, that the UK’s intervention abroad is “a force for good”. We have, apparently, “a moral imperative” to address conflict and instability overseas.
In reality, for the past 17 years the UK’s intervention abroad has been one of the major causes of conflict and instability. This nation’s involvement in the Iraq war has helped to cause collapse, continued fighting and the rise of terrorist groups. Our current contribution is to supply the hardware and training Saudi Arabia currently deploys in Yemen. Yemen is now suffering a humanitarian crisis: starvation caused by the Saudi blockade, and epidemics of cholera, diphtheria and other infectious diseases. Saudi Arabia has used British weaponry to bomb schools, markets and hospitals. Yemen’s health system is collapsing, just as Covid-19 is about to strike.
Last year, as a result of these atrocities, the UK’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia were ruled unlawful in the court of appeal. The court instructed the UK government to stop issuing new licences and to review its past decisions. There has been no review. When it was caught issuing new licences for weapon sales to the kingdom, the UK government claimed it had done so “inadvertently”. British bombs and rockets, fired by British jets, many of them deliberately targeting civilians, continue to rain misery on the world’s most vulnerable people. But this trade in death has been worth £5bn to UK companies since the war in Yemen began, so it continues to be supported by the government, in defiance of both UK and international law. This is not defence. This is mass murder and the perpetuation of conflict.
The great majority of the UK’s “defence” capabilities have no defensive purpose. There is no strategic reason to spend 2% of our GDP on military force. Other countries spend far less, and are just as secure. Nato’s tepid conflicts with Russia, stoked by each other’s paranoia, would be better resolved by diplomatic means. But people such as Wallace talk of only “adversaries” rather than of potential – and necessary – allies in confronting common threats.
That £41.5bn spent on the military is more than twice as much money as the UK spends on preventing climate and ecological breakdown – which are not just potential threats but current emergencies. It is hundreds of times more, as we are now discovering, than the government has spent on preparing for pandemics. We now know that both the UK and US governments ignored warnings about the potential scale and impacts of pandemics, and failed to invest in genuine national defence: extra capacity in the health system, beds, training, ventilators and protective equipment. Even when the disease began to spread, they downplayed its likely effects. They attend, lavishly and zealously, to imaginary threats, while neglecting real ones.
If ever there were a time for brokering peace, this is it. If ever there were a time for nations such as the UK and the US to meet their disarmament commitments under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and work with Russia and China to put their wasted billions to better use, this is it. If ever there were a time to reassess the genuine threats to our security and separate them from the self-interested aims of the weapons industry, this is it.
Yet our governments’ primary effort is to enhance their power at the expense of other countries. In failing to address our real and common threats, we are our own adversaries.