Spurred by a new deployment of his country’s soldiers to Afghanistan, British Conservative MP Dr. Liam Fox — the Tories’ "shadow defence secretary" — has redoubled his efforts to reduce strain on British troops.
The United Kingdom’s spending on defense has substantially dropped in recent years, while their foreign military commitments have increased. Fox frequently draws attention to the fact that only 2.5 percent of their gross domestic product funds their military, which is the lowest figure since the 1930s. Since Tony Blair’s Labour Party came into power in 1997, British troops have engaged in five separate missions: Operation Desert Fox (1998), Kosovo (1999 ongoing), Sierra Leone (2000 ongoing), Afghanistan (2001 ongoing) and Operation Telic in Iraq (2003 ongoing).
He recently told the Edinburgh-based Evening Wire that "To drop to this level of the national wealth seems absolutely crazy. We have a smaller navy than the French and our ships are being mothballed. What a triumph for New Labour."
Fox has called on other NATO countries to increase their financial commitments to the international body, rather than relying on American and British money to pay for their defense structures.
He published an editorial last week in the Daily Telegraph where he wrote, "The idea that any of the EU states would ever be willing to contemplate spending on a scale that would match the level of protection afforded by the American defence umbrella is laughable… British taxpayers and troops are carrying a disproportionate burden because too many of our European allies are unwilling to shoulder their fair share."
I met Mr. Fox for a breakfast meeting on January 29, shortly before he was scheduled to meet with White House officials. Here is an edited transcription of our conversation:
How many troops do you have deployed at the moment?
Fox: The total size of our army is about 99,700 and something and we’ve got some 7,000 troops in Iraq and 6,000 in Afghanistan and that number is rising. We’ve got troops in Sierra Leone; we’ve got some troops in the Balkans–
There are a number of different missions you are on–
Yes. Exactly. And we’ve still got troops in Northern Ireland although that potentially is diminishing. The problem is that even according to the governments own figures we have been deploying well beyond our planning assumptions for about the last four years.
Meaning outside the budget?
Meaning they are deploying beyond the numbers of troops they think they can deploy in a sustainable way. And that is resulting in a number of problems. The overstretch means the times that troops get with their families is diminished. It’s an increased tempo, it’s an increased speed of rotations and with that you get a reduction in training time, you get a reduction leave. It has a cumulative effect, but not really a cumulative effect on morale because morale is pretty good among the armed forces who have a can-do mentality. But it has an effect because it puts pressure on families. And the one thing that guarantees an unhappy services man is to have unhappy service families. And that’s the position we find ourselves in. The last two years it has meant as a consequence that more people have left the Army than have joined the Army. The fact that there is only one battalion in the infantry in the British Army that isn’t under strain. Certainly, these problems are not unique to the United Kingdom. The effects of demographics and the labor market, we’re trying to compete for labor in a tight market, but nonetheless, to see experiences soldiers or airman retiring early is sad. It also has the unintended consequence of skills dilution because if you have someone who is quite skilled and senior who is retiring and they are replaced by a new recruit the skills base diminishes and that is also a problem.
The House of Commons Select Committee commented on that when they looked at our armed forces. They were worried about the level of training and support the territorial army was being given. They also were quite alarmed about the figures coming out of the Pentagon about the levels of mental health problems coming from Iraq veterans. It’s a high figure and we have a particular concern about reserve forces who don’t get the same decompression with their comrades after they have been in theater. That is something that will have to be tacked in the future.
But, at the moment it looks to be that we will be increasing our deployment to Afghanistan. That is going to lead to greater, not less strain on the forces.
Do you think it’s a problem with too many commitments? Or not enough money? Your critics say that your GDP has simply gone up too fast.
It’s a balance between, always a balance between commitments and resources. The point that I have been making is that the government has funded our military for a level of activity consistent with the Strategic Defense Review, which is about one medium size and one small mission at any one time. The problem is that while they’ve funded it for that, they’ve exceeded it in practice. You can’t expect the military to operate at a consistently high tempo on a budget designed for a much lower level of activity. It simply doesn’t square.
So, is the review incorrect?
There just has to be a decision made. Do we increase our resources to match our commitments or do we diminish our commitments to match our resources. That is about how we see the international security threat, how we see our alliances and partnerships operating, what share all those partners take of the burden and that would require quite a far-reaching review. We are engaged with that at the present time and we obviously come up with that before the next British election. But, there has to be a foreign policy baseline. You can’t simply behave like glorified accountants when it comes to military spending and that for too long has been the case.
Do you think that should focus more on protecting your country than going out and engaging these foreign military commitments?
This, I think is something that you get in the media, but is a false choice. This idea that you can fortify the island and no one will come and get you isn’t true for a number of reasons. We don’t face state-to-state threats. We face largely asymmetric threats. And, as we’ve seen from the London bombings, some of those who pose a threat may already be inside our borders. We are also in a very interdependent global economy where we have shared risks even if you accept it or not. So, terrorist attacks in other parts of the world may hurt us whether or not we are directly involved.
Can you comment about American troops surge to Iraq?
We hope that increase of troops will be successful. I have to say we are skeptical about it because of the level or troops who are already there and the level of insurgency, but we would like to see it succeed. One of the problems in Iraq remains the lack of institution building. When I was there last year a commander said to me "forget all your briefings. If you want to understand this place, imagine a 1920’s Chicago in the desert." What we’ve got is gangsters, racketeering, no effective policing, no law and order to speak of he told me. It’s not the democratic deficit we worry about here, it’s the fact the institutions on which democracy would be based are missing. There is no sense of policing that isn’t corrupt. No judicial system. No concept of human rights in the way that we understand them.
Everyone here talks about the difference between a political and military solution in Iraq, what is your take on that idea?
The idea that you could have no American troop presence and this could be sorted out with a cup of tea around the fire is charmingly naïve and dangerous.
You’ve had some big battles trying with your own government and trying to ge
other governments to step up their funding–
We have a constant battle with the Treasury. Over Christmas I looked at all the defense reviews in the UK that there have been since 1946. We had four reviews that we had up to the end of the Cold War all of which were lousy. They were Treasury-driven, all about getting better value for money rather than having a foreign policy baseline based on what would be likely threats to the country. I think it’s true of all Western governments that we tried to get too much of a peace dividend at the end of the Cold War. They were all too keen to save money. Pretty much all Western governments made their projections at the optimistic end of the spectrum and I think looking back that they didn’t really understand what fragmentation of the Soviet Union would mean. What it would mean for the dispersal of weapons. What it would mean for the potential for asymmetric terrorist threats and so on. I think that all Western countries are looking at a reappraisal of their security systems and I think most of them are coming to the conclusion that their armed forces aren’t big enough for the level of the challenges that we now face.
A lot of governments don’t want to face up to the financial implications of adequately dealing with the security threat. If you look at the silence by a number of governments on the Iranian nuclear question I wonder when you listen to that silence if we are not hearing the death rattle of the proliferation treaty. I think a nuclear-armed Iran, to an extent, is the same sort of challenge we faced with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The question is whether we have the stomach to face up to it now rather than putting the challenge to future generations.
In response to your earlier point about the government’s funding. It’s particularly true about some of our European allies. 2.5 percent of our GDP this year, the UK is spending its lowest proportion on national defense since 1930. Germany is only spending 1.4. The Netherlands 1.7, Spain 1.2, Austria in the European Union is spending 0.7.
So, what is the solution? Should we make a push to start suspending members?
They should have to get a mechanism for that. But what is interesting is that even a talk of such a discussion shows it’s been taken for granted by many countries. And, I don’t mean to single out Hungary; you can apply it to a number of countries. In fact, only four of the NATO members are above the 2% GDP floor. It’s a point that needs to be made. It surprises me no British or American politicians are willing to make that point forcefully.
I want to go back and talk about Iran because I have been reading that you think there can be a diplomatic solution there.
I think you have to have a carrot and stick approach to Iran. I think while even understood how to use the stick, we haven’t understood the carrot. Clearly, it’s very difficult to deal with a man like Ahmadinejad who in my mind is an absolutely dangerous fanatic. But, Iranian politics is extraordinarily complex and Ahmadinejad’s power base does seem to be weakening. That seems a sensible time to try and identify who in Iranian politics might listen to more moderate voices. Even if the voices are more pragmatists rather than those who may compromise with the West. Just to not speak it not right for politics. Even in the darkest times of our relations with the Soviet Union we kept up our level of contacts and the level of diplomatic representation in Moscow was huge. Even when we were pointing missiles straight at us and adding warheads at a fairly rapid basis. It seems to me a disconnection in policy therefore, while that led us to a successful conclusion of the Cold War and of course eventually ending a hard-line regime we at least reached out to Gorbachev who we felt we could do business with. And, in any case, in terms of the global public relations battle, to be seen as intransigent and unwilling to talk doesn’t actually help at a time when there is quite strong anti-American and anti-British feelings.
What else will you be talking with the White House about?
The most important issue in geopolitics is obviously the Iranian nuclear question. The stability of Afghanistan. What will happen in Iraq? The rise in Russian resource nationalism and the rearmament that is going on in Russia. There are other more immediate political issues, like defense technology transfer. People like myself want to see Britain move much closer to Anglo-American procurement. Not just as a strategic concept, but because of the economies of scale we would get and be involved with the American defense industry base. There’s a lot of money being spend re-inventing the wheel in the defense industry globally. For us to take that position is very difficult with this feeling coming out of Capitol Hill that the Pentagon wants to fight global, but buy American and not be willing to be generally involved with the defense technology transfer that we require. If we don’t get the defense technology assurances we require it would mean that we would be utterly dependent on the United States. That is not acceptable for the question of sovereign capabilities. It also would be likely to push the United Kingdom into a more European base procurement program which is neither in the interest of the United States of the UK. To the politicians on Capitol Hill who like to make isolationist-sounding noises, the person who would be happiest about this failure would be Jacques Chirac.