Ancient warriors were said to terrorize their enemies by piling up their valuables in plain sight and burning them to show off their power. That is now official British defense policy.
Boris Johnson feels the need to show the world that he is fit and well by humiliating his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and indulging his most wasteful department, defense. It’s giving you an additional £ 21.5 billion of taxpayer money, an increase of up to 15% in real terms. This has already wrecked the foreign aid budget and pokes fun at all the talk about tightening your belt to pay for Covid. Johnson has also gotten rid of next year’s “integrated defense review”, a pet project of the now clearly defunct Dominic Cummings. This is a chaotic government.
The language in which Downing Street is selling this bonanza leaves no room for doubt. The intention is to portray the locked-in prime minister as bravely decisive. It’s to please US President-elect Joe Biden in hopes of a post-Brexit trade deal. Johnson knows he will be hurt by Brexit to “strengthen our global influence.” It is also to show other cabinet ministers that blind loyalty, such as that of Johnson’s friend, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, will be amply rewarded.
None of this has to do with defense. In that regard, Johnson says his spending will “end the era of withdrawal” and allow Britain to “defend free societies around the world.” What withdrawal and what societies we are not told. Johnson also does not list those of his predecessors who he believes are the ones who retire alive from lilies. We simply have to imagine Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China reeling in terror at the sight of Johnson’s waste and power. Their ruthlessness will be gasped at their spending so much as they snatch food out of their schoolchildren’s mouths, starve their care homes for migrant workers, fill the chumocracy with £ 21 million and spend billions on a railroad in Birmingham. They are supposed to fear such a man will do anything.
The now overjoyed apartment is known for its waste. Cummings himself blurted out in a March blog that he “has continued to squander billions of pounds, enriching some of the worst corporate looters, and corrupting public life through the revolving door of officials / lobbyists.” The Defense Ministry is said to be suffering from a procurement black hole, estimated at £ 13bn of accumulated overspending on top of its £ 41.5bn annual budget. Francis Tusa of Defense Analysis describes this hole as “not a Treasury problem but a Ministry of Defense problem,” adding that the deal simply “rewards mismanagement.”
We can accept that part of this money goes to a solid defense. It will enhance cyber protection to defend the British, Johnson says, from attacks on “cell phones in their pockets or computers in their homes.” That’s fine, but surely it’s appalling that the Defense Ministry is only now becoming a “cyber force” and “an artificial intelligence agency to develop autonomous weapons systems.” What have you been doing with our money for the past 20 years?
The answer is that almost all acquisitions are focused on fighting the infamous “last war, except one.” To read modern defense literature is to disappear into memories of the Second World War. Billions are spent on Trident tanks, fighter jets, aircraft carriers and missile submarines, ready to “strike back” in a matter of hours, as if Stalin or the dreaded Hun were on the horizon.
Desperate to make some use of his new £ 3 billion aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, Johnson is shipping it to the South China Sea at a great cost with four protection vessels. It’s hard to see what this will do beyond offering target practice for China’s massive air and underwater defenses. Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force wants a new generation of Tempest fighter jets. Earlier this year, a similar debate erupted over the future of the army’s Challenger 2 tank force, designed to fight El Alamein on the plains of central Europe.
There is no remotely conceivable military threat to what Johnson calls “the kingdom of Great Britain” that requires massive conventional defenses, nor has it existed for 70 years. Other European countries are not trembling for lack of British armor. The wars Tony Blair and David Cameron fought were all adventures of aggression, not defense, mainly against poorly armed but highly motivated Muslim countries, whose problems proved too much for us.
These “withdrawals,” as Johnson calls them, were because defense resources had been earmarked for a glamorous team, rather than infantry trained for street fighting. Today, the main threat to British interests abroad is precisely these entanglements. The UK’s ability to send soldiers around the world encourages ambitious ministers to make senseless interventions. If Donald Trump had won the U.S. election, he may have lured Johnson into war with Iran.
Public spending that can only be validated by abstract nouns like influence and status is likely to be wasted. The only concrete use announced for the cash this week was for the military to monitor the coronavirus and for acquisitions to help “job creation.” There must be less expensive ways to achieve these benefits.
As it stands, we are left with a budget backed by waffles – waffles that hide waste. Apparently some of the money will be spent on a new military “space command,” so Johnson can send rockets to blow things up in space. Quoting the opportunity cost may be simplistic, but when 280,000 people are homeless, spending on children’s toys is obscene.
• Simon Jenkins is a columnist for The Guardian
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.