Changing threats and shrinking budgets: something has to give

Defense budgets have hit the headlines again this week, as United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Samantha Power, flew to Brussels to urge European nations to rethink their defense spending plans. On current projections, no European country – with the exception of Estonia – will meet their NATO defense spending target of 2% of GDP in future years; and five European NATO countries, including the UK and Germany, are actively making cuts to their defense budgets amidst ongoing austerity. In the UK, where defense this year is hovering just above the target, key spending decisions are set to be taken by a new government after May’s General Elections. Unless things change significantly we can expect the 2% target to be missed by 2016/7, whatever government is in office.

Ambassador Power, whose comments to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on 10th March have also been widely reported, urged European partners to meet their NATO commitments, pointing to a widening gap between US and European defense spending. These comments come off the back of reports by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the European Leadership Network, highlighting the anticipated changes to European defense spending in 2015 and beyond.

Debate over spending priorities is far from new. Public funds are consistently high in demand but limited in availability, and the range of opinions over spending options is vast. But what is perhaps more interesting is the thinking at the core of Ambassador Power’s comments, that the threats faced by Europe and the US are shifting dramatically and require greater operational commitment to address them.

Ambassador Power’s recent appeal in Brussels for increased European military spending focused not on nuclear weapons, but on peacekeeping forces, rapid deployments, and the capacity to address “collective security challenges” such as pandemics, terrorist threats and the emergence of the Islamic State. She highlighted that such threats are growing, rather than diminishing, and are becoming increasingly diverse. These trends may make it increasingly important to review current definitions of military spend, if we are to allocate scarce resources to the most important and effective capabilities in response. It is not only the headline figure that is important.

The fact that the security landscape is changing is also not new. As part of its Strategic Trends Programme, the British Ministry of Defence issued a report in 2010 entitled “Future Character of Conflict”, which explores how global security challenges are changing, specifically for the UK. Similarly, the Quadrennial Defense Review published by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2014 explored the shifting security considerations for U.S. national security. These reports highlight developments likely to influence the future security environment, including the role of non-state actors; global connectivity and the rapid spread of information; technological developments, including (but not limited to) cyber-threats; and the increasing interactions between states, non-state entities and the public.

These changing security considerations are perceptible in the public domain: reports about cyber attacks, ISIS, or the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo staff and offices in Paris, headline our daily news cycle. On a more traditional state-to-state level, there is also extensive public debate about Russia’s position towards Ukraine, and growing anxiety about their potentially aggressive actions towards the Baltic states and eastern Europe more broadly.

What is less effectively debated is the question of how the UK (and French) nuclear weapons arsenals fit into this security equation.

The 2010 MoD paper on “Future Character of Conflict” set out front and center that the “UK has significant global interests and will therefore wish to remain a leading actor on the international stage”, in part as a result of its status as a nuclear power. The report focuses less on the practical military utility of nuclear weapons through the course of the paper, and more on the status and influencing power that these weapons are perceived to bring.

How sustainable this is – particularly as we think about limitations of our public funds and the expectations of our allies – is a question that needs to be more clearly addressed for public consumption. Europe’s international partners are urging greater operational investment in areas such as peacekeeping and counter-terrorism. They are highlighting a changing threat landscape, dominated by a rise in non-conventional weapons, a flattening of traditional state-to-state and society-to-state structures, and the heightened risk of rapidly-spreading pandemics as a result of a more interconnected society.

These are not threats that call for a nuclear response. The emphasis will rather be on nimble, practical utility. Clearly, there is a need to balance the short and medium-term threats, with long-term challenges, and nuclear weapons will undoubtedly feature in that discussion. But let’s not take assumptions about their perceived role and value as a given: particularly in a resource-constrained environment, it is essential that we look for ways to have a truly critical, open-minded discussion about our real needs, and about the most appropriate tools for addressing those challenges.

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