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Lessons on Defence Policy from America in 2012

    In the twelfth of the CPS' 'UK Policy Resolutions for 2012' series, Ted Bromund, the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation, explains what the UK can learn from US defence policy. This morning, in the eleventh in the series, Bernard Jenkin MP called for reforms of defence procurement.

    UK Policy Resolutions for 2012:

    • A sustained tenure for the Secretary of State for Defence
    • A better resourced Defence Select Committee
    • A realisation that defence is a core duty of the state

    My hope is that Britain will in 2012 learn a lesson from America on its defence policy. The lesson is not simply that Britain should spend more money on defence. It certainly should do that, but the limited and steadily shrinking defence budget is only a symptom of Britain’s underlying problem. Its real problem is that, while America regrettably takes defence less seriously than it used to, it is still far better off than Britain, which no longer treats defence as a centrally important political issue. The lesson Britain should learn from America, therefore, is that defence is a core duty of the state, and it is worthy of appropriately serious political care and attention. My policy wishes for Britain thus take the form of three New Years’ resolutions.

     

    UK POLICY RESOLUTIONS FOR 2012

    First, to the Right Honourable Philip Hammond MP, Secretary of State for Defence, my wish is simple: a long tenure in office, and the enjoyment of physical, mental, and political health therein. I wish this not because I regard Mr. Hammond as a particularly effective – or ineffective – minister, but because there is not the slightest hope that he will become effective if he suffers the fate of his predecessors. In the last five years, Britain has had five Defence Secretaries – Browne, Hutton, Ainsworth, Fox, and now Hammond. The contrast with the U.S. is telling: from 1997 to 2011, the U.S. had three Defense Secretaries, each of whom enjoyed a term of at least four years. In the U.S., the defense portfolio is regarded as important in a way that, in the U.K., it simply is not. But given the size and complexity of the MoD, and the multi-decade duration of many of its programs, even the most brilliant minister cannot begin to grasp its functions and problems in under a year. In fact, two years is probably the minimum. If Mr. Hammond is to render any real service to the nation and its armed forces, he should, barring an extraordinary display of incompetence, be left in place and receive the support of the Prime Minister until the next election.

    Second, to the House of Commons, and in particular to the Defence Select Committee, I wish renewed and increased seriousness of purpose in overseeing defence issues, and a larger and more expert staff to assist them in this. Historically, it is Parliament’s job to hold the government to account, and to ensure that the taxpayer’s money is spent sensibly and economically. Since under the British system, only ministers and special advisers are replaced after elections – as contrasted with the U.S., which replaces a broad swath of the upper management – MPs need to take a sustained and serious interest in political oversight. The alternative is, in practice, to allow the civil service status quo to dominate. In defence, where reform is badly needed, and where programs can run for decades, the need for Parliamentary attention – and I mean the entire Parliament, including Her Majesty’s Opposition, who have a distinct role – is particularly urgent. Yet House of Commons Select Committees, compared to their American counterparts, are understaffed, and serious attention to defence in the Parliament as a whole is at a terrible discount.  Worse, the Defence Select Committee is frequently criticized for its cozy relationship with the defence industry. It is certainly part of the Committee’s job to issue stinging reports after the fact, but it needs to do a better job of preventing failures from occurring in the first place. Yes, the U.S. system is based on the separation of powers and the British system is not, but the comparison between Britain and the U.S. is still telling: not only are Congressional committees heavily staffed, they are treated with greater seriousness by both their members and the executive branch. In other words, in Britain, both ministerial and parliamentary oversight of defence is structurally weak. Better oversight, aided by a larger and abler staff, might not have solved the U.K.’s procurement issues, for example, but it might have forced Britain to confront the issue earlier, and encouraged it to avoid piling up the liabilities that led in 2010 to sudden, sharp cuts.

    Third, to the government, my wish is that it will devote the serious care to defence that the subject deserves, and not be distracted by the idea that developing a review bureaucracy in defence has any necessary overlap with actually caring about it. The government has committed Britain to conducting a defence review every five years. This commitment stemmed partly from its belief – which is fair on its own terms – that Labour was not serious about defense, but also from the example set by the U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review system, which mandates a defense review every four years. Unfortunately, administrative structures cannot solve what are fundamentally political problems. The U.S. QDR system proves this: it has become an elaborate, energy-draining, bureaucratic weasel fight that serves mostly to develop a rationalization for what the White House has already decided to do anyhow. What Britain has done in mandating regular defence reviews is to give credence to the illusion that a regular review will somehow force it to be serious about defence. This system will not necessarily generate anything more than the illusion of caring. At the same time it will certainly institutionalize the bureaucratic battles that accompany all reviews. The lesson from the U.S. and its QDR is clear, and in this case the U.S. shows what Britain should not do. The only way to care about a subject is not to hold reviews: it is actually to care about it.

     

    Dr. Ted R. Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He joined Heritage in 2008 after a decade as the Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University, a research and teaching centre dedicated to diplomatic, military and strategic history, and grand strategy. He blogs regularly for the Centre for Policy Studies.  

    This article represents the views of the author only and does not necessarily represent the policy outlook of the Centre for Policy Studies, its board, staff or affiliated members.

    Dr. Ted R. Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He joined Heritage in 2008 after a decade as the Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University, a research and teaching center dedicated to diplomatic, military and strategic history, and grand strategy.

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