This evening, the class I teach on military and defence policy will be discussing the concept of the ‘national interest’ and whether it has any value. One of the questions I will pose to the students is ‘who defines the national interest?’ That will lead us on to a discussion of the idea of the ‘military industrial complex’, and again we will debate whether this term has any value. The point will be to consider whether defence policy flows naturally from some objective ‘national interest’ or whether it is instead determined by certain narrow, vested interests (or perhaps some combination of the two).
In a happy coincidence of timing, the head of the British Army (of which once, a long time ago, I was a member), General Sir Nick Carter, has provided us with a relevant case study to chew upon in our class. The BBC reports that in a speech tonight to the Royal United Services Institute, General Carter will argue that, ‘Britain’s armed forces risk falling behind Russia without more investment.’ According to the BBC, General Carter ‘will say the Army’s ability to respond to threats “will be eroded if we don’t keep up with our adversaries” … He will add that Russia is building an increasingly aggressive expeditionary force, which already boasts capabilities the British Army would struggle to match.’
Making exact comparisons between countries is somewhat difficult, as exchange rates fluctuate considerably, and there is some disagreement as to what should be included as ‘defence’. According to some estimates (e.g. the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), Russia spends a bit more on defence than the United Kingdom, perhaps a little under US $70 bn, compared with about $50 bn for the UK. That might seem to support the general’s point. However, the most widely respected database on the subject, the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual Military Balance, lists British defence spending as being larger than that of Russia – $52 bn versus $46 bn. That doesn’t support the idea that Russia is more capable militarily than the UK. Perhaps a fair compromise might be to say that both countries’ spending is roughly in the same ball park. But Russia’s population is more than double that of the UK. Also, the UK is a very small country stretching just a few hundred kilometres from top to bottom, whereas Russia covers 11 time zones. The Russian armed forces have to defend not only their border with NATO, but also borders with the Caucasian and Central Asian states, China, and North Korea. The proportion of the Russian military which would be able to confront the UK in a conflict would be quite small. If you define capabilities in general terms, rather than a few specific items of military equipment, General Carter’s statement that Russia ‘boasts capabilities the British Army would struggle to match’ is rather hard to justify.
This is particularly so given that the UK is a member of NATO, and in the extraordinarily unlikely event that the UK and Russia ever went to war (the low likelihood of which is itself a point against General Carter), the British Army would never have to fight Russia alone. It would be part of a much larger alliance which outspends Russia by about 13 to 1. Just the European members of NATO outspend Russia by 4 to 1, and outgun it several times in terms of items of major military hardware (tanks, artillery, aircraft, ships, etc). NATO would certainly not ‘struggle to match’ Russia in the case of war.
The BBC notes that in his speech tonight, General Carter ‘will highlight Russia’s new cyber warfare capabilities.’ This is an odd choice of threat to highlight in order to appeal for an increase in defence spending. Combatting cyber threats isn’t an expensive activity, especially compared with, say, building and maintaining aircraft carriers. Mentioning it seems to serve only one purpose – to generate fear.
The BBC is quite clear about what’s going on here – there is ‘speculation of defence cuts’. To resist these, the Defence Minister has instructed the general to speak out about the Russian threat. The BBC says:
General Carter’s intervention is more driven by fears of further deep cuts to the UK’s armed forces. The Ministry of Defence has a black hole in its budget. It is rare for a military chief to make such an obvious and public appeal for more cash. But he’s doing it under the orders of the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. He has sent his generals over the top to put pressure on the chancellor.
When the Cold War came to an end, the justification for the British defence budget collapsed along with the Soviet Union. Defence planners instead came up with the idea of using the military to be a ‘force for good’, reshaping the world through armed intervention. Next, they used the terrorist ‘threat’ to justify increased budgets to pay for wars supposedly being fought against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of that worked out well, so the military has had to find a different justification for its money. And this is where Russia comes in useful. By exaggerating the Russian threat, the British army can make a claim to an increased share of the the country’s resources. The connection between the two – exaggerating threats and claiming resources – is quite explicit in this case.
We see here how the military industrial complex works. The army makes wild claims to justify its budget; the defence minister and his bureaucracy support the claims; institutions such as RUSI spread the word further among those who influence public opinion; and the press does its bit by giving space to the exaggerations. This isn’t a conspiracy – no doubt all these people believe in what they are doing. Long exposure to a given set of institutions tends to make people identify the national interest with those institutions’ interests. But the two aren’t the same. The British nation – that is to say its people – doesn’t benefit from conflictual relations with Russia; nor does it benefit from spending extra money on defence rather than on more productive activities (or alternatively, people getting their money back in the form of tax cuts).
Of course, the military industrial complex isn’t the only ‘complex’ making a claim on the government’s money. Other interest groups are pushing their own stories which justify them getting a large share of the pie at the expense of defence. They too will no doubt make exaggerations of their own. Government has to balance all the different claims for its resources from different groups, and in the process some understanding of the ‘national interest’ perhaps reasserts itself. But that shouldn’t deflect us from seeing in this story a crucial truth: one reason why Russia fear-mongering has become so widespread of late is that it serves powerful sectional interests to have an enemy.