Fifty shades of grey? What the manifestos say on defence

Fifty shades of grey? What the manifestos say on defence

Fifty shades of grey? What the manifestos say on defence

As the General Election campaign draws to a close Endeavour Public Affairs’ Liam Purbrick looks at what the individual parties had to say about defence in their manifestos and considers what this will mean for defence post May the 7th.

Liam is a defence and security expert.  Prior to joining EPA he spent nine years in the army as an infantry officer, developing his knowledge of defence and international affairs while taking part in operations in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  After spending his last military posting at the Permanent Joint Headquarters he worked in Whitehall as a civilian focusing on foreign affairs.

Defence issues rarely feature as prominently as the artfully composed photos of ‘hard-working’ families in the election manifestos of UK political parties.  In every manifesto of the main incumbent party since 1997 the defence paragraph has been relegated to the last third of the document, often to the very last section.  You have to go back to the manifesto of John Major’s Conservatives in 1992 to find a clear emphasis on Britain’s place in the world and military matters in the opening paragraphs.

What do we find in the run up to the 7th of May?  The ‘NATO two per cent’ defence debate has found a modest place in the campaign, while the issue of a Trident successor looms ever larger with the real possibility of  the anti-nuclear SNP as deal-maker in a hung parliament, but much of the nitty-gritty of the promised defence policies goes largely uncommented upon.  These are the highlights of what the parties say:


  • Political-Military Strategy: A ‘comprehensive political and military strategy’ to defeat Islamic State. To ‘continue to reject Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.’


  • Manning: No further reductions to regular forces personnel, including maintaining regular army strength at the currently planned reduced strength of 82,000. Continue with plan to increase the strength of the Reserves to 35,000.


  • Funding: To maintain a one per cent above inflation increase in defence equipment budget year on year, with £160 billion to be spent on equipment over the next 10 years.


  • Equipment Programmes: Mentions that the Government is currently procuring Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), seven Astute class submarines, Type-26 frigates, replacement Apache attack helicopters; the second Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier to be commissioned.


  • Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR): To take place ‘later this year.’


  • Nuclear Deterrent: Retain Trident continuous at sea deterrent; will build new fleet of four Successor Ballistic Missile Submarines.


  • Military Welfare: Work to address hearing loss amongst veterans; implement the recommendation of Lord Ashcroft’s review to improve the resettlement of service leavers into civilian life.


  • Political-military Strategy: ‘Long term, multinational political  strategy… essential to tacking extremism across the [Middle East]’.  Clear about ‘need to learn lessons’ of previous interventions, especially Iraq in 2003.


  • SDSR: To take place within the first year of a new government.


  • Nuclear  Deterrent: Maintains commitment to continuous at sea deterrent.


  • Military Welfare: A Veterans’ Register to be established; discrimination against service members to be made illegal; continue to rollout Veterans’ Interview Scheme to guarantee job interviews for veterans.


  • Defence Industry: Every company in the MoD supply chain to adhere to a cyber-security charter.  To consult on creating a statutory requirement for all companies to report serious cyber-attacks.

Liberal Democrats:

  • Nuclear Deterrent: No like-for-like replacement of Trident; end 24/7 ballistic missile submarine patrols; fewer nuclear armed submarines.


  • Arms Exports: Tighten arms exports regulation further, including a ‘presumption of denial’ in cases of export to countries with human rights concerns.


  • Political-Military Strategy: ‘Stand firmly alongside our allies around the world, but cannot continue committing troops into conflict at the drop of a hat.’


  • Funding: Two per cent of GDP to be spent on defence from 2015/16; in subsequent years to exceed this two per cent ‘substantially’, including an extra £4 billion by 2020.


  • Equipment Programmes: To investigate ‘off the shelf’ alternatives to JSF.


  • Nuclear Deterrent: To be retained.


  • Intelligence: To create role of Director of National Intelligence to coordinate work of the intelligence agencies.


  • Military Welfare: Service personnel on operations not to pay income tax; appoint a dedicated Minister for Veterans; create hostels for homeless veterans; guaranteed public sector jobs available for service leavers; build a dedicated military hospital; ensure veterans do not have to use war pensions to pay for social care; ‘Boots to Business’ scheme to assist veterans going into business.

Green Party:

  • Political Military Strategy: Pursue a policy of ‘defensive defence’; skills of armed forces to be used in ‘environmental defence’ and disaster mitigation and relief; end existence of permanent seats on the UN Security Council.


  • Nuclear Deterrent: Cancel Trident; decommission all nuclear forces and facilities; initiate      or join global nuclear abolition treaty negotiations.


  • Arms Exports: Stricter licensing regime; prevent sales to regimes which violate human rights, including Israel and Saudi Arabia; join or initiate negotiations to ban autonomous weapons (including ‘killer robots’), depleted uranium munitions, space-based weapon systems and weapons which leave explosive or toxic legacy.

Scottish National Party:

  • Political-Military Strategy: Priorities the High North and Arctic and countering cyber terrorism.


  • Nuclear Deterrent: Oppose new generation of nuclear weapons; no nuclear weapons to be based in Scotland; MoD to publish full projected through-life costs of Trident successor.


  • Manning: No further erosion of Scottish regiments; restore traditional Scottish regiments.


  • Armed Forces Basing: Conventional naval patrol vessels to be operating from Scotland by end of the Parliament.


  • Equipment Programmes: Maritime patrol aircraft to be procured off-the-shelf and based in      Scotland; Typhoon and Tornado aircraft to be fitted with anti-collision      technology for safety reasons; Type-26 frigates to be built in Scotland;      Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers to be refitted in Rosyth.


  • Defence Industry: More support to Scottish defence SMEs.


  • Military Welfare: Better support for bereaved families; support armed forces representatives      bodies being placed on a statutory footing.

Democratic Unionist Party:

  • Funding: Defence spending should not drop below two per cent of GDP.


  • Deployability: Armed forces must be able to undertake multiple simultaneous deployments, either alone or as part of multi-national forces.

Plaid Cymru:

  • Political-Military Strategy: Support a Welsh Peace Institute to inform leaders and promote conflict resolution; support an EU civilian Peace Corps to work in areas of potential conflict; any Westminster decision to engage in armed conflict to have the assent of the Welsh National Assembly.


  • Strategic Deterrent: Oppose replacement to Trident; oppose any relocation of nuclear weapons to Wales.


  • Forces Basing: Look at basing Welsh units in Wales.


  • Military Welfare: Improved legal advice, healthcare and counselling for veterans to be ensured by a Military Wellbeing Act. A dedicated Minister for Veterans to be appointed within the Westminster Government and further nominated individuals within the devolved administrations; further research into effective treatment for Gulf War veterans; support alcohol dependency strategy for troops; introduce Welsh red poppy.


Funding and personnel numbers:  Although under-reported in the media, the Conservatives’ commitment to maintaining regular troop numbers as well as the planned expansion of the Reserves and maintaining the ten-year equipment budget can be seen as a quiet triumph for the defence lobby.  It makes the darkest defence ‘worse-case scenarios’ recently mooted hard to envisage under any future Conservative-led government.

Proponents of a reinvigorated military might begin to feel that to fulfil the spirit as well as the letter of their manifesto; the Conservatives might have a serious aspiration to actually increase the defence budget looking beyond 2016/17.  Yet this, of course, is in the context of the funding angst of the last parliament, unprecedented in the MoD’s history.  The possibility of a major budget windfall remains an outlier as long as any future Conservative-led government maintains the manifesto’s headline policy of continued deficit reduction.  Realistically the MoD might well see the axe falling on defence expenditure not name-checked in this document, specifically exact numbers of JSF to be procured, support helicopter provision, and the maintenance of less tangible elements of capability such as readiness levels and training opportunities.  Similarly, we could expect to see Michael Fallon or his successor continue the recent purge on the MoD’s vast property portfolio.

The lack of references to defence budgetary aspiration, equipment programmes or troop numbers in the Labour manifesto could lead one to conclude that the MoD may find itself placed between the immovable object of deficit reduction and the infinite force of increased NHS and welfare expenditure under any future Labour-led government.  It seems realistic that Labour could well be prepared to make difficult decisions on maintaining the current ‘full spectrum’ of military capabilities which the UK is one of the few nations in the world to maintain.  If Labour were unable to form a majority government and were reliant on the SNP on a vote-by-vote basis, then there could well be a fraught debate in areas of defence as the SNP attempt to secure their well well-pulicised goal of removing Trident from Scotland.

Some will be sorry to see that the Conservatives included no clear commitment to maintaining the NATO two per cent spending target, having previously called on other NATO member states to step up to the plate and spend the two per cent.  UKIP and the DUP are the only parties with representation at Westminster in the last parliament to pledge to meet the NATO two per cent target.  UKIP have actually committed to a defence budget ‘substantially’ higher than the NATO two per cent figure beyond 2015/16.  Despite this, UKIP have not provided much detail on what capabilities and strategy it would seek the MoD to pursue with such a cash bonanza.  With any Conservative-led coalition or Conservative minority government likely to need the support of DUP MPs there will be a renewed focus on this two per cent figure given the fact that the DUP have made this one of their ‘red line’ issues.

Strategy and Trident: The Labour manifesto includes thinly veiled contrition about the history of Blairite interventionism and is careful to avoid any suggestion of maintaining specific capabilities beyond the nuclear deterrent. Indeed, across the parties a palpable phobia of significant foreign intervention is one of the characteristics of this year’s campaign.  Both Labour and the Conservatives acknowledge the danger of Islamic State and of Russian aggression but remain coy about the way forward.  While the ‘renewal of Trident’ issue has featured prominently in the campaign, little mention has been made of how far advanced the development of the ‘Successor’ programme is in train, with well over a £1 billion already spent.  The Liberal Democrats have promoted the possibility of fewer Successor submarines and the end to continuous patrols into public consciousness, with a lack of a definite commitment to boats numbers from Labour. Amateur nuclear strategists are likely to experience boom times as the ‘Main Gate’ final procurement decision point in 2016 is approached.

Military Covenant: Labour continues to play a strong hand on Military Covenant issues, while UKIP continues to make much of its pro-armed forces credentials with the most detailed Military Covenant agenda. With the Conservatives promising to follow-up on the Ashcroft review into service leavers, there is a clear cross-party agenda to assist ex-forces members in a time of redundancies and consolidation after the last decade’s operations.

It is easy to be skeptical about the parties’ defence offerings as merely differing in their shades of lacklustre. Specifically, across the board there are very few concrete commitments to budgets or – beyond the Conservatives – troop numbers.  In sum, the parties have avoided the inconvenience of stringent defence commitments on which to be held accountable; the direction of UK defence policy over the next five years is wide open. But perhaps there are two rays of sunshine is this gloomy vista.  Firstly, the acceptance of a Military Covenant is now universal and draws thoughtful attempts from all political directions to improve the lot of serving personnel and veterans.  Secondly, all the major parties now commit to the need for an SDSR and, presumably, at least the theoretical aspiration to articulate national strategic goals and then build armed forces which can meet them.  It remains to be seen if whatever flavour of government is in power from the 8th of May sees through this vital process without putting the budgetary horse before the cart of strategic objectives.

Published: Tuesday 05 May 2015

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