Comment: The politics of defence spending

Faux-patriotism, national security and the military-industrial complex have conspired to give us a desperately inefficient contracting system.

By Dr Matthew Ashton

Last week it was reported that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has spent roughly £500 million on external consultants over the past two years to provide technical advice. It might turn out at a later date that these costs are fully justified but going on past experience I doubt it. The fact that so many of these contracts were awarded without competition is also an issue for concern as it makes it very hard to demonstrate value for money. Overall this is symptomatic of a wider problem most countries have with defence spending, with far too much money going to inefficient projects and not enough to troops on the ground.

Of course wasteful and inefficient programmes aren't limited to the MoD; the recent fiasco over the national fire control service is testament to that. However it does seem that the Ministry of Defence has been plagued over the last few decades with commissioning large projects that end up running horrendously late and over budget. Take for instance the Eurofighter, now known as the Typhoon. It was originally budgeted to cost the UK roughly seven billion but ended up being billed at over thirty, not to mention being four years behind schedule. On the plus side this is nowhere near as bad as the Arjun tank which the Indian government first started developing in 1972 but didn't begin rolling off the production line until the 21st century.
Then there are the two new aircraft carriers the UK is building that are pretty much redundant the moment they're completed (and if reports are to be believed we won't have the planes to land on them). The only reason the project is going ahead is because we've been told that it would cost more to break the contracts then to cancel them (which some dispute), and it's a useful way to keep certain sectors of the British manufacturing industry afloat. Defence spending is one of the few remaining ways governments have of injecting money into the British economy without being accused of being Keynesians.

All of this begs the question, why do we seem to be stuck with such wastefulness when it comes to defence spending? In an age when Britain is engaged in multiple conflicts around the world governments should be focusing on making sure that we have the right army for the job and that our fighting men and women have the equipment they need to maximise their safety and chances of success. There seems to be five interlocking reasons for this not always being the case.

The first and most obvious is that Britain has a huge defence industry that needs the government to keep spending as much as possible on big projects. As a result of this, often cosy relationships are formed between defence contractors, politicians and civil servants. President Eisenhower referred to this as the military-industrial complex and was deeply sceptical of it. Today academics view it as an 'iron triangle' that distorts policy decisions in favour of big business. Hence us getting locked into contracts where it costs more to cancel them then to continue; even if the project is no longer needed. Politicians get into the mind-set when they think that it's better to throw good money after bad then to cancel the programme with all the resultant bad PR that comes with that.

A more straightforward reason is that so much of this technology takes decades to develop. Projects designed to fight a particular enemy can be over-taken by events rendering them redundant. As we don't know who our enemies are going to be in ten or twenty years' time this makes forward planning the world's most complex game of blind man's bluff. Equally a project started by one government might not be finished until three or four governments later. As a result opposition politicians are often woefully unwilling to critique defence spending mistakes as their side might have been responsible for the offending programme at one point or another.

Another reason is that a lot of defence projects are shrouded in the thick fog of national security. This is clearly necessary in a lot of cases as their effectiveness depends on their details remaining under wraps. However it shouldn't be used by politicians as an excuse when things go wrong to hide delays and costs from proper scrutiny.

Finally there is the fact that defence and the military is a very emotive issues which means rational arguments can sometimes get swept out of the way by faux-patriotism. I remember a conversation I once had with a politician who told me that, "British soldiers deserve the best equipment and that means buying British". In my admittedly rather limited conversations with British soldiers the feedback I got on this issue is that they generally didn't care where their equipment came from along as, a) it actually did the job it was designed to do, b) it arrived on time, c) it didn't cost so much that it meant they didn't get other essential pieces of kit. Its country of origin came quite a distant fourth. Politicians who wrap themselves in the flag to defend their bad decisions should be reminded of Dr Johnson's famous quote: "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel."

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.