With an economic storm on the way now is the time for dramatic military cutbacks


Viking vehicles from Armoured Support Group Royal Marines, conducting snow and ice driver training at Setermoen, approximately 15 miles south of Bardufoss in Norway.

At the end of March, in the light of the rapid spread of the coronavirus, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, called for a global ceasefire, saying the only war we should be fighting at this time is the war on the virus.

Halting hostilities would allow the world to address the COVID-19 threat and assist access to necessary aid; it would help reduce the spread of the virus and focus resources and attention towards ending the pandemic.

The UK, along with the US, China, France and others, backed this call. So why are our armed forces “sustaining all operations”? As Guterres said there is “a huge difference between declarations and deeds”, and our backing for the ceasefire must be reflected in action.

British troops are currently stationed in 35 different countries; with 15,000 in the Middle East and 1,000 in Afghanistan. The WHO has stressed that armed forces are both vulnerable to contracting viral diseases, such as Covid-19, and historically have played a major role in contributing to their spread.

Ending redeployments now and returning troops home could not only play a role in reducing the spread of coronavirus but would also significantly reduce the cost of the armed forces to the exchequer at a time when spending on the impact of coronavirus must take priority.

In the financial year 2018-19 (the most recent figures available) the MOD spent just under £900m on overseas operations. How many ventilators could be bought for £900m? Costing between £5,000 and £25,000 (depending on the specification) the answer is more than the NHS needs even in the worst-case scenario.

Or alternatively the money could be redirected towards adult social care. The Chancellor announced in this year’s budget that adult social care – an aspect of health care currency on its knees and which the Prime Minister has promised to ‘fix’ – is set to receive an extra £1bn. The King’s Fund (a major health research group) believes this may be just enough to keep the adult care system “on the right side of the tipping point”. But that was before coronavirus.

The government has wilfully neglected the NHS and social care system in this country and we are now witnessing the consequences with a serious lack of ventilators and intensive care beds. Vast sums are available and being spent on the military. Now must be the time to redirect this money.

But it is not only the NHS which requires financial support as a result of the pandemic. The economic impact of coronavirus is going to be huge – described by one commentator as 2008 on steroids.

The IMF has predicted a fall in the global economy of about 3%; with the UK economy expected to plummet by over 6%. As a result, the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) has predicted that unemployment will soar by a staggering two million over the next couple of months.

And we are not all in this together: the OBR have pointed out that the industries most affected will be those which pay their workers the least. These workers will have little in the way of savings. The economic storm is set to hit hardest those least able to weather it.

Set against this backdrop the UK military is set to receive a budget increase of £2.2bn in 2020. The total defence budget for the coming year is a staggering £41.5bn, or 2.6% of GDP, a figure so huge it’s difficult to imagine.

Military expenditure is one area that did not fall victim to the last decade’s austerity measures. The UK has consistently met, and even exceeded, the NATO target for military expenditure of 2% of GDP – contrasting with many of our NATO allies. Spain, for example, spends less than 1% on its military.

To understand what these sums mean we must break down them down. So, for example, over the next ten years, we are set to spend £183.6bn on military equipment alone. That’s £18.3bn per year on fighter jets, guns, tanks.

£18.3bn on military equipment, £900m on overseas operations, £41.5bn on the overall defence budget, all while the economy is in free-fall, heading into a depression the likes of which have not been seen since the 1930s.

We must campaign against this obscene military extravagance, now more than ever before.

17 Apr 2020 by Terina Hine

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