OPINION - The warning lights are flashing red — Britain must prepare its defences for worldwide chaos


While the world awaits the next twist in the Middle East conflict, there are some hard lessons from what happened across Israeli skies at the weekend — especially for Nato’s European partners — Britain included.

None could have mounted the integrated air defence that Israel, the US and minor partners marshalled from Friday to Sunday. It is the kind of counter to missiles and drones that is so desperately needed now in Ukraine, where defeat is a real prospect.

Paradoxically while partners like the US, UK, France even, see supporting Israel as an obligation, serious address for Ukraine’s survival seems increasingly marginal. The allies are divided over what to do next, and fatally damaged within themselves, as in the US.

The allies need to get their act together to address the array of threats facing them. Warfare is getting more complex, as the use of electronic weaponry in Ukraine shows. It is no longer fought in the dimensions of air, land and sea but space and cyberspace.

Much of the weaponry and practices seen in the air defence of Israel will soon be outdated. By the end of the decade direct energy, laser beam, and microwave and radio frequency weapons generating electronic pulses will be reality if not commonplace.

The UK spends a lot on defence, but not wisely and it will not be enough for tomorrow’s security needs

Preparing for this must be a priority for Nato as it meets for its 75th anniversary summit in Washington in July. European allies must be prepared to do more for themselves as America will surely disengage from their affairs, whoever is elected president in November. Some allies, those closer to Russia especially, are already stepping up. Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Poland, are preparing to spend more and bring more people into serving their countries — some in highly-imaginative national service schemes.

The UK now needs to start its own defence and security reform. This should be launched on a cross-party basis now, and not wait for the general election and a new government to produce yet another cumbersome defence review. Reviews take time, end up being incomplete, poorly-funded and overtaken by events within weeks.

The UK must not only think up a new defence and security plan, but think about how we think defence. Rightly, Whitehall and government have been criticised in several recent studies from the likes of the Institute for Government, and former officials such as Mark Sedwill and Tom Fletcher. Whitehall is a mandarin world with enclosed mandarin thinking. The main effort of ancient China’s mandarins was to preserve their status and authority.

Britain spends a lot on defence, roughly £53 billion a year. It is not spent wisely and it will not be enough for today’s security needs, let alone tomorrow’s. But future governments don’t have to increase the defence budgets that much — they have to change the priorities.

These should focus on what Britain needs to manage for itself — principally home defence and security and nuclear capability. The UK will be the European Nato lead for nuclear submarines and missiles, and will be a centre for production and training for the nuclear boats in the Aukus alliance with the US and Australia, with a number of second-tier partners likely soon.

Next to defining sovereign roles and capabilities, there must be more sharing with allies, especially in and around Europe, the maritime dimension in the Atlantic and Arctic oceans especially. The UK has global interests, but we should not kid ourselves that Britain is still a global power.

In the management of defence itself, reform of procurement and personnel management is urgent. Procurement of key equipment has a byzantine ritual, convoluted, lengthy and often unsatisfactory — the £3.5 billion for the Ajax tank took 20 years, and equally weird was the purchase of aircraft and the Apache attack helicopter. Recently, a new integrated procurement process has been used — for the new DragonFire laser weapon for example. Industry, government researchers and the services get together to work out what is needed from the first.

Finally, but not least, the people. Recruiting is poor with more leaving than joining all three services — but this is true across all public service. The forces have a lot to offer society — see their role in Covid — and society a lot to offer them. The army, navy and air force must take control of their own recruiting, as they did of old.

It should not need the battle over the Middle East skies to remind us that defence isn’t just something for the dusty pending tray of Whitehall mandarins. It matters to all of us, though we might not appreciate this until too late.

Robert Fox is the Evening Standard’s defence editor