During the First World War, the British National Debt rose by over 1100% from £37.3 million to £359.8 million! Post war there was a concerted drive to rein in spending in public areas, especially defence spending.
Sir Eric Geddes headed a committee which reported on the cost cutting measures. His report came to be known as the ‘Geddes Axe.’ The government had asked for savings of £175 million; the Geddes Committee report recommended that expenditure could conservatively be reduced by £87 million p.a.
Although defence spending rose from £111 million (1922-1923) to £114 million (1925), it still did not reflect the increased nature of British post war responsibilities. Although the shooting war had stopped after the 1918 Armistice with the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. The post war world was a markedly more dangerous and dynamic place than in 1914. Although the British Empire was approaching its terminal phase, in the 1920s it still had quite a large volume of obligations. Mandate Palestine, Mesopotamia, India, the North West Frontier with Russia…all these had to be garrisoned. And with markedly fewer resources.
Today with a reduced British Army (102,000 – 82,000 by 2020), a stagnant Royal Air Force (losing personnel and capabilities) and a diminished Royal Navy, the world is at least as dangerous as in 1919. Russian bombers prowl outside the Cornish coast, Argentinean rhetoric about Las Malvinas (the Flakland Islands) has been increasing stedaily (amid a troubled domestic situation) and the Royal Navy…..well the Navy is just a mess.
The Army is 20-30,000 men light. Realistically it needs another brigade or two for expeditionary warfare and overseas garrisoning (and another Royal Marines Commando Brigade). The RAF needs to sort out the disastrous F-22 situation; seriously what is happening there? How much is the per-unit cost moving toward now? Helicopters are another area that is severely lacking (as Afghanistan highlighted). The Royal Navy needs carriers. Not in 5 years…now, it needs them now. The Flaklands cannot remain intact with outclassed air defence assets and a small garrison. The navy needs over a dozen smaller vessels as well as more missile submarines and hunters. And the Fleet Air Arm needs the F-35 NOW! And not just the CATOBAR option!
Under successive Ten Year plans, the British government almost lost the Second World War without firing a shot. This modern financial retrenchment is quite reminiscent of the Geddes period. While cutting the MoD might seem better than trimming benefits or rationalizing the NHS might seem like a softer option, in reality its a dangerous game to play; despite what the song says, the first cut is not the deepest!