Time is too short for Britain to start building its own weapons

russia ukraine war soldiers
Ukraine has cast a sharp eye over Britain's own armament - REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

The Nato nations of Europe face an ever-deepening crisis. Russia and China are arming at pace, the former now transitioning to a full war economy. While the US remains stronger than both put together, and the heroic Ukrainian resistance has Moscow’s forces tied down, both these things could change quickly.

Worse still, there has been a political shift in America. The Trumpite wing of the Republican party does not, I believe, reflect what most Americans want; yet Trump became President and may well again because of terrible Democrat candidates. The hardline Republican politicians currently holding back aid for Ukraine do not speak for most Americans – but the numbers on Capitol Hill are giving them disproportionate influence.

What’s less well understood is that President Biden, too, is an unreliable ally. He has deliberately refused to give Ukraine weapons which could bring down the Kerch bridges connecting Russia with Crimea – a potentially decisive blow against the Kremlin – because he is cowed by Putin’s nuclear bluster. He wouldn’t even send tanks until he was jostled into it by Britain. He, too, does not represent Americans, despite being commander-in-chief.

The nightmare scenario is one in which Russia manages to disengage from combat in Ukraine and continues the massive armament and mobilisation now underway. In the long run, Russia’s economy will collapse under the strain just as the Soviet Union’s did. But in the short term – just three years from now, the Poles believe – Russia’s military would be back, bigger and battle-hardened.

And then China moves against Taiwan, as Putin moves against Nato.

If the US were resolute and willing to bear the brunt of the fighting, it could probably win both wars at once. But as we have seen, the president of the future might not be resolute or willing.

What does this mean for us, this side of the Atlantic?

The old saying applies: if we would have peace, we should prepare for war. The UK and Europe must at long last see to our own defences rather than spending our money on bloated welfare states and relying on America for our security.

And let’s be clear. This is not just a matter of spending more: it’s also a matter of spending it effectively. All across the Western world there are former army officers arguing that Ukraine means we should have huge numbers of tanks, guns and shells.

But we do not want to fight that way. Russia’s tank-and-gun invasion was a bloody failure, just as Ukraine’s tank-and-gun counteroffensive ended in a bloody stalemate.

We want to fight the way “we” (actually America) fought in Iraq and Libya. We want to crush Russian air defences and dominate the sky, then eliminate their tanks and guns from above.

We need the systems and weapons – mostly missiles and drones of various kinds, rather than manned jets – to let us do Suppression (or Destruction) of Enemy Air Defences, SEAD or DEAD. We then need the strike power, again much of it unmanned, to defeat enemy forces.

Some can see the need: all across Europe and the UK, arms companies are salivating at the idea that their governments will sink huge sums into developing, from scratch, various weapons technologies that only America has. Indeed it was already our policy that we would do this before Ukraine happened, through such projects as the future “Tempest” super-jet.

But we need this equipment quickly, and we need it to actually work and be affordable. We must stop using our defence budgets as job creation schemes and instead buy working kit off the shelf. Sensible Poland, understandably more focused given its border with Russia, has not built military industries from scratch: it has simply bought huge numbers of tanks – which make a lot more sense for Poland than they do for us Brits – from South Korea, and powerful missiles from the US.

If we decide we need tanks, we should just buy them from good tank makers like South Korea or Germany or Israel, rather than trying to revive our moribund tank industry as we have been.

Since SEAD/DEAD equipment is only really made in the US, we should just purchase it from there: likewise with fifth-generation fighters rather than wasting decades and billions on Tempest – which will never be as good as the US product, because it cannot and will not have as much money spent on developing it. We need Patriot; we need the Precision Strike Missile; we need Aegis/Standard in our new warships like all sensible nations; we need a lot more Tomahawks. Even buying off the shelf, time is terribly short.

There are, of course, some things we should build and buy in Britain. America is struggling to build enough nuclear submarines for itself and Australia, so we’ll have to make our own – though we should arm them mostly with US weapons. There are other British products which are world class: sniper rifles, mini submarines, off-road gun trucks.

But we’ve got to stop trying to make everything ourselves, and we’ve got to stop getting into multinational attempts to replicate things we could just buy. These attempts are always disastrous, as the Eurofighter, A400M, Sea Viper and Merlin should have taught us. When we do buy abroad, we should stop getting British industry involved and messing up perfectly good products, as with Apache and Ajax.

In short, like the Poles, we need to get serious. The Ukrainians are buying us precious time, at a terrible price in blood. We need to arm them and arm ourselves to the teeth, without trying to create jobs for ourselves at the same time. And we must do this before it’s too late.

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