The display of defence machinery at Britain’s arms fairs now seems absurd to Helen Warrell (right), who was appointed as the Financial Times’ defence and security editor in 2019. As she wrote yesterday:
“The biggest threat to western nations since the second world war has not been an army but a pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 people across the globe”.
When national security is no longer about troop numbers and aircraft carriers, but personal protective equipment supply chains and testing capacity, what is the role of the military?
General Nick Carter, head of Britain’s armed forces, sees it as helping, responding and supporting – the UK forces’ Covid support force is helping with National Health Service logistics, driving ambulances, staffing emergency call centres and setting up mobile testing centres.
Security is a collective national effort
Helen Warrell cites the example of Nordic countries such as Finland and Sweden who traditionally have involved the public in disaster preparedness and advised them how to survive for short periods without electricity, water or plentiful food.
A senior officer told her last week that the forces will ‘lean back’ into peacekeeping, providing disaster response and helping to quell conflicts over resources or mass migration.
Professor Beatrice Heuser (left), a war expert at the University of Glasgow, predicts swingeing cuts to defence budgets as taxpayers question the funding of overseas operations when resources are stretched.
In a COVID-19-damaged economy the government is unlikely to prioritise defence spending over health and social care.
London’s Excel centre may well have been converted back from use as a Nightingale hospital to a conference venue in time for the next arms fair, planned for 2021, but – Ms Warrell comments – “we know that delegates’ pockets will no longer be so deep”.