First published in the Sunday Express on 30 September 2018.
A few months ago I travelled to the frontline of the war between Russia and Ukraine. It didn’t look very dramatic: there were no bodies lying in rubble; no tanks rolling across fields; no fighter jets roaring overhead.
Standing in the trenches, however, I could hear the faint thud of mortar attacks in the distance and the zip and smack of bullets not far off.
This was the sound of the long battle between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed forces trying to seize their land.
Thousands of Ukrainians have already been killed.
They are outgunned and outmanned but they know what will happen if they give up: eastern Ukraine will become another Russian enclave, like Crimea.
It is a brutal warning about what can happen to countries the Russian regime considers weak.
Here in the UK, there is no danger of Putin attempting anything similar.
Though Russia’s armed forces are powerful, they are no match for the combined might of the UK and its allies.
Yet Putin tests this country’s defences every single day, ready to exploit any weakness.
His fighter jets threaten our airspace; his naval forces play cat-and-mouse with our submarines; and as the Salisbury poisonings show, his operatives are not afraid to carry out chemical attacks on our soil.
He knows that Nato is divided and disorganised. Sooner or later he may check out its resolve.
If he is bold enough to try his luck by invading a Nato member, under the agreement we have with our allies, our forces would have no choice but to get involved.
The Russian threat, which military chiefs consider as serious if not more so than during the Cold War, makes the role of our Armed Forces more important than ever.
They are already helping Ukraine, and a number are stationed in the Baltics as part of joint Nato operations to keep Putin at bay.
But there are countless other reasons not to allow any further diminution of our Army, Navy and RAF.
For the past few decades, this country has had a choice about whether to get involved in foreign wars, a luxury unlikely to last.
Since 2010, our forces have been hammered by cuts, leaving the Army at its smallest since before the Napoleonic wars and the Navy with fewer than 20 warships, many of which are out of action at any given time.
The RAF is less than half the size of 25 years ago.
Politicians have gambled on getting away with this, partly because they can’t imagine needing large forces again.
They are just about willing to support targeted air or drone strikes against terrorists in the Middle East but scoff at the idea of ever again putting “boots on the ground”.
They know voters still feel angry and misled about the Iraq war and are bruised by the sacrifices made in the long campaign against the Taliban.
When money is tight, it is easier to pick on defence than health and education.
This is risky and irresponsible, as it assumes that tomorrow will be like today and yesterday – when the evidence points the other way.
For years, the main threat to UK security has been terrorism, so it has made sense to prioritise intelligence services and policing.
Regimes such as Iran and North Korea have always been a worry but our enemies have been jihadis with knives or suicide vests and insurgents in Afghanistan.
These threats have not gone away but, as US defence chief Jim Mattis has warned, we have entered a new era of competition.
Today, we face formidable state-based adversaries, with far bigger armed forces than our own and an increasing technological edge.
We can no longer rely on superior airpower, weaponry and artificial intelligence to defeat those who threaten our security and way of life – and we may not have a choice about the time and place of a fight.
Though few can rival the superb training skills of the British military, when it comes to defence, size does matter.
However smart we are, there comes a point when the numbers start to pinch.
As a senior Army officer I interviewed for my new book put it, a small army going up against a huge army is going to get a kicking.
The next war is as likely to start at sea as anywhere else – and this is where the growing Chinese threat comes in.
This summer, a Royal Navy warship exercised its right to sail through the South China Sea, to underline an important principle.
Freedom of navigation for all vessels, so long as they do not harm others, is not just a nice tradition, it is a legal right, defined by international treaties.
The People’s Republic shows an increasing disdain for these rules and becomes ever cockier.
Unlike Russia, an economic basket case with a small population, China has the financial and human resources to match its geopolitical ambition.
It thinks nothing of trying to stop foreign ships going about their business.
Behind the scenes, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson came under pressure from lily-livered government colleagues not to risk sending the Navy there.
Rightly, he stood his ground. He knows we cannot afford to give an inch.
Such troubles may seem far away but the ability of commercial vessels to use whatever routes they choose underpins global trade.
As a maritime nation and the world’s fifth largest economy, this matters more to us than most countries.
Our incredible new aircraft carriers will help send the message that the UK is still a force to be reckoned with but they are not enough.
As we prepare to leave the EU, there is another consideration: what kind of country do we want to be?
Most MPs are busy worrying about Brexit and their careers but we need to think about our new national identity and decide what part the UK will play on the world stage.
THE Americans, who view our diminishing military capability with alarm, warn that we cannot take the so-called special relationship for granted.
This is not lost on ambitious Emmanuel Macron, who spies an opening and is ploughing money into defence.
If we are not careful, we may find ourselves supplanted by France.
We must avoid playing into the hands of those who see Brexit as a sign of retreat.
As we head into a new future, free to set our own laws and strike trade deals, we will need hard power.
We cannot rely on dishing out foreign aid and throwing the odd cocktail party to remain at the top table.
Time and again, our forces have adapted to reduced circumstances without complaint even while hounded by unscrupulous lawyers pursuing false allegations of battlefield “abuses”.
They are among the best in the world: professional, disciplined, reliable, committed and brave. It is time for politicians to give them the resources they need – and deserve.