Those of you who share my professional interest and concern in relation to levels of defence underfunding and that I seem to have written and spoken on so much in the past will probably have already seen that former Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, the recently retired former head of Joint Forces Command, General Sir Richard Barrons, former chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Richards of Herstmonceux and others including lower ranking serving officers and academics, have co-signed a letter to Prime Minister, Theresa May calling on her to alleviate what they characterise as ‘Armed Forces funding problems’.
The above listed are all highly respected senior individuals whose knowledge and understanding of the military and of defence needs is unparalleled. Neither do any of them wear any specific political colours or allegiance as far as I am aware, unlike some in the House of Lords for instance and who regularly speak on matters defence carrying large amounts of service related bias as they do along with larger than life political agendas do!
Rightly in my view, the letter claims that the current dangerous level of defence underfunding is threatening the country’s ability to fight wars and that unless something is done urgently, this will damage the UK’s credibility on the international stage. I have not yet seen the full text but I am told that the letter goes on to suggest that funding needed to implement the Government’s own SDSR 2015 defence and security review “is simply not there to give it substance”.
Reminding that as the world is facing a range of new threats the letter goes on to claim that the fall in the Pound threatens the purchase of aircraft for our new aircraft Queen Elizabeth class carriers, upgrading of Apache helicopters and the purchase of missiles for submarines. Some or all of this may well be true and I have myself expressed remarks on all the relevant points on this letter before. Importantly, and this is where I absolutely agree with the contents of the letter, the authors accuse the Government of using an ‘accounting deception’ to boast that they are spending 2% of GDP on defence.
Not surprisingly, it is Sir Michael Fallon who has provided an initial response claiming that the Government would ‘give our Armed Forces the resources they need – unlike Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn. To further his point, one can expect to hear NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg who conveniently happens to be in London today to meet with the Prime Minister in Downing Street to support the hypothesis that Britain really is spending 2% of GDP on defence.
It is of course NATO that makes the rules on what can and what cannot be incorporated into the defence budget and as everything that the UK has added in [this in regard to ‘accounting fudge’ remarks made in the letter above] has been sanction by NATO he is perfectly in order to back Sir Michael’s consistent claims that Britain is spending 2% of GDP on defence. The Fallon claim is a sham nevertheless and in respect of ‘real’ defence spending – i.e. removing military and civil service related pensions, defence budget allocated cyber and GCHQ expansion spend and maybe other aspects too then the figure would be approximate to about 1.8%.
One has only to look at how urgently needed defence programmes are being pushed back to know that the Government is now very much on the back foot on defence. Notwithstanding what we should be spending on defence if we are to be able to properly meet all the existing threats and to carry out our full obligations, be these for national defence, protecting our dependent territories and our role in support of our NATO allies, that the defence budget is probably short of £4 billion.
We also know that because of this another defence black hole is building up meaning that the existing budget is significantly over-spent. We must also remember that unlike the Vanguard class submarines whose development and build was funded separately by the Treasury, the replacement ‘Dreadnought’ class Trident submarines will be funded direct from the defence budget.
As the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have both confirmed recently, the failure to identify further potential efficiencies and the overall affordability of the equipment programme are now at significant risk. Indeed, they say that lack of identification of risk is a big problem.
I dislike criticising the present government or indeed, its predecessor but when it comes to defence both have let the UK down badly. We may never get over the damage caused to UK defence by SDSR 2010 and as if that was not bad enough, we now find that the just slightly better SDSR 2015 is significantly underfunded – just as many of us warned at the time it was. Sir Michael Fallon rightly claims that when it comes to defence Jeremy Corbyn cannot be trusted but the problem is far worse than just that.
By constantly attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of the British public that because we are spending an additional £500 million a year on defence in each of the years 2016 to 2021 all is well in defence I personally believe that, just as his predecessor had done by claiming to have filled the previous ‘black hole’ in the defence budget, that Sir Michael Fallon has lost significant credibility. I regret that as much as anything else because in the main, Sir Michael has been a safe pair of hands on defence per say.
I worry too that we are letting our US colleagues down by being somewhat dishonest in our intentions meaning creating artificial delays and pushing back on our procurement intentions and commitments and also on our expectations of how the US will support us.
In relation to what is only the latest in a very long line of letters to the press and in this case, a letter to the Prime Minister appealing for better funding for defence, I titled this commentary piece -Is there anyone listening in No 10? While I am sure that the present Prime Minister gets defence rather better than her predecessor, as yet I have seen nothing that provides me with confidence that she is any more prepared to listen to the argument about the need better fund defence than any of her five predecessors.
Lest there be any doubt about the wider reasoning behind the letter and indeed, of my own feelings and concerns on the matter allow me to remind the Prime Minister and her Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon of what one of the most respected former Secretary of State, the Lord Robertson of Port Ellen who went on to become NATO chief, said when opening a debate on defence in the House of Lords in January this year:
Lord Robertson talked of “what he considered to be the greatest threats and challenges to UK security including migration flows, the spread of religious experience extremism and jihadi violence, a restive and resurgent Russia; a rising China and the disruption by North Korea.
Add to that, Lord Robertson said, the “fragile and failed states spreading mayhem across borders, international conflicts, climate change, cyber warfare and the global proliferation of lethal technology, weapons” and on “top of all that, there is the rise and dominance of organised crime, population growth, pandemics and financial instability.
Lord Robertson said that “the greatest threat was ourselves, we” he said “are our own worst enemies. We are short-sighted, penny-pinching, naively optimistic, complacent and ostrich-like to the way in which the world has become interconnected and more fragile, unpredictable and incendiary. We are grossly unprepared and under-resourced to meet the challenges of the coming years. These threats are potent and deadly, and some of them are very urgent”.
I have long had huge respect for Lord Robertson and I know him well and while I accept that SDSR 2015 showed a small upturn in Government attitude toward defence and security, and a small £500 million increase in annual levels of defence spending are far from being enough.
Lord Robertson went on to remind that at the end of the Cold War he had made a speech at Chatham House in which he coined the now much-quoted phrase that there had been a “bonfire of the certainties”. “The fall of the Berlin Wall” he said “had unleashed a flood of optimism that had made Kremlinologists redundant overnight and robbed us of the dangerous manageability of the Soviet/West confrontation. Some were even rash enough to say that it was the “end of history”.
“All of us” he said “took a substantial peace dividend and defence budgets were cut radically over the next five years”. He went on to say that “I believe that we are now seeing another bonfire, this time, one of the post-Cold War certainties. In doing so, we have left ourselves vulnerable and, in many ways, unready. If we look at the way in which we have responded to this new world of regional conflicts, violent civil wars and other violent manifestations of the turmoil that I have already listed, we see that it hardly measures up to the scale of what faces us.
Later during his opening remarks in the debate, Lord Robertson reminded that [this week] we will have President Donald Trump [installed in the White House] as the leader of the western world. This was, he said, the “same Donald, with his Mexican wall, with new protectionism and isolationism combined with his serious questioning of NATO solidarity [combined with other beliefs] and Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn as his key security adviser. “Perhaps” Lord Robertson said “we do not actually need more enemies in the world today”.
“In our crazy complacency” he said “we seem quite oblivious to the fact that the relative peacefulness of the world today, as we look over a new precipice, has been achieved by our nuclear deterrent and by our institutions and processes, which require diplomacy, intelligence, involvement and crucially, when it is required and at the end of the line, decisive interventions. Where will the space be left for all that as we paddle through the treacle of dismantling 40 years of integration?”
Lord Robertson went on to say that “what confirms again that we are our own worst enemy is the attitude to spending on defence and security. Yes” he said “I agree with and welcome the fact that we are spending the NATO target of 2% and that we are right in many ways to crow that we are among the few who do. That is good so far as it goes” he said “but we should wait for a moment, after all, have we [not] stretched the definition of 2% to get there? Are we not confusing percentages with capabilities? Who can doubt, as well, that the Brexit devaluation of the pound will now have a serious effect on the defence budget? I hope that the noble Earl the Minister (Earl Howe] will tell us how much it is estimated that blow will cost his department.
Lord Robertson went on to say that “in 1997-98, as Secretary of State for Defence, I had led the strategic defence review with, among others, my noble friend Lord Reid. This [review] had radically remodelled and modernised our post-Cold War forces. In the preface to the review, I said that post-Cold War problems pose a real threat to our security, whether in the Balkans, the Middle East or in some trouble spot yet to ignite. If we are to discharge our international responsibilities in such areas, we must retain the power to act”.
“Our Armed Forces are Britain’s insurance against a huge variety of risks”. That he said, “Is as true today as it was when I wrote it. The question is whether we in this country have properly retained that power to act. Some doubt will be cast on that by the distinguished speakers who will speak after me in this debate”.
So, let me end this commentary by suggesting that while none of the above may be particularly new to those that understand defence and recognise its value and importance, but all of it is still very relevant. We need to strengthen defence rather than close our eyes to it. We need to raise defence as a national priority and fund it in manner that recognises not only the threats against us but also the damage that has been done to defence by successive government failures.
CHW (London 10th May 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785