Following what most that I have personally spoken to believe has been a hugely successful and rewarding DSEI 2017 I will this morning proffer just a few remarks in relation to politicians and senior members of the UK military who attended the various conference and other events in order to brief delegates.
Having spent the whole of the past week at the bi-annual Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI 2017) event at the superb EXCEL Centre in Docklands, today for me marks the restoration of normality. Tomorrow I will publish a specific ‘UK Defence’ series paper that will look at various issues raised in the press over the past week including a number of negative views proffered by two former First Sea Lords in relation to existing Royal Navy capacity and also, if time allows, comment on views expressed by a recently retired Chief of the General Staff – these built around what in his view we are now not able to undertake in relation to future international tasking and deployment of UK armed forces.
Before moving on to my main theme today and in case you had missed the announcement that Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, the current Chief of the Defence Staff, was on Saturday elected as the next NATO Chairman of the Military Committee, allow me to congratulate ACM Peach on this hugely important appointment that he will assume in June next year. A more worthy and well qualified member of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces able to fill this important task would in my view be very hard to find and, knowing him personally as I do, I absolutely share the words used by the Prime Minister, Theresa May yesterday when she said that his appointment “underlines the esteem in which he is held by his peers”. Well done Sir.
Back to DSEI 2017 and, hand on heart, I really can say that each and every individual that I spoke to on various stands in my capacity once again as ‘Industry Spokesman’ of DSEI last week expressed complete delight and generally proffered views that for them DSEI 2017 had had a very successful and rewarding show, good interest shown, new contacts made and that it had been well worth while making the effort, time and expense attending the bi-annual DSEI event. The same is true of those visiting the show and minor issues apart, I heard nothing but praise for the organisers and of how the show was conducted.
However, having personally attended a number of conference events on the Monday 11th September (Air Capability, Land Capability Maritime Capability and Future of Military Rotorcraft) that traditionally precede the formal show opening on Tuesday and having also attended many of the other smaller presentation events that took place within the separate East and West theatres over the following days during which a number of senior politicians and members of the military spoke, allow me to express huge disappointment on the part of many of those attending these events.
To be honest, given the lack of value added content contained within some of the political and military presentations, there was little heard that audiences didn’t already know. Indeed, the manner in which some speeches were actually delivered – meaning being read as opposed to presented in the normal way – together with the general tone of content which was in some cases clearly designed to ignore all areas audience concern such as budget deficits, defence capacity issues, Brexit and policy issues not to mention upcoming defence and security review announcements that could see more cuts being made, perhaps the worst element of presentations was that for the most part, no question and answer session were allowed. Let me emphasise this was in no way the fault of the organisers, it was solely down to political policy.
Personally, I find it absolutely disgraceful that our military chiefs are no longer allowed to deliver their own view on the world and of their competence to deliver the nation’s defence without the constraint of all presentations first needing to be vetted within the MOD process. That the presenter, including the most senior members of our armed forces, must literally have a speech in his or her hand to show that they are delivering something that has been both vetted and probably censored beggars’ belief.
Leaving the excellence of the small number of presentations delivered by various two and three star ‘force commanders’ during DSEI and who with their respective vast subject knowledge did provide value added learning for their respective audiences in spades and also, from my perspective at any rate, a couple of interesting addresses delivered by VCDS (Vice Chief of the Defence Staff) and ISL (First Sea Lord) aside, the lack of value added content combined with the choice made by some to ‘read’ their respective words rather than to ‘present’ them and, to make matters even worse, some rarely even bothering to look-up at their audience, was both unprofessional and extremely disappointing.
Of course, I fully realise why they might feel aggrieved with a process system that is specifically designed to prevent them saying what they believe the position to be as opposed to the message that the politicians wish them to present but it is a great shame that it has come to this and that we have sunk to such depths. The lack of value-added content within some of the presentations last week really did beggar belief and the forced avoidance of Q&A sessions in order to prevent the risk of ‘uncensored’ remarks getting out into the public domain was quite disgraceful. I completely understand the need for confidentiality and that there are many aspects of national defence and security that are not for the public domain and that press and media are a cause for concern but censorship of our senior military has sunk to new depths and gone far too far.
I will not single out specific addresses given by senior military but I will for those of some of our political masters. Even though the actual speech that they deliver may not be vetted (most speeches and written published articles are in any case written for them) to an extent even they to an extent are censored in what they can say or, in the case of junior ministers, talk about.
For instance, that an ‘Under Secretary of State’, in this case the Defence Procurement Minister, should use such a valuable occasion, opportunity and high level audience to concentrate on little else but mentioning a handful of smaller company stands and to waste so much time giving out the stand numbers that these are on as if the audience were complete idiots left the majority of those listening wondering why on earth they had bothered to attend. There was, in this particular presentation at any rate, virtually no mention whatsoever about defence procurement issues that mattered to the majority in the audience! That said, thank goodness in this case, that no question and answer session was allowed!
Praise where praise is due though. The Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon is to be congratulated for the number of times that he attended DSEI this year. His various addresses were not surprisingly designed to reassure his audiences and his concentration on pushing the message that the Government was increasing spending on defence by 0.5% in each of the next four years and of what the Government is doing was testament to that. So too was his emphasis on the two new aircraft carriers and his repeat of the phrase ‘this was the year of the Royal Navy’. Well, so it is but with RAF 100 coming up next year and the first squadron of F-35 Lightning ll capability also being stood up at RAF Marham in July, perhaps 2017 will after all be the year of the Royal Air Force.
Sir Michael did at least take a handful of questions which is more than can be said of the Secretary of State for International Trade, Dr. Liam Fox. He came, conquered, delivered and then attempted to disappear as fast as he possibly could without taking any questions at all. Mayhem ensued with the press pack because no one had been pre-warned by Dr. Fox’s Office that this would be the case. Having, as far as I could tell, no ‘Close Support Officer’ alongside, Dr Fox then found himself at the behest of an uncontrollable press pack demanding of answers to quite reasonable enough questions.
Who on earth, if anyone actually did at all, ‘advised’ or ‘told’ Dr. Fox ‘not’ to do a question and answer session I can have no idea but I sense that it was most probably he himself!
The morass that followed was as unfortunate and embarrassing as it was also regrettable. From my perspective, he has only himself to blame. Lessons will of course be learned for the future but it is, in my view, no use looking for scapegoats in his department or trying to blame someone else much lower down in the pecking order when the reality was that, by deciding not to take any questions, Dr. Fox brought on the problems himself.
We may hope that two years from now things will be different. We will be out of the EU by then of course and who knows what that will bring. By the time it closed on Friday, DSEI 2017 will have witnessed over 300 programmed delegations having attended, probably in excess of 34,000 visitors including those from allied militaries all over the world who come to see the 1,600 global companies exhibiting their wares. Importantly, over the course of the conference day and the four days that DSEI was open, some 300 high level speakers including military, politicians and industry will have given their time to present at the show.
Clarion Events have once again done a brilliant job at DSEI 17 and they have been ably assisted by teams of people, volunteers, EXCEL staff, G4S Security and in looking after the needs of press and media, CMS Strategic. Well done to all. Now we look to the future and with DSEI being surely the most prominent and important defence and security exhibition event held anywhere in the world, perhaps the one thing that we can guarantee is that two years from now DSEI 2019 will quite definitely be the place to be.
CHW (London – 18th September 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785