It was interesting that over the weekend ‘The Times’ reported that the new Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson is said to have “been shocked at a number of proposed reductions to the armed forces that he will have to preside over unless he is able to find £2bn per year savings from elsewhere or persuade the Treasury to provide more money”.
I have yet to meet with the new Secretary of State for Defence personally but would expect to do so shortly. Since Mr. Williamson took over from Sir Michael Fallon I have not surprisingly been asked rather a lot for my view of the new man in charge of UK defence and my answer has always been the same – I was not prepared to make a judgement until we had met.
Nevertheless, I am on record as suggesting that while his predecessor had, since he had taken over from Philip Hammond in 2014, been left alone to get on with the job of defence by Prime Minister, Theresa May, just as he also had by her predecessor David Cameron, this had meant that since 2014 defence had all too rarely been taken into Cabinet for discussion. Give that despite being a fast learner Mr. Williamson will need time to be on top of his brief, I have suggested that one of the likely positives from the change in Secretary of State for Defence is that Mr. Williamson is far more likely to take defence into Cabinet for discussion than any of his last three predecessors. If that view proves to be correct I believe that we should all be grateful.
Speaking of Mr. Williamson’s predecessors, The Times reports this morning that International Trade Secretary, Dr. Liam Fox has said that there would be a ‘compromise’ on the UK’s military budget. Fox apparently admitted that “there was ‘a lot of tension’ between the MoD and the Treasury, as well as within the armed services themselves about where cuts should fall”. A small signal of hope then? Maybe but note that Mr. Fox went on to say ‘I’m afraid it is not unknown for some of these tensions to spill over into the public domain. I think we should wait and see exactly what sort of compromise we reach because that’s what it will be and remember that the United Kingdom has the fourth biggest military budget in the world.’ This is all very interesting but I prefer to reserve judgement.
Meanwhile, I note that this morning the Daily Telegraph reports that the MOD has been told that the Armed Forces will not receive any extra funding as a result of a major [separate] National Security Review [refresh] that is currently being conducted by the Cabinet Office. The newspaper adds that it is ‘thought that National Security Adviser, Mark Sedwill, believes that it is more important to increase funding to fight cyber-attacks than bolster the conventional Armed Forces.
As the Cabinet Office work is as far as I am aware designed to be a ‘refresh’ of the 2015 National Security Review it may well not appear in any published or announced form. However, assuming that the Telegraph report has substance, I am not necessarily alarmed as the need to increase and extend cyber related protection and intelligence activities was almost bound to be at the forefront of intention. While Defence is but one of 12 strands of National Security policy it is of course by far the largest. Even so, the real battle for more funding for defence will in my view be completely separate from National Security Review intentions – in other words, this one will be fought out between the MOD, Treasury and Cabinet Office and with a final decision presumably taken the Cabinet itself.
Added to a number of other rumoured suggestions that have been appearing almost daily in the press over recent weeks in relation to upcoming defence cuts have included suggestions that Army numbers will be seriously cut back. I see that the latest capability suggestion to join the list of possible future defence cuts and that I presume will have been deliberately leaked out in order to test the water of opinion, includes the possibility of delaying or reducing the planned upgrade of 227 Challenger 2 battle tanks, pushing back the planned upgrade of 480 Warrior armoured personnel fighting vehicles together with [possibly] reduction of the existing £3.5bn order for 589 new generation 589 Ajax specialist armoured vehicle for the Army.
Risking any of these cuts not only has serious capability implications for the Army and thus in relation to overall UK defence capability and strength, but we must also understand that this would also have serious implications in relation to sovereign based manufacturing capability as well.
All suggestions in relation to possible capability cuts should, for the moment at least, be considered as little more that speculation but such is the known seriousness of intent behind what is going on behind closed doors in the corridors of both sides of Whitehall right now, I am not about to deny that any or all of the above suggestions might not have more than a ring of truth about them. Our American allies who have already expressed deep caution in relation to UK Government attitudes towards the probability of there being another round of defence cuts will be closely watching events.
Perhaps we should be very grateful that some of the ideas currently under discussion in relation to finding ways to save money have deliberately leaked out by the Cabinet Office, Treasury or MOD. I dislike leaks of any kind but in this case, we should be grateful that the Times has clearly found a very interesting ‘mole’ that provides us with what, on the face of it, appears to be very well informed comment and information.
Last week we were ‘reliably’ informed by another newspaper that other proposals under discussion and that had included cutting numbers of Royal Marines back by 1,000 personnel (to approximately 4,000) had now apparently now been scrapped on the basis that the new Secretary of State for Defence was not prepared to allow this to occur. Clearly, if the story is true, it sounds as if Mr. Williamson is rolling up his sleeves for battle with the Treasury and we should be grateful for that.
I note that in more ‘testing the water’ leaks that also led to the resignation a few weeks ago of a senior member of the Royal Navy – this in relation to the notion that one or both of the Royal Navy’s two amphibious assault ships, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion were to be scrapped, has not so far been denied as being one possibility. Personally, I doubt that both ships would be allowed to go but one might.
In an earlier report a couple of weeks ago ‘The Times’ highlighted the possibility that two existing Type 23 frigates might also be prematurely withdrawn. If I remember correctly the same report indicated that the fleet of almost ‘brand new’ Wildcat helicopters now in operational service with the Royal Navy could also be scrapped. I am in no position to deny whether either of the two last points are true or not but what I do know is that the Royal Navy remains significantly short of trained personnel and that, for whatever reason, far too much of its capability is currently lying idle.
Separately, both the Times and Guardian have suggested that the Royal Air Force might lose its fleet of C-130J Hercules transport aircraft earlier than scheduled. This is one story that without having any specific knowledge I would refute there being any truth in it whatsoever. I do however accept that it is quite possible that C-130J aircraft numbers might be slightly reduced over the next ten years.
I rather doubt that the review process will announce any change in intention in relation to planned numbers of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft that will be purchased through the programme lifetime. This currently stands at 138 of which a minimum 48 will be of the STOVL ‘B’ variant. I hope too that there is no messing around on planned procurement of 9 x P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft which are urgently needed. I do however fear the possibility that numbers of the larger C-17 heavylift transport aircraft could be cut and, as I have previously suggested, it seems quite possible that the planned upgrade of the Sentry E3-D capability announced in SDSR 2015 will be placed in the firing line. Some have also questioned whether all of the originally proposed number of 50 Apache Attack Helicopters for the Army (38 have so far been ordered) as replacements for the existing fleet will be acquired.
We move on and with so much uncertainty being created by the prospect of there being another dangerous and damaging round of defence cuts it is reasonable in my view to ask why it is that the House of Defence Select Committee is not already champing at the bit in order to examine what the Government is planning in respect of future defence capability?
Personally I find it very disappointing that rather than look at what is going on in the real world of UK defence capability that the Committee prefers to spend its time during this week looking at the effects of BAE Systems restructuring in relation to UK defence, a matter that as far as I am concerned as a private company has far less relevance today than it might had the company not have been privatised a generation ago.
Rather than spend its time looking at organisational changes and workforce reductions that BAE Systems has been forced to implement on the back of the continuing need to improve efficiency and reduce the cost of defence [and because the UK buys far less defence equipment today than it used to] I for one take the view that the House of Commons Defence Select Committee would be playing a much more valuable and insightful role for members of the House of Commons and Society as a whole by examining why this government is failing to prioritise defence sufficiently and also to properly fund it?
On Saturday I note that several newspapers had also suggested that Bournemouth East MP and Army Reservist, Mr. Tobias Ellwood, the current Minister for Service Personnel and Veterans and who back in the 1990’s had served as a full-time member of the Royal Green Jackets seeing service in Bosnia, Kuwait and Northern Ireland, had “threatened to resign if the military is forced to impose cuts that include reducing the army to below 70,000 soldiers”.
Although I know Tobias, I can have no idea whether there is any truth in the story but in respect of his character, integrity and honesty, I would believe this more likely to be true. Putting all this into perspective, I note also that ‘The Times’ carried an editorial on Saturday that argued strongly against further cuts and has called for savings to be made elsewhere.
Rather interestingly it seems that former Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon is vowing to put his support behind resisting defence cuts. This, added to what Tory MP for Plymouth Johnny Mercer, a former Army Captain, talked of their being a ‘cohort’ of Tory MP’s in the House of Commons of which he is leading and that are prepared to fight any proposed defence cuts is clearly welcome.
Talking on the subject of defence Mr. Mercer who is a member of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee reminded that “It [defence] is the first duty of government. We know we’re in difficult times but we can’t just talk about it we have to fund it properly, we have to resource it properly. What do we want from the military? You can’t just talk about that. You have to fund it properly, you can’t ask them for stuff and then not give them the money to do it” Acknowledging that “There was clearly some fat in the system” he said “we’ve hit a resilient boulder and it’s our job as politicians to stand up for that and to stand up for what we believe in.”. So say all of us!
Members of the House of Lords including Lord Soley, Lord Dannatt, Lord Sterling, Lord Wallace, Lord Craig, Lord Boyce, Lord West and Lord Bilimoria together with others and with resident Minister Defence House of Lords, The Earl Howe answering, took part in a very interesting debate in the chamber on Thursday afternoon. I will here and now highlight only what Lord Soley who had led the debate on Thursday said in his opening remarks – the rest is easily available to read in Hansard:
“My Lords – my concern, like that of many others in recent years, is that we have a defence policy that seeks to be full-spectrum, but we are not putting up the necessary money to make that credible. History gives us plenty of lessons to show that there are few things more dangerous than the defence policy of a major power that has become incredible instead of credible. We are in acute danger of getting into that situation. In saying that, I echo comments made by many senior military experts in this country, and most important, those of many of our allies, not just the United States.
In recent years, we have seen a decline in our ability to fund our various systems to the level necessary to make them credible. I cannot overstate the importance of that point, and I know that many Members will speak to it in the debate. To put it bluntly, at the moment we are putting forward a defence posture for the United Kingdom that looks sophisticated, arguing—as the Minister has often done—that it is the fifth most expensive defence policy in the world, but we are not putting in the money to make it credible. One of the main messages I would like to get over in this debate is that although I look forward very much to the forthcoming strategic defence review, this is now such an important issue, particularly following Brexit, about which I shall say more in a moment, that we need to revisit it frequently over the coming year or two. This is a fast-moving situation and one to which we will not get a quick answer in one strategic defence review. I ask the Government to start thinking hard about how Parliament—indeed, the Government itself, most obviously—can think about this in the long term and be prepared to react to the changes that are taking place in the world.
The budget for defence should be increased. I know the Minister is likely to say that we aim to increase it to 2.5%, but if we are to maintain our current posture, we are more sensibly talking about 3%. My worry, which I will come back to, is whether we will be prepared to afford that with our economy, particularly in relation to Brexit. It is affordable, but will we be prepared to afford it? If not, we have to cut our defence posture to make it more relevant to what we are prepared to pay. I repeat: the most crucial thing is having a credible defence force, not one that people think is unlikely to be delivered effectively”.
CHW (London 27th November 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785