(Parts of what you may be about to read below were first written and published by me as UK Defence 1 – Volume 5 in March 2013. They are in part based on a rather surprising interview given by the then Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hamond to the Daily Telegraph. Ten years on, I have updated and added a few comments without in any way changing the essence of what I had said then Most usually, it makes interesting reading to look back and I do so not just in continuing the 30-year commemoration of Commentary but because it remains very relevant today. You will no doubt let me know!)
A warning from the (then) Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond in March 2013 that further cuts in defence spending would lead to the loss of military capability was of course, a statement of the blinding obvious to most seasoned observers of UK defence.
If of course, one might have been able to believe that Mr. Hammond was both sincere and serious in his rather sudden and new found realisation that UK military capability has already been paired to the bone I might at the very least have been able to sound a touch of excitement. But somehow, given the blinding ambition of this man to further reduce costs as a priority, I find that prospect very difficult. Indeed, if I could believe that he was serious in his belief that having slashed the defence budget by 8% over the past two years (2011/12) that he now recognizes that he and his predecessor had gone too far too I might even have been tempted with a degree more admiration for what he has said. However, there was to be none of that and I am much afraid that I hardly bring myself to believe that there was anything in the Hammond Telegraph interview that could or should be interpreted as an indication that defence expenditure would not be facing another round of cuts in SDSR 2015.
Mr. Hammond is reported to have said recently that the upcoming spending review ordered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer should concentrate efforts away from cutting expenditure on defence further to other areas of large public sector spending such as on welfare.
I suspect those of us engaged in the front line of defence or in direct support to ensure the UK has sufficient military capability and manpower to meet future commitments would wholeheartedly agree such sentiments.
The truth is that none of this sudden change of heart by the Secretary of State can make up for the trauma that our armed forces have suffered since SDSR 2010. For example, by 2015 Royal Air Force personnel numbers will have been shrunk to just 33,500 and by 2020 31,500 – the lowest in living memory. By 2025 the Royal Navy will have seen its personnel numbers cut to 30,000 and by 2018 the Army will have seen numbers cut to 82,000 permanent staff and the expectation that reservist numbers available will have risen to 30,000. In terms of fighting capability, the Royal Navy will have a total of just 19 frigates and destroyers by 2020 together with four Trident nuclear submarines plus a currently planned number of seven Astute submarines. Royal Air Force fast jet air power capability which has already been slashed to the lowest ever in its history will be 2020 have far lower numbers of aircraft available than China, France, Russia, Germany, Japan, Israel and to make the point, just one tenth or less of total US fast jet air power capability.
Gone too is full plan for Carrier Strike capability – well until this eventually returns sometime well post 2020’s when we might just have in excess of 48 F-35’s. Gone also is maritime surveillance until someone eventually sees a modicum of sense as to how costly this loss of capability actually is. Thankfully they did see a modicum of sense we did eventually get 9 x P8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft to replace Nimrod capability. But I would have to say that the risk we took in taking such gap in capability shows too well how Governments fail to understand the needs of UK defence. Subsequently, ISTAR capability in the form of Sentry E3-D was prematurely withdrawn following decades of under investment in the capability along of course with the superb RAF Raytheon R1 Sentinel which so successfully provided Airborne Stand-off Radar (Astor) until it was so prematurely withdrawn and not replaced as a stand-alone capability.
I recall also saying at the time that if the Government persisted at the then current ridiculous rate of planned Tornado GR4 drawdown by 2017/8 the UK could find itself without true multi-role fast jet capability until 2020 – this date being the earliest that some expect Typhoon to be fully multi-role capable. Tornado GR4 did at least receive a two year reprieve but, leaving the 30+ Lockheed Martin F35 ‘Lightning’ Joint Strike Fighter capability so far delivered by June 2023, excluding Tranche 1 aircraft, most of which have already been withdrawn following previously announced plans, Typhoon Tranche 2 and 3 capability stands at just 117 aircraft of which I would estimate around 98 are currently operational.
Mr. Hammond’s (2013) enough is enough suggestion with regard to halting of further cuts in UK defence capability are of course, all well and good but one notes that he dares not admit that some past decisions that have paired UK military capability to the bone should be reversed. It is now too late of course to do that but (as I said in the 2013 commentary under scrutiny here, not too late to invest more in areas such ISTAR capability and unmanned vehicles along with improved radar, weapons delivery and training.
Back in 2013 when I wrote the basis of this particular commentary, I questioned what could future cost saving measures might be? More privatisation of certain operations perhaps, (The Red Arrows perhaps?) more inter-force unit mergers, more base cuts – in all honesty I concluded in answer to this question with the words I dread to think of what the mandarins will come up with next but be sure that they will. I was definitely not going to be led down a path to believe that because Mr. Hammond has (in the Telegraph interview of 2013) presented a humbled note of caution and indeed, degree of improved logic that any of this would lead to more spending on defence and security. In part I was proved to be wrong and readily admit so but then again, raising the defence budget but at the same time, adding much more on to it from other government departments on to it could hardly be described as anything other than underhand!
Mr. Hammond is frequently referred to as ‘Forensic Phil’ and not without good reason. Note too how the Prime Minister’s remarks four weeks ago (David Cameron in 2013) suggesting that real terms defence expenditure would rise again from 2016, were quickly quashed by his No 10 aides.
While it is true that the ten-year £160bn defence equipment plan has been agreed (this includes £38.5bn to be spent on submarines including the first stages of Trident (now known as Dreadnought) nuclear submarine replacement programme, some £18.5bn to be spent on air power related equipment including fast jet (F-35), transport (A400m), air to air refuelling (Voyager) and unmanned (Protector); around £17.4bn on new surface ships including the currently (2013) under construction HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales) and what is ow Type 26 ‘Frigates’ to replace existing Type 23) it is of little use arguing that just because the UK will soon have some of the most modern military capability and equipment that it will have sufficient for its needs.
Of course, except in wartime spending, we have got rather too used to defence spending always needing to be balanced with available and affordable financial resources from funding specifically allocated from the available national cake at the time.
But if that is true then so too should also surely be adjusted to take account, our political and diplomatic ambitions. These must harbor not only what we desire but what we can afford.
The Prime Minister (Cameron) often speaks loud and clear on what and where he wants the UK to be in the world but he always does so without having the ability to allocate funds to ensure that we can achieve such ambitions. Meanwhile the rest of the world which, until relatively recently used to look-up to us, frowns as it watches our continued defence related decline and for political reasons, allows itself to follow a path of lies and deceit and to frustrate reality behinds rafts of mundane PR.
It may well be argued that our NATO allies in 2013 had got rather used to us pulling above our weight in defence and when they look at us now ten years later, they now understand that the illusion of this has gone. They have woken up to defence whilst we have done quite the reverse.
That, until relatively recently, we have we have managed to continue to be the lead European NATO power and to provide a constant flow of capability into theatre almost wherever required may seem amazing but it was true. But today, in military terms at least, we in the UK are beginning to realise that we will soon be but a minnow and reliant on others to permanently support our defence requirements. Today we also know, thanks to Mr. Hammonds drive and effort to cut defence costs and capability, that Britain could only ever supply large scale military capability and equipment resource into one main theatre of war.
We have also been reluctantly forced to recognise that because of what our government has done progressively since SDSR2010 that we are now at the very limits of what we can offer in terms of future military capability and resource. Indeed, if we are to be able in future to ensure domestic, international, NATO and the important role of defending our dependent territories to a level that is sustainable and workable, we will have to accept that we cannot do all of these things at the same time.
Back in the 2010 to 2013 period we were still engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and in the wider NATO role that our defence forces have so successfully played out in post war years. Whether this has been to re-establish stability or to ensure ongoing security of those that require protection, it has always been living proof that Britain – within NATO – would always be prepared to apply its armed forces and equipment capability wherever they are required.
We have since then continually posed the question how much longer can we do this and various Coalition and Conservative governments have since inadvertently answered that by saying no. And yet, the pretence that we can continues to this day. True, we have, unlike some of our peers, never stood back when it was plain to see that our help and assistance was required. And thus I suppose that we can still hold our heads high but against that I would have to say that until we have decided or indeed, accepted the inevitable, of where it is that we want to be in the world and what we might require to achieve that, we are kidding ourselves.
Yes, our armed forces are brilliant at what they do but they lack equipment capabilities and capacity. We can and no doubt will attempt to respond to events that we and others have never been able to forecast but can we still do it well?
Over the past 20 years our armed forces have borne the brunt of cuts in public sector spending and it is defence alone that always translates to pushing urgent needs further down the funding ladder. In part that may be understandable particularly following the end of the ‘cold war’ and that, some would say, provided a new and permanent order for world peace and stability – until history proved us wrong.
It is equally true is that the MOD’s record on how it spent taxpayer money remains seriously wanting and that while the word ‘efficiency’ was well understood within the defence industrial base it was, until relatively recently, less well understood and seen as achievable by the defence procurement establishment. Waste and inefficiency in how taxpayer money have been spent remains an issue to this day – Ajax being a perfect example.
It may well be that we can of course share more of the burden with others such as France but I am not sure that is what they want. The bottom line is that we must ourselves agree that having a required element of military capability must, if at all possible, better match not only the scale of potential operational military involvement we might envisage as a possibility, but it must also be better balanced against available financial resources.
That is of course where the issue becomes more difficult. Do we spend the bulk of what little we have available on land, sea or air capability?
It was ACM Sir John Slessor who said that it is no use fighting a war unless you can first see the enemy. His meaning ninety years ago was a reminder that defence intelligence remains a crucial factor in winning wars. That is of course the reason why we work so closely with our NATO allies not only in theatre but in the sharing of mutual intelligence and it is another reason why our special relationship with the US is so important and why that has played to the advantage of both. But these days, maritime defence cooperation apart, it seems to be more of a one-way street of the UK relying on the US and giving little back.
The sceptic in me might suggest that the Hammond interview in 2013 simply echoed sentiment expressed in an editorial published in the Financial Times on January 31st 2013 (‘Time to Protect the UK defence budget’). At the time I said that I was sure that all engaged within the UK military establishment would applaud such sentiments and indeed, that what Mr. Hammond was reported to have said.
But should they have placed trust in such remarks? Looking back, I think not. Indeed, as I said at the time, I am of a mind to best consider that there is still worse news to come on defence and that it would unlikely be Mr. Hammond in that same department in order to see the next chapter in for UK defence. So, his rather amazing seeming about-turn on defence cuts could possibly be because he was beginning to find himself in the potential political backyard (In fact he went on to become Foreign Secretary and he dramatically cut back on that department too).
Hamond also lacked any real determination to support then Prime Minister Cameron’s seeming desire to work hard in support of the defence export industry and having ensured at all cost that potential criticism on weakened military capability from within was silenced, it is quite possible that the harsh voices of reality internally that were to be heard saying enough is enough were finding more powerful ears elsewhere.
Experience also suggests that there is usually political reasoning behind any minister’s change of policy heart. In the knowledge that in 2013 David Cameron’s ‘Coalition’ partners had no particular love of spending anything on defence and even less with regard to Trident replacement, it may just be that Mr. Hammond’s sudden change of stance was primarily aimed at Lib-Dem critics – just as much as it was of his own hardened Tory back benchers who were also beginning to say enough was enough with cuts.
Back in 2013 and with no Lib-Dem remaining on the Coalition defence ministerial team [very regrettably Nick Harvey had been removed as Minister of State for the Armed Forces back in the 2012 reshuffle] and with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander being one of the three most senior Lib-Dem politicians in the Coalition Government and the one specifically charged with ensuring success of the next review of public spending, it may not be that hard to understand why!
Whatever, we have or are very near inflection point of having to decide very soon what it is that we want to be in terms of a military power. We remain one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council and it is increasingly clear that this will at some future point come under pressure if we further cut spending on defence – taking this below 2% of GDP. We have actually reached that point already.
The choices may still be ours to make but Britain’s role at the top end of global diplomacy has been greatly eroded and remains threatened by further cuts in defence capability should these occur. As I also said back in 2013, Iraq may be behind us and Afghanistan involvement will shortly reduce, but the threats against Britain be they in terrorist or direct form have certainly not reduced. Nor will they!
We are also fast coming to realise that far from making the world a safer place the so-called Arab spring may have made the situation even worse. Democracy after all cannot be created in a year – more often it takes a century to build.
(CHW – London – 2nd March 2013 – Original – 26th June 2023 Update)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785