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‘Defence in Global Britain’ RUSI Address! By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.


Maligned, derided by some and the cause of many a smirk and smile although it has to be said, equally admired by some for its enthusiastic and ambitious outlook, the address given by Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson at RUSI on Monday can probably be best summed up as: deserving of criticism and praise in equal measure!

Below my own comments on this address this morning you can find the full text of the address given by Secretary of State – on reading the full text you will of course be able to judge the merits or otherwise of both argument, strategic direction and intent to be found within the Secretary of State’s RUSI speech for yourself.

I will start by saying that it is always pleasing to see national ambition emerging out of the self-created Brexit mess. Looking on the bright side for a moment we do appear to have a Secretary of State for Defence this time who is really prepared to fight for defence even if he doesn’t always appear to understand the implications of what he sometimes says.

Mr. Williamson has already achieved a £1.8 billion increase in the defence budget for his pains and we are all grateful for that. The black hole in the defence budget remains although I do not suspect that poses quite the threat that some would have us believe.

Even so, given the state of the nation and the political and maybe economic quagmire that we are in defence under Mrs. May is unlikely to gate anything like all that it needs in order to properly counter the increasing level of threat. Rather than promise more than can be delivered in reality might it not be better that we stop kidding ourselves that we are something that we are not?

True, the UK is still a very potent force in terms of defence albeit far less so in respect of Foreign Office diplomacy. We are and will remain, outside of the US, the largest contributor to NATO and we must at all costs ensure that other are not allowed to damage what has been built up in respect of Alliance structure. We are indeed still recognised universally for the abilities of our armed forces, what they have achieved and be it Army, Royal Navy or Royal Air Force, our armed forces people are recognised and respected by allies and adversaries alike for what they are – absolutely brilliant at what they do. 

But while Mr. Williamson talks of our continuing to be a leader of the [NATO] Alliance in order to bring stability in a changing world, he should also know that, at best, our armed forces are now only able to fight on single rather than the multiple fronts they used to be able to do. 

True, much is being done in respect of beefing up our strategic intentions and it is pleasing to see that the UK will be leading the nine-nation Joint Expeditionary Force when it deploys in the Baltics later this year. But while it can hardly be argued that Britain doesn’t have significant global interests we are not a global power. Even if it could be argued that we had been until the SDSR 2010 axe fell on defence events and behaviour since the Brexit referendum have shown that we are far from being united. Memo to Government – Global powers are generally united on all fronts although I readily accept that the US can hardly be termed as being united right now. 

It was to me interesting that, as far as I can see, Mr. Williamson failed to mention the investment in the Dreadnought nuclear deterrent submarine or indeed, the role conducted by the current Trident nuclear deterrent submarines. Was this an oversight or was he just attempting to be politically correct? It does seem strange though when you are talking about Defence in global Britain and extending global presence to ignore the brilliant work done by the Royal Navy in respect of our nuclear deterrent submarine capability.  

Mr. Williamson talks of the increased number of bases the UK now has in the Gulf Region and reminds of our facilities in Belize, Brunei, Singapore and the sovereign bases in Cyprus, Gibraltar and Ascension (note that he ignored the Falkland Islands]. He talks about consideration now being given in respect of increased UK presence in the Caribbean and Asia Pacific regions. Quite right too but what and when and how is this to be paid for when there is already so much pressure on the defence budget?

Moving on Mr. Williamson talks highly of the Royal Marines and if he could, I am sure that he would like to have talked about the battle royal he had with the Treasury in order to retain the two amphibious assault ships, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion. He talks of our TWO new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and the yet to be commissioned HMS Prince of Wales as if they will both be at sea at the same time. That as far as I am aware was never the intention.      

It was however pleasing to see that Secretary of State mentioned upgrading of our AWACS aircraft with modern and better capability – a reference I hope to not only to enhancing of Shadow and Sentinel but also to replacement of Sentry E3-D AWACS and the addition of nine Boeing Poseidon P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft – and talked openly in respect of the long awaited Typhoon AESA radar upgrade of which he said that £60 million had been earmarked together with mention of the additional two already announced planned Typhoon Squadrons.   As to that mention of development of swarm squadrons of network enabled drones available by the end of this year, let’s just wait and see.

Mention of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter capability is fair enough but once again no mention of strategic intentions with regard to type beyond what I assume will be the first 48 all be of the ‘B’ STOVL variant.  

So, in summary from me, the speech was not short on ambition and intent but with the realities of the ongoing fight between Defence (MOD) and both HM Treasury and Cabinet Office talk of “an unparalleled opportunity to consider how we can project and maximise our influence around the world in the months and years ahead” looks somewhat out of place bearing in mind that this year will see a Comprehensive Spending Review process that is almost bound to place even more pressure on the defence budget. Even so, while the Prime Minister doesn’t appear to get defence and with the National Security Advisor seemingly no friend of increasing spend on conventional defence, it rather looks to me as if Mr. Williamson has his work cut out

It is all well and good for Mr. Williamson to talk up ambition and intent but chances are that he will not be around to deliver it. I seem to remember ten years ago that Gordon Brown gave the job of Secretary of State for Defence to John Hutton on the pretext of ask me for anything and the answer is no. For Mr. Williamson it is a simple case of actions speak louder than words. Note this morning that, according to SIPRI, the UK has fallen to seventh in the global lead table for spending on defence:    

Defence in Global Britain RUSI Address.  Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson

Malcolm [Chalmers] thank you so much for having hosting this event here today at RUSI. It’s a real privilege and honour to be able to come along.

It’s important to start off by asking the question why do we fight? It is fundamentally, to protect our people, protect our interests, and, of course, to defend Britain.

As a nation, we’ve never shied away from acting even if that has meant standing alone as we did in the darkest hours of the Second World War. Even after the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago, when there was no overwhelmingly obvious threat to our security, we recognised the UK had a role and responsibility to stand up for our values across the globe. Defending our values took us to Kuwait, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Kosovo and it made a difference to millions of peoples’ lives.

But, after September 11th, the importance of defence increased as a deadly new threat arose. A threat not just to any nation but to all who cherished the values of the Western way of life. A global ideology seeking the destruction of everything that we hold dear. We have learned much from fighting Al Qaeda and Daesh. But, while we tackled this extremism, state-on-state competition has reviving. Today, Russia is resurgent – rebuilding its military arsenal and seeking to bring the independent countries of the former Soviet Union, like Georgia and Ukraine, back into its orbit. All the while, China is developing its modern military capability and its commercial power.

Today, we see a world of spheres of influence and competing great powers. Not only are we confronting a state like Russia. An ideological enemy without a state like Al Qaeda and Daesh. But the very character of warfare itself is changing. The boundaries between peace and war are becoming blurred. Our adversaries are increasingly using cyber-attacks, subversion and information operations to challenge us and the rules-based international order. Operating in the ‘grey zone’. Operating below the threshold of conventional conflict. Our Joint Forces Command is already dealing with this. But, we need to go further. We need to bring together our strategic capabilities. We need to integrate them more effectively and a greater agility to meet the demands of this increasingly contested environment.

We and our allies must deter and be ready to defend ourselves. Ready to show the high price of aggressive behaviour. Ready to strengthen our resilience. And ready, where necessary, to use hard power to support our global interests.

But there is a great opportunity here too. As we look at our position in the world, we should remind ourselves that we are a nation with a great inheritance. A nation that makes a difference. A nation that stands tall. Inevitably, there are those who say that we are in retreat. Those who believe that, as we leave the European Union, we turn our back on the world. But, this could not be further from the truth. Whether people voted to leave or remain, they believe Britain must continue to play an important and major role on the international stage.

It is my belief that Britain has its greatest opportunity in 50 years to redefine our role. As we leave the European Union. And, the world changing so rapidly it is up to us to seize the opportunities that Brexit brings. We will build new alliances, rekindle old ones and most importantly make it clear that we are the country that will act when required. We should be the nation that people turn to when the world needs leadership.

And Defence will be pivotal in reinforcing Britain’s role as an outward looking nation. We are making sure it does so in a number of key ways:

A Global Presence

First, by increasing our global presence and building on our alliances.

NATO. 70 years on from its founding, remains the bedrock of our nation’s Defence. In the past five years, the Alliance has come a long way. It is far more focused and ready to deter and defend against Russian hostile acts. But, more European nations need to be ready and capable of responding too. Stepping up to the 2% NATO target and not being distracted by the notion of an EU Army.

Britain must be willing and able to lead the Alliance, to bring stability in a changing-world. We are a leader in NATO, this year hosting the Leaders Meeting here in London. Alongside this we have sent a Battle Group to Estonia to support NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. We lead multi-national maritime task groups in the Mediterranean and defend the skies over the Black Sea and the Baltics. And, we strongly support NATO’s Readiness Initiative to make sure forces are available and ready to do their job.

And in NATO, we must stand firm against Russia’s non-compliance with the INF Treaty. If necessary being ready to deal with the threat that new Russian missile systems may pose. The Alliance must develop its ability to handle the kind of provocations that Russia is throwing at us. Such action from Russia must come at a cost. Nor, can we forget those countries outside NATO who face a day-to-day struggle with Russian attempts to undermine their very sovereignty. We stand ready to support our friends in Ukraine and the Balkans. These countries have the right to choose their own destiny and be free from Russian interference. At the same time, in such an uncertain age, like-minded nations must come together to increase their own security. That is why the United Kingdom is leading the nine-nation Joint Expeditionary Force which in a few months’ time will take part in its first deployment to the Baltics.

But we must not see this as our limit. We must be willing to go further. History has taught us that crisis comes when we least expect it. As uncertainty grows we must be ready to act, bringing others with us. Readiness has to be our new watchword.

In an era of ‘Great Power’ competition we cannot be satisfied simply protecting our own backyard. The UK is a global power with truly global interests. A nation with the fifth biggest economy on the planet. A nation with the world’s fifth biggest Defence budget and the second largest Defence exporter. And since the new Global Great Game will be played on a global playing field, we must be prepared to compete for our interests and our values far, far from home.

That is why Global Britain needs to be much more than a pithy phrase. It has to be about action. And our armed forces represent the best of Global Britain in action. Taking action alongside our friends and allies. Action to strengthen the hand of fragile nations and to support those who face natural disasters. Action to oppose those who flout international law. Action to shore up the global system of rules and standards on which our security and our prosperity depends.
And action, on occasion, that may lead us to have to intervene alone.

Now, I know there are some that question the cost of intervention. But it is often forgotten the cost of non-intervention. The fact that this has been unacceptably high. It will not always be the role of the traditional Western powers to act as a global policeman but nor can we walk-on-by when others are in need. To talk…but fail to act…risks our nation being seen as nothing more than a paper tiger.

I do not underestimate the challenges that this approach brings. But we do start from a position of strength. Our people are already acting around the world from the North Sea to the South Pacific to protect our interests and we already benefit from strong international partnerships. But we cannot take such relationships for granted.
Our global presence must be persistent…not fitful. Patient…not fickle.
Permanent…not fly-by-night.

So, as well as our relationships with Europe, we need to build on our established relationship with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada as part of the Five Eyes. With Singapore and Malaysia in the Five Powers Defence Arrangement. With other ASEAN nations, with Japan, the Republic of Korea and India. With our partners in the Middle East, and with our many friends in Africa – from Nigeria in the West to Kenya in the East.

And we are seeking to use our global capabilities to strengthen our global presence.

From this spring, HMS Montrose, along with five other naval vessels, will be permanently based in the Gulf using innovative crewing and support methods to keep the ship available for more of the time. Today, we also go further. And I can announce the first operational mission of the HMS Queen Elizabeth will include the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Pacific region. Making Global Britain a reality. Significantly, British and American F35s will be embedded in the carrier’s air wing. Enhancing the reach and lethality of our forces and reinforcing the fact that the United States remains our very closest of partners. We share the same vision of the world. A world shaped by individual liberty, the rule of law and, of course, the tolerance of others. We have the unique ability to integrate with US forces across a broad spectrum of areas. And, we are more determined than ever to keep working together.

We will also be using our string of global support facilities and military bases more strategically…to consistently project power both hard and soft. The Duqm port facilities in Oman are large enough to be able to support our aircraft carriers. The Al Minhad and Al Udeid Air Bases, in the Emirates and Qatar respectively, provide strategically important capabilities. In Bahrain, our Naval Base and our long-standing Maritime Command make a major contribution to our activities in the region but also beyond. Further afield we already benefit from facilities in Belize, in Brunei, in Singapore as well as our bases in Cyprus, Gibraltar and Ascension Island.

And, I believe that we need to go further. Considering what permanent presence we might need in areas including the Caribbean and Asia-Pacific to extend our global influence. Our proactive approach shows we are not getting by on half measures. For us global engagement is not a reflex reaction to leaving the European Union. It is about a permanent presence

Armed Forces With More Mass

But having that presence goes hand-in-hand with our multi-million-pound Transformation Fund, making sure our armed forces have the right capabilities as quickly as possible. And today, I can announce some of the first investments from that Fund.

Take the Royal Navy. They are exerting British influence through greater forward presence. I want to capitalise on that. Investing now to develop a new Littoral Strike Ship concept. And, if successful, we will look to dramatically accelerate their delivery. These globally deployable, multi-role vessels would be able to conduct a wide range of operations, from crisis support to war-fighting.

They would support our Future Commando Force. Our world-renowned Royal Marines – they’ll be forward deployed, at exceptionally high readiness, and able to respond at a moment’s notice bringing the fight from sea to land.

Our vision is for these ships to form part of 2 Littoral Strike Groups complete with escorts, support vessels and helicopters. One would be based East of Suez in the Indo-Pacific and one based West of Suez in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Baltic. And, if we ever need them to, our two Littoral Strike Ships, our two aircraft carriers, our two amphibious assault ships Albion and Bulwark, and our three Bay Class landing ships can come together in one amphibious task force. This will give us sovereign, lethal, amphibious force. This will be one of the largest and best such forces anywhere in the world.

In 1940, Winston Churchill said: “Enterprises must be prepared with specially-trained troops of the ‘Hunter Class’, who can develop a reign of terror down enemy coasts.” Our actions mean that we will deliver on Churchill’s vision for our Royal Navy and for our Royal Marine Commandos.

Turning to our Royal Air Force, fresh from celebrating its centenary last year, it is now firmly focused on the next 100 years. They already have 17 new RAF and Royal Navy F35 Lightning jets, capable of land-based operations anywhere on the globe and due to embark on our aircraft carrier for the first time later this year. We’ll soon have nine new Poseidon P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft enabling us to patrol thousands of miles of ocean and greatly enhancing our anti-submarine and maritime capability. We’re upgrading our AWACS aircraft with modern and better capability that will improve our battle winning airborne command and control. We are growing our operational Typhoon squadrons from five to seven – equipping them with world leading radar and now carrying deep strike Storm Shadow cruise missiles. And, to complement leading edge technology from F35, I have decided to use the Transformation Fund to develop swarm squadrons of network enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences. We expect to see these ready to be deployed by the end of this year.

And the Army is continuing to modernise its forces. We will have a Warfighting Division with troops able to deploy from our bases at home and in Germany. We’ll increase the firepower and protection of the battle-proven Warrior and introduce the ultra-modern AJAX. And, at the tip of the spear, will be our elite Parachute Regiment within 16 Air Assault Brigade, able to deploy into any environment at a moment’s notice.

So, we are making sure our armed forces have the sufficient mass to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment to deal with the coming dangers.

Transforming Defence Through Increased Lethality

Finally, if we are to live up to our global role then our armed forces must continue to be a lethal fighting force fully adapted to the demands of 21st century warfare.

When I came into the Department the talk was about cutting capability. But instead, this Government has delivered an extra £1.8 billion of Defence funding, keeping us on track and prioritising the right UK Defence for the decade to come. That includes £600 million to protect the future of our nuclear deterrence. This ensures we will deliver the new submarines on time and means that we are spending £4 billion every year to ensure the ultimate guarantee of our safety for another 50 years.

That means £60 million to invest in Typhoon’s next generation radar. And, as the cyber threat grows, we are making a very significant additional investment on the £1.9 billion we spend on cyber capabilities. That’s funding to improve offensive cyber, putting the command and control structures in place across-Government. And, it will give us extra money to protect our network resilience from online attacks.

With the threat from the Kremlin increasing in the North Atlantic, we’re spending an additional £33 million to improve our anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

And, we will also spend £100 million on a variety of initiatives to modernise how we do business in defence. If this isn’t enough there will also be a further £24 million available through innovative Spearhead projects.

Meanwhile, we are using our Transformation Fund to further increase our armed forces’ lethality. For example, we’re going to make sure that our ground troops – whether in the Army, the Royal Marines or the RAF Regiment – are going to get the same night vision equipment that their colleagues in Special Forces have. We’re also going to buy pioneering robotic fighting and logistic vehicles. Reducing the risk to our personnel and increasing the firepower and agility of our infantry.

In addition, as a result of the Transformation Fund the Royal Air Force will double our armed ISR capability so we can identify and neutralise targets far faster. The Venom kinetic strike capability will mean those who wish to do us harm have more to fear.

And to our armed forces quite simply the sky is not the limit. In space, they look forward to the investment we are making to enhance our space operations centre bringing together the best civilian and military minds.

And our ambitions are greater still.

I want to see our armed forces embracing transformation at an ever-faster rate, keeping pace with technological change, enhancing our mass and increasing our lethality. We shouldn’t be shy about the ambition that we have for our forces. The future of conflict will require us to be adaptable, agile and capable of using new technologies quickly and cost-effectively. I am determined to focus the Transformation Fund on investments that will create the armed forces of the future.

That future, of course, is uncertain. But I expect to see, the Army using both manned and unmanned teams, Artificial Intelligence and the unmatched quality of our personnel to win, not just conventional wars but also dominate the conflict in the grey zone.

I expect the Royal Navy to deploy flexibly, to be capable of being in many places at once and to ensure we have an efficient fleet of warfighting ships, looking at how they can grow both their mass and their lethality.

And, I expect the Royal Air Force to operate the next generation with modern Air Command and Control, more combat air squadrons and energy weapons to keep our skies safe


Wherever I go in the world I find that Britain stands tall. It’s not just because are the world’s fifth biggest economy. Not just because we have the world’s finest scientists, mathematicians and engineers. It’s because we have the world’s finest and best Armed Forces. Brave men and women who stand up for the values that we hold dear. Men and women that we are so truly proud of.

They are contributing and they are the key capabilities that guard UK airspace and waters. They are supporting the civil authorities’ right across the United Kingdom. They are ensuring that we remain a leading member of NATO. They are protecting our interests and enhancing our prosperity. And they are showing, they are showing that Britain still matters on the global stage. Some still wish to cut Britain down to size and send her back to her shores. But to those I say that has never been our way. It is not in our nature. Britain has always sought to take risks. Britain has always stood up for its deeply held values. Britain has always been an outward looking nation. And against adversaries upping their spending…investing in new technologies… we have to respond. If we do not, we will find ourselves with fewer options when we face the challenges and the threats in the future.

And Brexit. Brexit has brought us to a moment. A great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality, and increase our mass.

So today I set out my vision for UK Defence in a more global age. But as we look to life beyond Brexit, I believe it is incumbent on us all to consider the role of Defence in our national life. Defence has always been the most vital and first duty of Government. But now we have an unparalleled opportunity to consider how we can project and maximise our influence around the world in the months and years ahead. It is up to all of us…from here on in…to make sure that our great nation seizes and grasps the opportunity that present themselves with both hands.

CHW (London –13th February 2019)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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