“Our ability to pre-empt or respond to threats will be eroded if we don’t keep up with our adversaries,” are remarks that, according to several press reports, General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the General Staff will include in a speech to be delivered at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London later today. We are told that General Sir Nick will tell his audience that “State-based competition is now being employed in more novel and increasingly integrated ways and we must be ready to deal with them” and that he believes that Britain would struggle to withstand Russian forces on the battlefield”.
The point of this speech is also to highlight the threat posed by cyber-warfare and to stress that Britain cannot afford to sit back. He believes, as many of the rest of us do that either ministers must invest in defence or further erode the country’s ability to combat threats.
It is both unusual and welcome that one of the three service chiefs has seemingly been sanctioned to raise public awareness as to the increased level of threat that the UK and the rest of the NATO alliance is suffering. There can be little doubt that UK defence has been weakened over the past eight years and that we need to raise awareness. Cynics might well argue that there are other reasons behind the timing of the speech but for my part I am content to believe that this is the message that the new Secretary of State both needs and wants to get out into the public domain and that will play to what many believe is his belief that there is no further room for cuts in defence.
As reported by the Sunday Telegraph over the weekend, according to the chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee (HCDC), Julian Lewis MP, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond is supportive of more defence cuts because he apparently believes that from a political perspective “there are not enough votes in defence”.
Hammond isn’t the first and I doubt he will be the last to go down that particularly rather offensive and ill-informed road. While it is true that the public have as yet been reluctant to allow defence to move back up the agenda I sense the beginnings of change. There is, in my view, a renewed level of concern out there in the public domain that was not present two years ago. There is a new awareness and whatever, we may be sure that the public are fully always supportive of the military when they are needed and that they will always be there to support the need for strong defence and security when need arises. Of course, as we all know, we have always to be ready and now is the time to ensure that we can and will be ready for the day that we find ourselves seriously threatened and potentially being challenged by an adversary.
It was Philip Hammond who told us, in evidence he gave to HCDC in October 2013 and when he was still Secretary of State for Defence, that Britain is war-weary and only “extreme circumstances” like the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks could persuade the public to support major new foreign military deployment of British Forces. How wrong could he have been in making such a ridiculous statement and if nothing else, remarks such as these provide further evidence that sometimes those charged with having responsibility for defence in Government are hardly fit for purpose.
Defence, of course, is a political choice and so too, of the Prime Minister, are appointments of defence ministers. No longer, or should I say rarely, do we find ministerial appointments in defence of those that have had military experience. More’s the pity and with our military chiefs forced to have their speeches vetted by others before delivery and silenced from providing views that are not on message or that fail to match official MOD policy, we appear to have made a rod for our own backs.
The public deserves better than this. By the same token, the decision taken in SDSR 2010 that gave the military chiefs responsibility for their own budgets has presented new and unacceptable challenges. Trained as military specialists as they are and experienced in most defensive and attack situations they might be obliged to deal with, personnel, safety and all other matters demanding of planning, decision making, action or discussion, I am bound to wonder what training some are given for budget responsibility?
I well recall Mr. Hammond saying that the “Public appetite for expeditionary warfare is pretty low, based on the experience of 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan” and also that “It would be realistic of me to say that I would not expect, except in the most extreme circumstances, a manifestation of great appetite for plunging into a prolonged period of expeditionary warfare any time soon”. Like others I was shocked and by equal measure, perturbed as to what such a message sent to our enemies, our would-be enemies, to our NATO allies and to our own military personnel.
Taken out of context or not, these were unwise words from Mr. Hammond and they provide a useful reminder today it seems of how, as Chancellor of Exchequer, his mind sometimes works. While Mr. Hammond was quite right at the time to have believed that public attitude for our military deploying in theatre had changed, it was something that should better have never been said.
The Hammond argument had of course been supported by a decision taken earlier that year  in the House of Commons not to support our allies in the fight against the so called Islamic State. This was a decision that shocked some of our allies including the United States of America but it was one that would finally be reversed two years later on the 2nd of December 2015, a fact that I have long believed had been greatly assisted by the brilliant speech delivered in the House of Commons debate by the Labour MP, Hilary Benn and which I have included for your interest at the end of this commentary. The vote that followed that speech witnessed Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 and Typhoon aircraft based at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus going into action that very same night.
At or around the time of his 2013 HCDC evidence I recall that Mr. Hammond compared Britain’s attitude with that of the US public following the Vietnam War, when America undertook a “clear disengagement” from international affairs. It is of course true that America wanted out of Vietnam and though it provided underlying support to French and British military in Libya, it had preferred to stand on the sidelines rather than being directly engaged in that dispute. Just as the Coalition Government here at home had cut the defence budget by maybe as much as 8% through the five years that it existed, the US was forced to cut or delay expenditure on defence because of the process of sequestration.
UK defence cuts that came out of SDSR 2010, particularly to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force proved to be far too large in terms of capability but it would be five years before defence would be given a promise of being protected from further cuts and given the derisory increase of a £500 million increase in the annual defence budget in each of the years 2016 to 2021. The Chief of Defence Staff at the time, General Sir Nick Houghton talked of there being hollowed out forces having “exquisite equipment but not enough people”. He was quickly proved to be right.
Back to the present and although quoted as having made his most recent remarks along the lines of there being no votes in defence almost three years ago, I suspect that the impression of Mr Hammond’s real beliefs are driven by defence today rarely being amongst the top ten concerns of voters.
The British public is very fickle when it comes to discussing the subject of defence and successive governments have taken advantage of what they believe to be only notional public interest in defence. The manner in which defence has been discussed in public by politicians, the last General Election being a case in point and one in which defence hardly featured in the hustings debate or in the media. Neither, in relation to accusations of capability programmes going over budget, has this helped the public understanding of how the MOD spends its money on defence.
Neither it has to be said, due to the inter-service rivalry and the bickering of senior service chiefs back in the period leading up to SDSR 2010, did the military do much to ease the public conscience over future strategy decisions. Today, ‘jointery’ is rightly the order of the day in respect of the professional military strategy although there are those outside, mainly former senior and a few other members of the military, who fail to get the message that if defence is to be affordable all three armed forces units must be joined at the hip.
Another factor that has changed in recent years is the loss of cross party consensus on defence. Past events and what some may prefer to call mistakes made by political decisions have played into that. Given the increased level of threats that we face and the visibility of Russian intent through increased levels of testing our resolve, I live in hope that we will one day see the return of cross party consensus under the banner of this being in the national interest.
Of course, led by a more aggressive press that is quick to blame a combination of industry and MOD failure in equal measure for some of the many problems facing defence, it is hardly surprising that the public has been suspicious. Given that there is no formal approach to keeping the public on side save for a certain amount of good news story use of social media, we have got somewhat used to seeing industry and the MOD being blamed for issues that are often caused by lack of funding, poor decision making processes, getting capability requirements right at the start rather as opposed to the common practice of making potentially very costly changes, pushing programmes back or reducing numbers.
The views of Mr. Lewis, as reported in the Sunday Telegraph, are personal views of course as opposed to those being expressed by HCDC. I note too that in the article Mr. Lewis is quoted as warning the Government that it should be paying an “insurance premium” during peacetime in order to “call in the policy” in the event of a conflict. This is surely correct and as I have said before, it is pleasing that we now have a group of Tory MP’s assisted by a few from the Labour benches that are determined to ensure that defence is not short changed again. I and they are not alone in believing defence has been under-funded for far too long and that we must recognise the need for change.
In welcoming the remarks that Julian Lewis has made readers will no doubt remember that it was on Mr. Hammond’s watch as Secretary of State for Defence that resulted in us being told that the large black hole in the defence budget had by 2013 been repaired. That said, there is little point served by an individual member of the HCDC pointing a finger of blame at one individual in the Cabinet without also mentioning that the Treasury is not the only enemy of defence – the Cabinet Office dislikes defence too and sees it merely as an annoying if necessary expense.
That said, it is true that ‘Forensic Phil’, as Mr. Hammond was frequently referred to by many in corridors of MOD Main Building at the time and by the due to his requirement for intense analysis of each and every project and component of MOD expenditure, is someone who for some unutterable reason and when the rest of us are recognising the increased level of threats, finds it perfectly acceptable to see defence further cut back because, in his view it seems, there are few votes to be lost by doing just that. This time I beg to differ!
Just to finish off, the Sunday Telegraph article goes on to say that a separate source has claimed that the scale of the current Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamsons challenge was particularly great because his predecessor, Sir Michael Fallon had failed to stand up for the Ministry of Defence in talks with No 10 and HM Treasury. Well, that was probably true right up until the last two weeks of his period in office but I believe that it is also true to say that during his long tenure in that office Sir Michael Fallon failed to take defence into Cabinet for discussion. I doubt that his successor will be allowed quite so much leeway as Sir Michael was by Prime Minister David Cameron and his successor, Mrs May.
This morning, courtesy of FTI Consulting, I was invited to attend one of the regular conversation events that the business advisory and consultancy firm hold with Parliamentarians. I am very grateful to have been there to hear Hilary Benn, the long-time Labour Member of Parliament for Leeds Central, answering questions from both the FTI Consulting host, Alex Deane and the audience.
Mr. Benn spoke very well and talked on many subject areas including Brexit and related general Labour Party policy on a number of issues including the railways. In regard of defence, apart for making clear the commitment to support the nuclear deterrent capability Mr. Benn, perhaps not surprisingly, avoided the rub of my own question on the basis that he is probably as unclear as I am on what Labour Party policy on defence is.
Now in the centre of the party, it is perhaps interesting to observe that not so very long ago Mr. Benn was considered to be very much on the left of the Labour Party. How times change. None of that takes anything away from the brilliant speech that he delivered on 2nd December 2015 in the House of Commons and that paved the way for the Royal Air Force to begin playing a large part in the defeat of Daesh. That speech is repeated below:
Syria Debate Speech made by Hilary Benn MP on the 2nd December 2015 in the House of Commons
“Now we have heard a number of outstanding speeches, and sadly time will prevent me from acknowledging them all but I would just like to single out the contributions both for and against the motion from my honourable and right honourable friends the members for Derby South [Margaret Beckett], Kingston Upon Hull West and Hessle [Alan Johnson], Normanton Pontefract and Castleford [Yvette Cooper], Barnsley Central [Dan Jarvis], Wakefield [Mary Creagh], Wolverhampton South East [Pat McFadden], Brent North [Barry Gardiner], Liverpool West Derby [Stephen Twigg], Wirral West [Margaret Greenwood], Stoke on Trent North [Ruth Smeeth], Birmingham Ladywood [Shabana Mahmood] and the honourable members for Reigate [Crispin Blunt], South West Wiltshire [Andrew Murrison], Tonbridge and Malling [John Stanley], Chichester [Andrew Tyrie] and Wells [James Heappey].
The question which confronts us in a very, very complex conflict is at its heart very simple. What should we do with others to confront this threat to our citizens, our nation, other nations and the people who suffer under the yoke, the cruel yoke, of Daesh?
Carnage in Paris brought home to us the clear and present danger we face from them. It could just as easily have been London or Glasgow or Leeds or Birmingham – and it could still be. And I believe we have a moral and a practical duty to extend the action we are already taking in Iraq to Syria. And I am also clear, and I say this to my colleagues, that the conditions set out in the emergency resolution passed at the Labour party conference in September have been met. We now have a clear and unambiguous UN Security Council resolution 2249, paragraph five of which specifically calls on member states to take all necessary measures; to redouble and co-ordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.
So the United Nations is asking us to do something. It is asking us to do something now. It is asking us to act in Syria as well as in Iraq. And it was a Labour government, if the honourable gentleman will bear with me, it was a Labour government that helped to found the United Nations at the end of the Second World War. And why did we do so? Because we wanted the nations of the world working together to deal with threats to international peace and security – and Daesh is unquestionably that.
So given that the United Nations has passed this resolution, given that such action would be lawful under Article 51 of the UN charter, because every state has the right to defend itself, why would we not uphold the settled will of the United Nations? Particularly when there is such support from within the region, including from Iraq.
We are part of a coalition of over 60 countries standing together shoulder to shoulder to oppose their ideology and their brutality. Now Mr Speaker, all of us understand the importance of bringing an end to the Syrian civil war, and there is now some progress on a peace plan because of the Vienna talks. They are the best hope we have of achieving a ceasefire. Now that would bring an end to Assad’s bombing, leading to a transitional government and elections. And why is that vital? Both because it will help in the defeat of Daesh, and because it would enable millions of Syrians who have been forced to flee to do what every refugee dreams of: they just want to be able to go home.
Now Mr Speaker, no one in this debate doubts the deadly serious threat we face from Daesh and what they do – although sometimes we find it hard to live with the reality. We know that in June four gay men were thrown off the fifth storey of a building in the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor. We know that in August the 82-year-old guardian of the antiquities of Palmyra, Professor Khaled al-Assad, was beheaded and his headless body was hung from a traffic light. And we know that in recent weeks there has been the discovery of mass graves in Sinjar, one said to contain the bodies of older
Yazidi women murdered by Daesh because they were judged too old to be sold for sex. We know they have killed 30 British tourists in Tunisia, 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane, 178 people in suicide bombings in Beirut, Ankara and Suruc, 130 people in Paris – including those young people in the Bataclan, whom Daesh, in trying to justify their bloody slaughter, called them apostates engaged in prostitution and vice. If it had happened here they could have been our children, and we know they are plotting more attacks.
So the question for each of us and for our national security is this: given that we know what they are doing, can we really stand aside and refuse to act fully in our self defence against those who are planning these attacks? Can we really leave to others the responsibility for defending our national security when it is our responsibility? And if we do not act, what message would that send about our solidarity with those countries that have suffered so much, including Iraq and our ally France. Now France wants us to stand with them , and President Hollande, the leader of our sister socialist party, has asked for our assistance and help. And as we are undertaking air strikes in Iraq, where’s Daesh hold has been reduced, and we are already doing everything but engage in air strikes in Syria, should we not play our full part?
Now Mr Speaker, it has been argued in the debate that air strikes achieve nothing. Not so. Look at how Daesh’s forward march has been halted in Iraq. The house will remember that 14 months ago people were saying, ‘They are almost at the gates of Baghdad.’ And that is why we voted to respond to the Iraqi government’s request for help to defeat them. Look at how their military capacity and their freedom of movement has been put under pressure. Ask the Kurds about Sinjar and Kobane. Now of course air strikes alone will not defeat Daesh, but they make a difference because they are giving them a hard time and it is making it more difficult for them to expand their territory.
Now I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However unlike Daesh, none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians. Rather we act to protect civilians from Daesh, who target innocent people.
Now on the subject of ground troops to defeat Daesh, there has been much debate about the figure of 70,000 and the government must, I think, better explain that. But we know that most of them are currently engaged in fighting President Assad. But I tell you what else we know: it’s whatever the number – 70,000, 40,000, 80,000 – the current size of the opposition forces mean the longer we leave taking action, the longer Daesh will have to decrease that number. And so to suggest, Mr Speaker, that air strikes should not take place until the Syrian civil war has come to an end is, I think, to miss the urgency of the terrorist threat that Daesh poses to us and others and I think misunderstands the nature and objectives of the extension to air strikes that is being proposed.
And of course we should take action – it is not a contradiction between the two – to cut off Daesh’s support in the form of money and fighters and weapons, and of course we should give humanitarian aid and of course we should offer shelter to more refugees, including in this country, and of course we should commit to play our full part in helping to rebuild Syria when the war is over.
Now I accept that there are legitimate arguments, and we’ve heard them in the debate, for not taking this form of action now, and it is also clear that many members have wrestled and who knows, in the time that is left may still be wrestling, with what the right thing to do is. But I say the threat is now and there are rarely if ever perfect circumstances in which to deploy military forces. Now we heard very powerful testimony from the honourable member for Eddisbury earlier when she quoted that passage, and I just want to read what Karwan Jamal Tahir, Kurdistan regional government high representative in London, said last week, and I quote: ‘Last June Daesh captured one third of Iraq overnight, and a few months later attacked the Kurdistan region. Swift air strikes by Britain, America and France, and the actions of our own Peshmerga saved us. We now have a border of 650 miles with Daesh. We have pushed them back and recently captured Sinjar. Again Western air strikes were vital. But the old border between Iraq and Syria does not exist. Daesh fighters come and go across this fictional boundary.’ And that is the argument, Mr Speaker, for treating the two countries as one if we are serious about defeating Daesh.
Now Mr Speaker, I hope the House will bear with me if I direct my closing remarks to my Labour friends and colleagues on this side of the House. As a party, we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road. And we are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us here tonight, and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. And that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for this motion tonight”.
CHW (London – 22nd January 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785