A new year and one that for UK defence will be yet another of great challenge. That defence finds itself once again in a very difficult place in respect of funding is hardly that new and twenty years on from ‘Options for Change’ we may well need to completely rethink what we do in defence and how we intend to do it in future.
That last remark may smack of weakness but it is just as much realism of where we find ourselves today. We must in my view cease kidding ourselves that we are stronger today than we really are and we must recognise too that in an increasingly uncertain world in which the threat to our security, to our peace and economic stability, has risen exponentially that we can no longer close our eyes to the need to prioritise defence and security once again but also to fund it properly.
Of course, in respect of the future capability requirement there must also be room for adaptability and change. That means accepting that we do not need to retain certain elements of capability that have been superseded by warfare technology advance.
Strong defence capability may be essential but it must also of course always be affordable. No longer, it seems, can we believe that we can be all things to all men and it is right that in the future we anticipate working more closely with our NATO allies such as France and Germany and in sharing the burden. That is not to suggest that we need to have any part in what the EU seeks to do in defence and all that we do must play within the NATO alliance.
But it is to say that we must also ensure that whatever decisions we take in regard to how we conduct future defence and security activity must be done to play in OUR best interests and that, having gapped certain elements of capability in the past, we do not leave ourselves in a weakened position that we live to regret.
The same argument is true in regard of sovereign capability and we must redouble our efforts to ensure that our government recognises that it must share the burden with industry by increasing investment in research and technology development.
Awaiting publication of the Cabinet Office review of all twelve strands of defence and security there is little that any of us can do but hope that our leaders have got the message that fudging is no longer an option. I have previously emphasised the need for honesty and integrity in defence and that is a theme that I will continue. It is no use government telling us that we are increasing spending on defence if all that we are doing is widening the options that defence includes. It is no use telling us that this is the year of the Navy when more ships are being laid up through lack of available crews, expertise and shortage of engineers and where the bottom line is that over the past six years more ships have been decommissioned than have been ordered or commissioned. The same is true in respect of air defence and it is no use sensible and well thought out military strategy determining that we need a certain number of specific aircraft capability to do the job if lack of funding then determines that planned numbers will have to be cut.
There can in my view be no room for cuts to the numbers of Type 26 and Type 31e frigates or submarines. We must press on with Successor and ensure that this crucial UK nuclear deterrent capability replacement programme is not further delayed. We must of course consider all the various options available but I rather doubt that removing both Royal Navy amphibious assault/landing ships should be one of them.
In the air domain, we need all 138 F-35 jets that we plan to have along with the increased number of Typhoon squadrons and every inch of ISTAR and ISR capability. We must revisit training capability and recognise that we have insufficient for our own needs let alone those of foreign military customer governments who desire and indeed, are buying equipment from us. And while Army and Army Reserve numbers may need to be rethought there can be little doubt that the Army needs the vast majority of planned vehicle capability renewal and equipment enhancement.
Finally, we must recognise once and for all that the offer that we make to those serving across the whole of our military is insufficient if we are to retain those that we need. Retention is perhaps the most serious problem that the military faces and it is high time that rhetoric was turned into action.
Moving on, below I have decided to repeat an interesting tweet made yesterday by Greg Hands, the Conservative MP for the Chelsea and Fulham, current Minister of State in the Department for International Trade and who had been under David Cameron, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Mr Hands happens to also be my own MP, not that I have met him in recent years and nor did he or any member of his party knock on my front door in the last General Election!
Mr. Hand’s tweet repeated House of Commons reply remarks made by Nicholas Soames MP in a debate in the House of Commons in 1997 just after he had himself departed the role as a Minister of State for Defence due to the Tories, then under John Major, having lost the General Election of that year to the ‘New Labour’ policies of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The tweet ran thus:
“I am grateful to my hon. Friend, the Member for Salisbury (in 1997 this was Mr. Robert Key) for his excellent speech. Ministers [Labour] have already discovered, as we did, that the Treasury is wholly unconcerned with the capabilities of our armed forces. Ministers must learn that the Treasury is their enemy and must be fought accordingly for every inch of ground. The other major problem that they will have with the Treasury is the profound ignorance of defence matters and all that goes with them. It is always my considered opinion, when working at the Ministry of Defence that those at the Treasury worked for the Russians. Nothing has since persuaded me that I am wrong”
Made over twenty years ago and just weeks before George (now Lord) Robertson’s excellent ‘Options for Change’ Defence Review had been published, it seems that little has changed. However, having said that, I would have to add a comment to suggest that, then as now, it is just as much the Cabinet Office as it is HM Treasury that is at fault for the many difficult issues that we face in defence today. Many will see both as being the real enemies of defence and I am not about to argue that.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom and as UK Defence enters yet another critical stage in regard of future funding options, we should recognise that a number of Conservative back-bench MP’s, led in this case by Johnny Mercer, the Member for Plymouth Moor View, himself a former member of the Royal Artillery together with Leo Docherty, the Member of Parliament for Aldershot and former member of the Scots Guards have with a number of others decided to put their heads above the parapet expressing renewed determination to halt further erosion of our armed forces.
As indicated, they are far from being alone in sharing such views and as both men are former serving officers and also that they also serve as members of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee their views, based on real deep seated knowledge and understanding of defence and of how this has already been hollowed out far too far, are hardly to be regarded as being straws in the wind.
The intention behind the back-bench challenge is simply to ensure that the Conservative Government sticks to its manifesto pledge of maintaining the strength of Britain’s armed forces. Their view, one that I and other defence commentators share, is that there is simply no further room to cut our armed forces and that to do so would endanger UK defence and security. To be fair, even though Labour’s policy on defence remains an unknown quantity, there are also a number of Labour MP’s too such as Ruth Smeeth, the MP for Stoke on Trent North, that have been expressing similar informed views of serious concern.
Using expressions such as any further cuts to the [defence] services would be “untenable” I take the view that this time no one should be in any doubt that the challenge by the small group of Tory back-bench MP’s is both real and that this time, it has teeth. With a tiny majority and the number of MP’s opposed to further cuts to defence growing it will not be easy for the Government to close its eyes to the challenge in prospect.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph last week, I note that Leo Docherty who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, had said that “rumoured reductions in the numbers of soldiers and warships are “odd” coming at a time when Islamic State has become “more dangerous” and “a resurgent Russia is probing NATO’s flank”.
The intervention is a clear signal of growing unrest over anticipation that the Treasury is determined to force through further cuts to UK armed forces. The current ‘refresh’ review of National Defence and Security Strategy that is being conducted by the national security advisor, Sir Mark Sedwill is due to report in the first quarter of this year.
The new Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson has already publically challenged the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond to find additional funding for defence although so far nothing has been forthcoming. That a serious and growing deficit in the defence budget exists is clearly a serious matter but this time it is clear that it cannot alone be repaired by cuts.
Defence has been consistently underfunded and the time has come for a serious reconsideration of how we do what we do, what it is we want to be and where, and of how any change might impact on NATO and the ability of our armed forces to defend our islands, our dependent territories and continue to play the significant role that we do with our allies.
All this comes at the same time as Sir Mark Sedwill was reported to have told the House of Commons Defence Select Committee in the week before Christmas that despite the rising level of threats against the UK there would be no new money to protect the country despite his alarming warnings of the soaring threats facing the UK the ongoing defence and security strategy review refresh would not result in there being any additional funding for the military.
I have not met Sir Mark yet but I did find it alarming that he was reported to have said that the terrorist threat had diversified and dispersed ‘partly due to the military success in Iraq and Syria’. Yes, Op. Shader has been a success but that is no reason to present a view that smacks of complacency and fails to accept the need to be vigilant as to what follows.
As I have said before, it is all very well to say that the next war will be very different to the last but by the same token anyone who imagines it will be that different needs to rethink. There can, as I wrote four years ago, ne no holiday from history.
Whilst seemingly accepting that the threat from Russia was worse than ever imagined particularly from the effect of cyber-attacks on the UK, having said what he apparently has it is clear that his brief in regard of the national security and defence capability review refresh has been based entirely on achieving further savings as opposed to realisation of what Britain will ned in respect of defence, security, cyber and intelligence capability in the coming years.
In his somewhat contrarian evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee three weeks ago Sir Mark Sedwill did at least admit that the Russian attitude has worsened more generally towards the West and that seems set to continue. He warned that Russia was clearly developing capabilities designed to disrupt NATO capabilities in the North Atlantic and that the UK is aware that the [Russian] threat is intensifying and diversifying. But his answer to how we should address this seemed to imply that the UK could be forced to rely on its allies to fight future wars. Indeed, he is reported as saying that ‘one of the capabilities the Russians don’t have is allies.’
So it seems almost as if the deep seated Cabinet Office view I that challenging Russia will in future be down to making greater use of our allies. Sedwill even suggested that ‘If you put together the British, French and German defence budgets [these are] about twice the Russian defence budget and that ‘we can’t just compare to our own historic experience.’
All this is extremely worrying and it has been well picked up by Johnny Mercer, Leo Docherty, James Gray, Luke Pollard plus several others that have put their respective heads above the parapet will continue the fight to protect defence from further dangerous cuts and indeed, fight for more funding to be provided. On an edition of the BBC Daily Politics show before Christmas Johnny Mercer said that “it’s not about a rebellion, it’s not about individuals, this is making sure we arrive at the right answer when it comes to defence”.
The bottom line this time round will need to be about compromise and there is ample room for that. The Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson is already reported to have said that he prepared to listen and that he “regarded the UK’s commitment to spend 2% of its income on defence as a base, not a ceiling” adding that “when you see our armed forces and everything they do, and the commitment with which they give themselves to it, you cannot be anything other than awed by it. I will do everything I can to deliver for them.”
It is too early to say whether protagonists of strengthening defence have an ally in the new Secretary of State for Defence or not. But he has got off to a good start by showing that he is more than prepared to listen, learn and fight for defence. Promising to reach his own judgement on the defence and security review, he did at least hint that calls for Trident replacement funding to be removed from the MOD budget would be considered.
We will see but so far, I like the cut of his jib and when he says things like “there has been a tendency since the 1990s to think the world is a much safer place than it actually is” I take some heart that he understands the wider issues that face defence. The world is rapidly changing and I live in constant hope that we will continue to play our part to the full in NATO and with our allies whilst at the same time providing the UK and its dependent territories with strong defence. Mr. Williamson does appear to have come to terms with his new brief very quickly and for now I will continue to live in hope that in respect of the forthcoming review, correct decisions will be made.
(IMPORTANT: With regard of ModNet email address change, can I remind all military personnel on my commentary list to let me know when their address has been changed over please so that I can adjust the email address)
CHW (London – 2nd January 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785