I have no idea who wrote the Annual Defence and Security Lecture that was delivered by Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, at Mansion House in the City of London last week but, well thought out, written and delivered, full of interesting nuances, political innuendo and government speak, I suggest that all those engaged in the defence industry read the underlying political messages writ large between the lines.
I have just a few points to take issue with in respect of what the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) said. First is in respect of what he called, ‘Putin’s strategic miscalculation in invading Ukraine’ and which CDS may well eventually be proved right – perhaps I might have preferred him to have also warned his audience to never underestimate either Russia or Putin.
That said, CDS goes on to make a very correct point when he says that strategic errors lead to strategic consequences although I am not quite so sure about the nuance that auto suggests that Russia has already been brought to its knees – something that I might at this stage of the war in Ukraine have rather not heard CDS say yet.
Yes. I am fully aware that propaganda can and does play a large part in any war but I do not believe that we should present any view that implies Russia has yet been defeated in its objectives. That Russia failed in its initial objectives is certainly true. That Russian armed forces have been found to be ill-trained and seemingly lack the resolve and maybe resources to fight that have been demanded by the Kremlin is probably also true. But to ignore the potential of what Putin might yet do without a bottom-line warning appears to me to be either dangerous propaganda or plain and simple naivety.
We are of course all supportive of what the UK and various other allied governments have done to support Ukraine but the praise given by the CDS to former recent prime ministers and the Secretary of State for Defence reads more like political messaging. Of course, the speech was no doubt written by UK diplomats and signed off by politicians in the MOD. Had CDS genuinely been speaking his own beliefs I would not be writing what I have but the political nuance and innuendo writ large in this speech leaves me somewhat underwhelmed.
CDS also took the opportunity to remind us that defence secures more than 400,000 UK jobs, a large proportion of which, as he rightly states, are high-skilled, high demand STEM subjects.
However, as we were quoting the same total jobs figure more than twenty years ago, I am not about to vouch that the figures he quoted are correct. They may well be even higher and I have long suspected that the figure of 400,000 is one that everyone just copies because it is most likely the only one available on the Internet!
CDS also refers to there being 20,000 apprenticeships within the Armed Forces at any one time (Hansard quotes 21,000 but I will not split hairs) and while true and nice to include in a speech I believe that a little more explanation should be included in order to make this definitive and easier to understand. Sadly, CDS chose not to mention that an estimated 5,000 apprentices are employed in the defence sector and the importance this provides for the future.
According to a government economic report published in March this year, some 10,000 organisations were paid directly by the MOD is 2020/21. When published, then MinDP Jeremy Quin reiterated that “the defence sector is driving prosperity, strengthening the economy, supporting jobs and building skills right across the UK.
In relation to industry apprentices it is of course thanks to the likes of BAE Systems, Babcock International, Rolls-Royce, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, QinetiQ, Meggitt, Marshalls, Serco, Leidos and many others that the UK defence industry which is made up of so many large and smaller private companies or that are subsidiaries of foreign owned companies, that we are as successful as we are. They all work hard for the UK economy and employment both in supplying the MOD or exporting and they are all deserving of significant praise. They not only invest in the UK and overseas but by virtue of this, they are investing in their own futures. Of course, in doing so they are also taking on considerable risk particularly here in the UK when defence policy and budget gaps are used as excuses for cuts.
The list of small and medium sized UK based companies that work with the UK military is sadly far too many for me to list here but they include some very interesting companies such as “Excel Aviation, Plexsys, Heli-Operations and a fascinating Reading based company called Secure Cloud +. Some, such as Aldershot based Cam Lock are almost totally export driven and receive all too little mention for the brilliance and success of what they achieve. Others, such as Thales, Leonardo, Airbus and Boeing, all foreign owned, are all equally brilliant at what they do and continue to invest here in the UK – long may that be so but the bottom line is about trust and when we see cuts being made to number of aircraft such as we have with the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail or reticence and uncertainty in respect of actual aircraft orders against previously made commitments such as in regard of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, levels of trust turn to uncertainty.
CDS made reference to the fact that we [MOD]spend more than £20 billion with British [UK] industry every year and that in 2020 we generated almost £8bn in defence [and Security] exports – more than any other European country he said. Why did he not choose to use the 2021 defence export figure I wonder or indeed, make use of the $4.6 billion average of annual UK defence exports between 2016 and 2020 which the Government itself used in a recent report?
CDS talked about contraction and decline having been the story through most of his career and that now there is the prospect of growth and acceleration. I very much wish that the latter could be true but we should take greater care to not live in a dream. He talks positively about the continuity provided from last year’s Integrated Review and which I might choose to argue, in what that really provided, was further uncertainty because there were very few new capital/capability commitments directly related to urgently needed defence requirements that we might perceive as being very necessary now – such as redressing our clear lack air power capacity and capability – both fighter jet and AWACS, training of next generation pilots which because of past mistakes and underfunding has become a farce. I might well add the same argument in respect of shrinking numbers of Frigates and other smaller but no less important Royal Navy capability. And as to the Army – there was no mention of the disaster that is the Ajax procurement in CDS’s address or his daring to mention that this is one case where buying off the shelf would have worked to the advantage of the Army and the taxpayer.
I found it rather odd that CDS should choose to talk about the ‘potential’ increase of defence spending to 3% of GDP as if we should believe this is really going to happen! Sadly, unless GDP really does decline rapidly, it isn’t and with the increased likelihood of Rishi Sunak forming the next government and probably bringing in a new Secretary of State for Defence, chances of defence spending rising look increasingly like a bad dream.
What I really take issue with in the CDS speech is the somewhat underhand reference made to needing:
“to temper our tendency for bespoke procurements and constant commercial competition when we could simply go shopping instead. Why not choose what is available on the market today especially if it means we can get the capability sooner?”
What he failed to say is that sometimes, as in the case of Ajax, bespoke designed equipment, in this case US designed by General Dynamics, is interfered with by the Army and the MOD to the point that the original virtues of the product are lost or seriously damaged by unnecessary changes made by the MOD at the behest of the Army.
Of course, where we can no-longer produce equipment domestically due to a variety of perfectly acceptable reasons, we must procure equipment capability from our allies. But what we do not want is MOD procurement policy being led by ‘buy-off-the-shelf-policies’. The latter should follow rather than lead.
Yes CDS, ‘we need to be bolder and braver in embracing technologies and doing that much faster’ but we need to do it in equal measures by investing more in UK designed and built technology and the bottom line is that UK defence needs increased funding.
All that said, there is much to commend in the CDS speech but there is also much that we should challenge. Sadly, CDS makes it all so cut and dried but then, that is by design and the act of his political masters of whom he is of course beholden. How I long for a CDS that is prepared to challenge his political masters, to fight for what he believes and stand up for the need for strong UK defence rather than one who portends to suggest all is well.
I have of course said myself many times that defence is and always will be a political choice until and if the enemy is at the door. At best, as assuming the review/update of the Integrated Review doesn’t make things worse, we might just have stopped going backwards at the pace we have been over the past twenty odd years. At worst, I fear this is another example of our closing eyes to a long period ahead when defence is unlikely to be given the priority that in these now very uncertain times, that it clearly justifies.
(I have copied the full speech delivered by CDS last week below in italics).
CHW (London – 24th October 2022)
My Lord Mayor, Your Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a privilege to be here at Mansion House to deliver your Annual Defence and Security Lecture and thank you for those kind words, and for the many ways the Corporation of the City of London supports the Armed Forces, and your charitable and professional endeavours for the people of Ukraine.
This is my first public speech since before the summer, and the theme – continuity and change – feels worryingly a little more apt today than it did when I chose it back in September.
But let’s start with the remarkable and historic events of last month.
In performing our last duty to Her Majesty, The Queen – and our first duty to His Majesty The King – we saw the very best of the British Armed Forces.
The spectacle of those ten days, the pageantry, the horses, the gun salutes, the remarkable sight of 140 sailors pulling the state gun carriage, the strength and solemnity of those ten grenadiers who carried Her Majesty’s coffin, all sent a message to the world about our country.
It’s an example of what the academic, Professor Julian Lindley-French, has termed British elan – a strategic brand, executed with such style and assurance that it becomes a form of power in itself.
And yet these are very serious times, as The Lord Mayor said. We have a war in Europe. Political turbulence at home. A worrying economic outlook, domestically and internationally, compounded by growing food and energy insecurity.
So, it seems appropriate to offer some thoughts through a Defence lens on what this is all about, what is our role and what comes next.
And I hope I may be permitted to add a third ‘C’ into the title of this speech retrospectively and that is Confidence.
Because my premise is three-fold:
First, that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the spur to rediscover our confidence and self-belief: in our democratic values, in the rule-of-law, and in the collective power of the international community.
Secondly, that we should recognise the authority and agency that the military instrument offers, and we should willingly embrace the ability of the Armed Forces to support our national interest in all its forms.
And third, that we should be confident that the vision for the Armed Forces in last year’s Integrated Review is the right one; and the forthcoming IR Refresh is an opportunity to contribute even more to our nation’s security and prosperity.
So, what is it all about?
I’ve always been of the view that Putin made a strategic miscalculation by invading Ukraine, and the truism is more accurate than normal, that strategic errors lead to strategic consequences.
Eight months on, Putin’s problems are mounting. He’s undermined Russia’s status as a great power, mortgaged his country’s economic future, repelled its neighbours in the ‘near abroad’ and even China is losing patience. Meanwhile, his troops are ceding ground, running out of ammunition, and winter is coming.
And while handing call-out papers to political dissidents and protesters may be a ruthless way of dealing with opposition to his regime, it is a hopeless way to build an Army.
He has few options left – hence the nuclear rhetoric. And while this is worrying and deeply irresponsible, it is a sign of weakness, which is precisely why the international community needs to remain strong and united.
Ukraine, on the other hand, continues to perform magnificently. In my most recent visit to Kyiv, my message to General Zaluzhnyi was one of admiration, and that the United Kingdom will stand by Ukraine for as long as necessary.
But we also need to recognise that there is more at stake than the future of a single country, vital as that struggle may be.
Almost four hundred years ago, the Peace of Westphalia established the principle that no one state should violate the sovereign borders of another.
At a similar time, the Dutch Lawyer Hugo Grotius laid the foundations for international law, and the rules which governed the behaviour of nation states in the global commons.
In more recent times, the Atlantic Charter and the founding of the United Nations, shaped the modern world around the principles of self-determination, democracy and human rights.
And yet President Putin believes the rules do not apply to him. That his Army can cross international borders with impunity. That he can renege on commercial agreements and turn off the gas to Europe, and it doesn’t matter. That he can close access to the Black Sea ports to merchant vessels and millions will die, and it doesn’t matter.
But these things do matter. And that is what this is all about.
These things matter to the thousands of Ukrainians who are dying and suffering every single day.
And they matter here in the City of London too, because markets thrive on stability, and our prosperity rests on a world that is safe for the passage of trade.
And when the rules are broken, volatility and instability follow. When aggression is left unchecked the costs ricochet through global markets. This affects people everywhere, and especially the world’s poorest.
This is more than a war over the borders on a map. This is about the future of international security and the peace and prosperity that we in this country have been so fortunate to enjoy for much of lives.
So then what is our role?
The role of the United Kingdom Armed Forces, even with a war in Europe, is more than just focusing on defending the nation.
It is about a maximalist approach to the military instrument. Using our power and influence in all its guises: both to further our security and prosperity. But especially – when we get it right – to add to the agency and authority of the British Government and the nation.
You are seeing that in our response to Ukraine.
I am immensely proud of the British Armed Forces and the role that we are playing, whether training alongside Ukraine since 2014, and that we are now training thousands more here in the UK: an effort that has expanded to include contributions from Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and others.
I am proud that we were the first European nation to provide lethal aid. And that our Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, did so much to galvanise other nations to do the same through the establishment of the International Donor Coordination Centre in Germany.
But both the previous and current British Prime Minister have demanded even more. They want defence to work alongside trade and diplomacy to deliver closer relationships with India, Japan and Australia. To deliver our Indo-Pacific tilt and support broader government efforts, whether Levelling Up, Maintaining the Union, or our international strategic partnerships.
And it was illuminating to see that when the Prime Minister of the world’s third largest economy, Japan, came together with the Prime Minister of the fifth largest economy in Downing Street last May, the rather boring headline announcement was about a Reciprocal Access Agreement – a technical measure to enable visiting forces. That is what I mean about the military doing far more than just defence and security.
Across this country, Defence secures more than 400,000 jobs, a large proportion of which are high-skilled, high-demand STEM subjects.
We are one of the largest providers of training and skills in the country. There are more than 130,000 uniformed cadets between the ages of 12 and 18, supported by 30,000 adult volunteers. Within the Armed Forces, there are more than 20,000 apprenticeships underway at any one time.
We spend more than £20 billion with British industry every year. And in 2020 we generated almost £8 billion in defence exports, more than any other European country.
This is the full extent of the military instrument. And what this really provides is not just productivity or value-for-money. The real value is the agency and authority it offers.
And now the Government has committed to increasing Defence spending further, even with a tough economic outlook. This is really significant.
For most of my career, our story has been one of contraction and decline. Now we have the prospect of growth and acceleration.
And that leads me to what comes next.
We have the continuity of last year’s Integrated Review, the central elements of which have been borne out by recent events:
The shift from an era of counter-terrorism operations to one of state-based competition.
The acknowledgement of Russia as the most acute threat to the United Kingdom.
The centrality of nuclear deterrence and collective security.
And recognising that our broader security needs to also embrace health and climate change. And that we need to embrace security for prosperity and prosperity for security.
What has changed since last year’s review though is the speed and scale of Russia’s aggression.
But we should nonetheless be supremely confident about our alliance with NATO: an alliance with more than 3 million people under arms, and with a combined GDP of $15 trillion compared to just $1.7 billion for Russia.
Even without the United States, the European members of NATO spend 3-4 times more on Defence than Russia.
So, the question is – with the potential increase to 3% of GDP on Defence, where can we make the most useful contribution?
Britain’s forte has rarely been matching its adversaries in terms of mass.
Our approach has tended to reflect the British Way of Warfare, as described by the military theorist Sir Basil Liddell Hart almost a century ago:
The belief that Britain is an expeditionary rather than a continental power.
That our interests are best served by the indirect application of power – particularly economic power – by, with and through our partners.
And that we focus to ensure we provide disproportionate effect and to achieve operational advantage.
This audience will recognise these aspects in the City’s own strengths. The capital flows, the deal-brokering, the expertise in mergers and acquisitions; the adherence to the stability that the-rule- of-law provides for the capital – and that is what makes London one of the pre-eminent centres for global financial services.
But, looking forwards, we need to have some humility to look again at some of the risks we’ve taken in recent decades.
We need Armed Forces that are match fit, or more to-the-point, “war-fit”, to meet the demands of state-on-state competition, better supported by more resilient supply chains and a greater capacity in our industrial base.
We need to be more agile. Bolder and braver in embracing technology and doing that much, much faster.
We may need to temper our tendency for bespoke procurements and constant commercial competition when we could simply go shopping instead. Why not choose what is available on the market today especially if it means we can get the capability sooner?
And while the threat posed by Russia is a generational challenge, we don’t have the luxury of a simple choice over whether to double down on the security of the Euro-Atlantic or see through our tilt to the Indo-Pacific.
The shrinking of the Arctic Ice caps will halve the journey time between European and Asian markets. Climate change will fuel conflict and inequality. And health and energy security will become even more tied to international security.
This means having Armed Forces that are global in outlook. Anchored in NATO, and ready to fight alongside our allies in Europe, but tilting as necessary to Indo-Pacific or wherever in the world our British interests are at stake.
We do this by delivering projects like AUKUS. An audacious piece of statecraft, that strengthens a key ally, opens a world of possibilities for greater Australian-UK and American technological collaboration, and opens the prospect of growing our own submarine force.
FCAS is another example – the UK’s sixth generation fighter. A project with the potential to do for combat air what AUKUS is doing for nuclear propulsion. A project that could shape our defence industrial relationships with Italy and Japan for the rest of the century.
The same potential exists for the Army’s Future Soldier programme and our growing ambitions in autonomous, hypersonic and quantum technology. Each of them a transformational opportunity; with the power to facilitate our post-Brexit relationships, catalyse our science and industrial bases, generate growth, make us safer and help the nation to prosper.
And the more we achieve, the more our authority grows, and the stronger the example to our allies and partners. This is how we grow our national and collective authority.
So, in drawing to a close, this magnificent thing we call the military instrument is much more than the crucial role we play to defend the nation and the rules-based system the City uses to continue to be the economic powerhouse which drives our prosperity.
It is also a tool to help drive a broader national agenda. And when we get it really right, then we enhance the authority of the British government, and with it our nation’s strength and security in this competitive world.
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785