Full of good words, plans and intent and against what I suspect will be a mass of criticism that what the MOD has planned is simply not enough, I welcome publication of the Defence Command Paper Refresh (DCP23) earlier today.
I was struck by the words used by outgoing Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace when he said at the end of his House of commons address the future will be about ‘partnerships as opposed to ‘national’ by design’.
Taking some learning from lessons learned from Ukraine, wider threats to UK security and the long called for need to properly plan in order to have the ability to deliver a credible warfighting force, there is much to commend it.
But after reading through some positives it doesn’t take long to hit some fundamental flaws. For instance, DCP23 talks of keeping us on track to act “as a global heavyweight both now and in the future”. Clearly, I have missed something because as I look at our shrunken military forces, severe reductions in equipment capability required to fight the wars of today rather than those of tomorrow, my anger boils over each and every time I see self-pretence of our still being considered a ‘global heavyweight’.
For all the planning and intent there is no new money. The £5bn extra funding achieved earlier this year will very quickly be mopped up by beginning the process of restoring investment in ammunition stockpiles that should never have bee allowed to fall so low. It is high time that the MOD learned that doing everything on the cheap or to keep pushing back is always a false economy.
The DCP23 talks a Global Response Force that enables the UK to ‘get there first’, bringing together our deployed and high-readiness forces, and drawing on capabilities from all domains. There was no mention that we have just cut one quarter of our medium lift air capability. It talks of how Defence will become a science and technology superpower. My apologies, but no it won’t without additional funding provided on top of what industry is already doing. In any case, lacking a defence industrial policy, makes achieving such goals impossible.
DCP23 talks of a new alliance between the MOD and industry, with both engaging much earlier in strategic conversations. in strategic conversations. What it avoids is to stress the importance of sovereign capability – something I might add that there is still no formal acceptance of meaning and what this actually is – a matter that I find amazing. Alliances with industry, particularly in defence, are hugely important provided both parties are prepared to listen,
Next comes talk of a new and very much needed employment model and skills framework, one that the MOD hopes will increase ‘fluidity’ between the military, civil service and industry while offering a more compelling and competitive incentivisation package. How many times I ask have I seen such an obvious requirement put forward. Bernard Gray fought hard to achieve this within DE&S only for the concept to be put on the back-burner Philip Hammond. Changing any system within the MOD can and often does takes years and often, overflows with complications until the idea drowns. With fewer civil servants in the MOD and even fewer planned no doubt, I am not raising my hopes.
And then there is the £400 million allocated to modernise accommodation facilities and which I am bound to wonder how much will be lost through poor management and missing accountability.
DCP23 is certainly not a paper in itself that will define the mission of the outgoing Secretary of Defence, Ben Wallace but its skill in attempting to define what, without substantial new additional money, is a near impossible task makes it a worthy document.
This is not a ‘grand strategy’ because Britain could neither afford or justify one but that it does not overplay defence policy and foreign policy as being interwoven objects has brought the process behind it back to earth. Given lack of any additional funding the language has changed and terms such as hybrid warfare, high and low intensity fighting is avoided as if overplaying of Army numbers and planned cuts.
What I would perhaps like to have seen is acceptance of the need to modernise and reorganise them whole process of promotion. The hash that the RAF made of diversity and inclusion policies shed light on a promotion basis and operation in all three of our armed forces that is outdated and unfit for purpose. Merit must always be the lead factor in promotion but that is not to say that change the present system of promotion boards that date for the 1950’s isn’t long overdue.
Tory and Labour Governments over the past three decades have produced a mix of good and bad defence papers and this one, despite over playing our hand in what we can now do alone and in how we might still be able to provide the example of leadership within Nato Europe that we used to have the power to do with relative ease, is an example of a well-thought through strategy that may or may not have a short life. Arguably we lost our way in forming strategy after the excellent 1997 Strategic Defence Review and the subsequent 2006 Defence Industrial Strategy. From a Tory Government DCP23 has much to commend but rather too much is now missing.
CHW (London – 18th July 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS