We are in a kind of horrible limbo in UK defence right now with everyone asking questions and yet, no-one able to provide answers!
With deployments and important missions such as Op. Shader continuing It may well look as if nothing has changed but until the vital decisions are taken in respect of how defence funding is to be utilised and whether or not this can be increased, defence is effectively in my view moribund with few if any announcements in relation to future procurement likely.
Clearly, this is a most unsatisfactory position to be in and no doubt, it is also one that the Russians are fully aware. On that score the Russians continue to ‘test’ our resolve with submarines movement around the UK requiring constant monitoring and, as occurred yesterday, Russian bombers flying close to UK waters before RAF Typhoon Quick Reaction Alert aircraft headed them off.
Over the past few days it isn’t only members of parliament that have been putting their heads above the parapet expressing concern and fighting hard to ensure that in the face of rising threats from Russia rather than cut defence we need to enhance it. It is also a number of leading commentators including former members of the military that have been doing this as well. Not to be left out, experienced defence journalists and members of the public are leading the fight for strengthening defence too.
This time, in the face of adversity and lack of common sense particularly in relation to the raised level of threats that we face and where we need to be in defence, we should be pleased that the public, led as always by the press, is being more vociferous in its view that defence is now an issue of serious concern. Those in the know have also been busy on Twitter just as I am sure they have also been on other forms of social media too. WE are, it seems, at the very least now on a journey in which the Government is being forced to at least listen to expressed concerns on the dangerous weaknesses that have emerged in UK defence.
Delay and uncertainty of decision making by the powers that control defence spending in the MOD, Treasury and Cabinet Office serve nobody well and least of all the nation and of how it is perceived internationally.
Of course, we tend to think, now that they are charged with responsibility for their own budgets, that it is the individual defence chiefs that make the final decisions on what may or may not be cut but the reality is that they don’t. We may think that the under ministers have a say but again, they have little if any power other than to pass on a message. And of course, it is the Secretary of State that has the final say on defence strategy isn’t it? Wrong, while the Prime Minister can have the final word it is the Treasury and the Cabinet Office today that dictate issues of defence and security spend no matter what the advice is from those charged with responsibility for National Security Strategy.
Yesterday I note that Johnny Mercer, the MP for Plymouth Moor View pushed home the point of the human element of our people and families in all this and the importance of setting out a vision for UK defence. There is no doubt that motivation is at a low point and with many issues in respect of pay, pensions and employment security left unanswered by those charged with responsibility, many of our military are voting with their feet to leave. Of all issues facing defence retention is to me the most important and yet, it is the one that I see least evidence in actions being taken. That the UK military is short of specialists particularly in areas such as trainers, pilots, engineers, technicians and other forms of specialism is there for all to see. Such is the seriousness of experience shortage that, for instance, if a Royal Navy ship lacks a senior ammunition technical officer, it cannot sail.
The Times defence editor, Deborah Haynes has also been pretty busy this past few months reminding the public and MP’s about how the UK armed forces have been hollowed out, in raising awareness of the challenge ahead if we are to repair what she believes to be the parlous state of UK armed forces. I can hardly criticise but while I may not always agree with her stance and some of the claims and speculation made and I am also bound to have concerns in relation to publishing of sensitive information into the public domain and from where this might have come, I am grateful for the support that she has, through her work at The Times, provided in support of the defence cause. Let us hope that if common sense does eventually prevail and defence is properly funded, that those that have supported the need for stronger defence don’t then become poachers turned gamekeepers.
I have previously talked on the batch of Tory MP’s that are determined to fight for defence to be strengthened as opposed to weakened so I will not repeat that here. Yesterday however, I noted that the Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee added his views in support of the UK maintaining strong and credible armed forces by suggesting that it is high time for the Treasury to pay a premium for defence.
With the Secretary of State for Defence giving nothing away in the Defence Debate yesterday and with his ministerial team adding little, we have little idea when the next piece of the defence jigsaw will come. We are however told by some of the press that the Prime Minister has already rejected some of the speculative list of options drawn up by the press in relation to potential areas to be chopped. I have no idea whether any of this is true or not but what I can believe is that even if the Treasury and part of the Cabinet Office has not got the message yet that another round of slash and burn defence cuts is unacceptable it does seem that No 10 now has.
Again, a week after we last talked about this, we have not yet had any official comment from the Secretary of State for Defence as to whether defence will be taken outside of the impending national security capability review or not and indeed, whether it is intended that the work done so far in relation to defence intent will need to be further reviewed.
Whilst unusual for me to use a newspaper article for my commentary theme, particularly when related to defence, but a generally agreeable editorial in the Guardian published on the 14th of January is at least worthy of comment.
In respect of the Guardian editorial, the first point to make and one that I believe the majority of us can agree is to be found in the first paragraph which states “Whether Brexit happens or whether it does not, one thing will not change. Britain will need a defence strategy for the future that better reflects its real place in the world. Geographically, Britain’s place is going nowhere, Brexit or no Brexit. Geopolitically, the world is changing. As China’s power rises, the US turns isolationist under a dangerous president, terrorist and cyber-threats continue and nuclear arms proliferate. Britain’s defence strategy needs to adapt to keep pace”.
The article then goes on to talk about a huge £20 billion funding gap over the next decade and that “as things stand, the plan [to address this] is for reduced armed forces fighting ships [to be ] scrapped, planes retired and units merged”. Then, in having a go at the decision to renew the UK’s nuclear submarine capability and talking I assume in a seemingly negative tone in respect of the two new aircraft carriers that we will have, the article makes the point that “instead of having spending that fits strategy, Britain increasingly has a strategy that fits the spending”.
While you will not hear me talking negatively in respect of either our nuclear deterrent capability renewal programme or the re-implementation of ‘Carrier Strike’ I agree that in respect of strategy the cart is leading the horse. We need to address this and create a strategy that matches our purpose, intention and of what we require in order to meet our domestic and NATO defence commitments and our future ambitions.
The Guardian editorial then goes on to talk about the fixation of spending 2% of GDP on defence and of others [although not specifically mentioned this includes the Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee Julian Lewis} who call for this to be raised to 3%. Sensibly, the editorial suggest that while there may well be a case for Britain to spend more on defence [undoubtedly there is!] that the justification must be strategic rather than being based on an arbitrary 2% or 3% of GDP figure. I completely agree – it is high time we dropped this ridiculous praising of ourselves in respect of our supposedly spending 2% of GDP on defence and that others should aspire and indeed, agree to do the same, in favour of agreeing what it is we need to ensure that we can provide adequate levels of defence and security. We should not be governed by a rather silly target figure – rather we must spend on defence what we need to at the time and what we believe we will need to in future.
The Guardian article was at pains to rubbish claims made by former chief of defence staff, General Lord Richards of Herstmonceux that Britain needs to decide what sort of country it wishes to be after Brexit and suggest that the real choice is whether we wish to be a global military power or a regional one.
Perhaps the most important point is when the Guardian article reminds that in both a pre and post Brexit world Britain will remain a European nation. That requires that no matter what the threats it faces, be these from Russia, terrorist or cyber-attack, climate change, instability in the Middle East and North Africa among them, are of these threats are equally shared with our European NATO allies and neighbours – the point being that whether or not the UK remains in the European Union, Britain remains an intrinsic part of Europe and that means we must match its defence and security priorities.
Later this week President Macron of France will be here in the UK for the planned Anglo/French summit. France and Britain are already working closely together in defence and collaborating on a number of very interesting projects. As I wrote last week, the two nations are already pooling and sharing and as the two European heavyweights in defence, they share common interests and a common purpose.
Seven plus years since it was first signed in November 2010, I anticipate that French and UK leaders will this week reaffirm the Lancaster House defence cooperation treaties that include nuclear cooperation and various other military alliance partnering and equipment development arrangements. In the post Brexit world and despite deep seated difference in respect of Britain’s decision to leave the EU and of migrants, I envisage that France and Britain will enhance their cooperation in defence and security because they must.
But, as the Guardian article itself points out, the defence relationship between Britain and France will need more input and imagination rather than less and gradually over the years it will probably also need to be at the centre of our future defence thinking.
CHW (London – 16th January 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785