As many others reading this piece today may also have done, I too listened with great interest to the views of the highly respected, now retired, immediate former head of ‘Joint Forces Command, General Sir Richard Barrons, in an interview he gave to the BBC Radio 4 ‘Today Programme’ yesterday morning. Clear, precise and very much to the point, General Sir Richard left absolutely no room for doubts in respect of genuine and very correct concerns in relation to UK defence strategy, policy and lack of funding and of how he sees very visible weakness in UK defence capability today.
As a former senior military commander and one who very narrowly missed out on becoming the Chief of the Defence Staff, those to whom he was addressing this important message – Her Majesty’s Government – should take very serious note of the expressed concerns and act to remedy them.
The bottom line of what he, I and many others who are continually expressing doubt and questioning UK defence strategy and capability weakness is that in the face of clearly increasing level and type of threats that we face today, UK defence is very seriously underfunded.
In this radio interview together with private letters and paper that he has presented to senior ministers, General Sir Richard has put himself into an important position where he is not only able to state the obvious but in doing so, to command respect. Joining as he does, a too small group of former military leaders that are now prepared to put their heads above the parapet and tell it how it is, General Barrons views are a welcome addition to rising level of expressed concerns. Whilst not necessarily to be perceived as being in the ‘jointery’ class and with an obvious bias toward the Army, they are nonetheless an important addition to the defence commentary armoury.
The British people deserve better than they get in respect of messaging about defence from the Secretary of State and other ministers and they need to know the truth as opposed to the pitching from Government that all is well. The Army is shrinking and while the Royal Navy may be getting new aircraft carriers, submarines, frigates and OPV’s, far from growing it continues to shrink. The Royal Air Force is in no better position and even if one may, after SDSR 2015, be a touch less concerned about front line capability, serious concern remains over its ISTAR and other capability.
We need more recently retired senior military officers to express and voice concerns that we know they have. Our military is silenced from telling it how it is and there are too few of those that have just retired and really know how bad it is that are prepared to put their heads over the parapet. I and others do our bit and from a personal perspective, I have long recognised that politicians and public need the reassurance of informed independent voices from outside of the military too.
I am grateful to General Sir Richard and to others such as Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon and Admiral George Zambellas for similarly clear and precise expressions of real deep seated doubts and genuine concerns that they transmit in respect of UK defence capability weakness.
Are our politicians listening? I doubt that they are but that does not mean that any of us should cease to continue making calls for more to be spent on defence. Yes, those of us who criticise and stand up for the need for more to be spent on defence, reasoning as we do, that our defence resources are now so limited and stretched that, and as General Sir Richard himself said yesterday, “Britain can’t really deal with the military risks posed by other countries” and that we would in his view “be unable to defend itself from an attack by Russia or China unless more money is spent on defence”, fully realise the affordability issues and that defence must also strive to make itself more efficient.
There is always scope to do things better and do more with less. But, in the case of defence and because of what has already been achieved, the scope today is far less. In December, assuming a formal announcement of intentions in relation to the defence ‘refresh’ is actually made, we can expect further hollowing out of defence. The Army looks likely to be most at risk – hence General Sir Richard’s specific warnings yesterday and that followed other expressions of severe doubt in previous weeks – but I fear that the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy are set to lose a capability as well. We will see.
One thing that worries me greatly is the ease at which politicians and some now retired military officers are quick to lay the blame on industry for making defence less affordable. While accepting that industry is not always perfect, I resent the continual blaming of industry particularly when it is made without reference the importance of numbers and lack of consistency of the buyer – in this case the MOD. Defence programmes most often start with the best intentions of both sides but then, with industry having priced on the expectation of certain numbers, later finds those numbers are cut.
The effect of cutting numbers is that not only is defence capability weakened but also that public perception is that the blame for this lies with the defence industrial base.
Back to the issue in hand and asked to make the case for why money should be taken from other departments and given to the Ministry of Defence instead, General Sir Richard said: “It’s very straightforward and that the UK defence budget must be increased to ensure that our armed forces can protect ‘the homeland’ against a potential attack from Russia”.
Speaking ahead of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond’s ‘Autumn Budget’ statement in a couple of weeks’ time, Barrons said that “the future will not replicate the comfortable recent past” and that the UK would be unable to “deal with” an attack by another major power”. Pointedly he suggested that the UK Government risked losing the ability to protect British citizens during times of “great jeopardy.”
Warning also that if it was intended to reduce the size of the British army below 82,000 personnel with a reserve force of 30,000 personnel [the latter has yet to be fully achieved whilst the former is currently standing well below that level) would create a “problem” he went on to argue the UK needed to be prepared to fight “wars of necessity” in the future.
On whether he believed he might be able to convince the Chancellor that more needs to be spent on defence, General Barrons said that “I am sure that I haven’t convinced him, because I am sure that nobody in government is having the profoundly important debate that we need to have about how the world has changed, how the UK is at greater risk and what we need to be prepared to do in the future because the future will not replicate the comfortable recent past.
The latter statement may not necessarily be true and to be fair, with a refresh of the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review process currently being undertaken by the Cabinet Office – this looking at all twelve ‘strands’ that include defence as the largest, security, counter intelligence requirements and so on – the hope might be that the message that the UK needs to spend more on all twelve elements might well yet emerge.
General Sir Richard said that “the risk today and more so in the future, was that countries like Russia and China already have capability that could hold the UK homeland at military risk at very short notice. We run the risk” he said “that in the future British citizens or friends abroad will be in great jeopardy, they would need military help and we would have removed the ability to help them and our place in the world would be much diminished and we would be at risk”. He said that the series of cuts to the size of the armed forces was “entirely explicable” when it had begun in the 1990s following the end of the ‘Cold War’ but further cuts would leave Britain vulnerable in an increasingly uncertain world”. “The UK” he said “must give greater priority to defence spending” and he urged government to “provide greater resources to the armed services because of the changing international outlook.
So, leaving the various review processes aside, what is the Government view on defence? The official Whitehall line remains that the Government is spending 2% (of GDP) on defence every year and that we are raising the level of increase in defence spending by 0,5% in each of the five years of the period covered by SDSR 2015. The Government says “we are committed to providing the armed forces with the resources that they need to protect this country’s interests”.
Last month, ahead of Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fall’s to the Conservative Party conference, General Barrons urged the government to be ‘bold on defence’ in an open letter that was apparently seen by the press and that had been written to Prime Minister, Theresa May, he said that that in his view “the security environment for the UK is becoming more complex and uncertain” and that “some states with whom we are on difficult terms now have the military capability to seriously threaten the UK homeland and our vital interests.
Of course, calls for the UK to drastically increase its defense budget are nothing new. Notable amongst these had been comments made by the immediate past First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas who in September warned the UK would have the “military capability of a third world nation unless defence spending was increased”. Two months earlier, the Conservative MP Bob Stewart, a former member of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee and a former United Nations commander who saw active service in Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere, described the size of the UK’s armed forces as being “laughable and disgraceful” in equal measure during a Westminster Hall debate.
General Sir Richard Barrons, who left his post in April, had in a previous ten-page private memorandum sent to Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon delivered a scathing indictment of UK defence capability saying that “Capability that is foundational to all major armed forces has been withered by design. The failure” he suggested “to come to terms with this will not matter at all if we are lucky in the way the world happens to turn out but it could matter a very great deal if even a few of the risks now at large conspire against the UK.”
Judgment’s such as this from a highly respected senior member of the military, one who had the ear of Government should it be prepared to listen, that is so scathing of our ability to defend itself against a full-scale military attack is very serious and cannot be laughed off quite so easily as other claims by those charged with being responsible for UK defence.
General Sir Richard went on to say here that “Counter-terrorism is the limit of up-to-date plans and preparations to secure our airspace, waters and territory … there is no top-to-bottom command, no control mechanism, preparation or training [currently] in place for the UK armed forces (to defend home territory) … let alone to do so with Nato.”
On Britain’s ability to defend itself from aerial attack, he said: “UK air defence now consists of the (working) Type 45 (destroyers), enough ground-based air defence to protect roughly Whitehall only together with Royal Air Force Fast jet capability. He might of course have added here that with only seven squadrons of RAF fast jet capability and two currently deployed, this is palpably not enough to secure control of the air.
In the memorandum sent to the Secretary of State as long ago as September 2016 and shortly after he stood down from his senior military responsibilities, General Sir Richard said that “Neither the UK homeland nor a deployed force – let alone both concurrently – could be protected from a concerted Russian air effort” adding that “the Army’s recent experience does not include conducting full-scale wars, which could be a disadvantage”. He also said then that “the current Army has grown used to operating from safe bases in the middle of its operating area, against opponents who do not manoeuvre at scale, have no protected mobility, no air defence, no substantial artillery, no electronic warfare capability, nor – especially – an air force or recourse to conventional ballistic or cruise missiles”.
Summing up in the Radio 4 interview, General Sir Richard insisted that “the UK needed to think about defence in its historically normal context of being prepared for wars of necessity where public opinion demands action. We have” he said “to be part of what is a more unstable and difficult world and that meant that we cannot preclude in the future the necessity, with allies, of acting to protect our vital national interests – that’s not like an Iraq or Afghanistan.”
CHW (London – 25th October 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785