In the days ahead we will no doubt read much comment over the apparently leaked memo from General Sir Richard Barrons, parts of which have published in the Financial Times today, and which I suspect many of us are quietly pleased to see in terms of this being a good recognition of reality. What follows from me this morning is a quickly written and yet I hope, consistent with views that I have long expressed suggesting that despite the more positive relevance of SDSR 2015 as a hoped for start of a new strategy that would reverse the appalling trend of UK defence cuts witnessed over the past twenty years and particularly since the since the dangerous and ill thought out SDSR 2010 review process, that we need to spend far more on defence than we currently recognise.
The threats against us are real and they are growing. We have too few frigates and destroyers and while we need to significantly strengthen overall air capability. In spilling the beans and in the memo clearly stating his concerns and in producing a realistic view of UK defence limitations and where we are now I am grateful to General Sir Richard Barrons. These are not views from a past head of an important section of the armed forces a generation ago, they are views from a highly respected individual who has only just departed the military. While I do not agree with all the comments that General Sir Richard appears to have made in the leaked memo that the Financial Times reports on today I do recognise that in the majority he is absolutely right.
What General Sir Richard has apparently said should be yet another wake up call to Government that Britain needs to spend more on defence. There can be no excuses for further failure or simply countering with an argument that says just because we are increasing the defence budget by £500 million per year in each of the next five years in order to spend more on cyber and intelligence that was not formally included in the defence budget that we are doing enough. The £11.5 billion that the Government has said must be saved out of defence in order for new capability to be acquired over the current five year period must be rethought. We need more capability not less and we need enhanced capability and more military personnel rather than less. We need at a bare minimum to retain the existing numbers of civil servants currently in defence and while embracing the whole force concept recognise that we need to put more into training and reversing the shortages in specialist skills and requirements that the military need such as engineering. We also need to better motivate and incentivise those who choose careers in the military.
There is of course a slightly counter view to what has caused me to write today and that can hardly be ignored. While I have much sympathy and as said above, agree many of the arguments put forward in the now leaked 10 page memo that was apparently sent to the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon by the immediate past Head of Joint Forces Command, General Sir Richard Barrons, I am bound to wonder why it is that he has only chosen to speak out now. In the unique position that he held between 2013 and 2016 why, if he felt that the military was in such a weak position and ill prepared to defend the UK against serious military attack, did he not vote with his feet and resign the position much earlier?
Silenced as they are from giving personal views and forced to have every speech vetted it is certainly not easy for the senior military to express concerns externally. General Sir Richard would, along with senior military colleagues from all three of our armed forces, have been very involved in the SDSR 2015 review process and I am bound to wonder why, if he felt the way that he expressed in the memo published in the Financial Times, that he did not resign at the time of the review.
Instead, rather than resign at the time important decisions were being made in 2014/15 ahead of publication of the SDSR 2015 General Sir Richard allowed himself to remain in position presumably because he was seen as the most likely contender to replace General Sir Nick Houghton as Chief of the Defence Staff in July 2016.
Long seen as the future Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) and having clearly done an excellent job as Head of Joint Forces Command it was a great surprise to those who closely follow UK defence matters that the then Prime Minister, David Cameron was advised to look elsewhere for the next CDS. That is not to take anything away from the excellent choice then made of appointing Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach for the position of Chief of Defence Staff and who within all three elements of our armed forces is held in equally high respect. I suspect that, surprised and disappointed in equal measure at his failure to secure the top position in UK defence, General Sir Richard chose to resign his commission but not before sending a private ten page memo setting out his concerns on defence weakness to the Secretary of State.
Silenced from speaking their minds personally senior members of our armed forces have little choice but to comply with the unfortunate prevailing attitude within the MOD that unless they are held on a tight rein and everything they say must be vetted and approved by minsters, I do find it both surprising and disappointing that as far as I can remember during the long phase of defence cuts not one single member of the senior military establishment put his or her head above the parapet and chose to resign on the issue of defence cuts.
From the leaked memo to Secretary of State for Defence, the Financial Times reveals General Sir Richard as saying that “capability that is foundational to all major armed forces has been withered by design” and that the MOD is working to preserve the shop window while critical technical and logistical capabilities have been iteratively stripped out behind it”.
The General believes that there is “no military plan to defend the UK from conventional conflict and that counter terrorism is the limit of up to date plans and preparations to secure our airspace” and he goes on to suggest that “on Britain’s ability to defend itself from aerial attack, UK air defence now consists of the (working) Type 45 (destroyers), enough ground-based air defence to protect roughly Whitehall only, and RAF fast jets” and that “neither the UK homeland nor a deployed force – let alone both concurrently – could be protected from a concerted Russian air effort.” He suggest that a “Russian air campaign would quickly overwhelm Britain and that Royal Navy and Royal Air Force planes are often deployed without adequate munitions or protections because they have grown used to depending on US forces to protect and support them. Key capabilities such as radars, fire control systems and missile stocks are deficient”
Sir Richard is reported as saying in the memo that “the Army’s recent experience does not include conducting full scale wars, which could be a disadvantage” and 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.” He says that “the Army is not equipped to fight a rival professional land force and is significantly outgunned by Russia.
Where Sir Richard lets himself down badly in my view is that he is also reported as expressing concerns that Britain’s armed forces are dominated by small numbers of expensive equipment such as new aircraft carriers which he says “we cannot afford to use fully, damage or lose”.
In his bemoaning a lack of manpower across the military and that even following the reversal of cuts to the defence budget in SDSR 2015, a lack of overall capability and strength exists I am sure that most reading the Financial Times appraisal of the leaked memo from Sir Richard today will agree entirely. This is a subject that we will not be closing for a long time yet.
CHW (London – 17th September 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS