Like many, when I heard about and later read last Friday’s ‘Times’ front page article headlined ‘Forces Face Shortfall of £10 billion After Costs Soar’ my initial thought was, would there be that much in the piece that I didn’t already know? True enough, not that much in fact but that is not meant to reflect criticism of the authors, Deborah Haines and Michael Evans, for what should probably be perceived as yet another timely reminder that there remains huge problems to resolve in UK defence.
I suspect that of all the concerns currently being expressed about defence what worries me most is an almost consistent denial by Secretary of State for Defence and other politicians of what most of us perceive serious unresolved issues. Yes, I accept that running UK defence is a very great responsibility and that it is hardly easy if you are attempting to do it on a shoestring. I also accept that affordability and value for money are issues that none of us can close our eyes too.
As we will witness this week as our senior politicians and leaders head off on important and necessary trade, and in the case of the Prime Minister, bilateral defence and security talks with various Middle East countries, the visibility of Britain now attempting to revitalise its place on the world stage is very apparent. I welcome this but it must also come with a full understanding that the barometer that the world will view and judge us by will be if they believe that our nation has sound foreign policy and strategy that is supported by strong and growing defence capability. They will wish to see that we too place defence and security as being the highest of all priorities. It is thus my view that if we are to seek to project ourselves onto a higher plane in respect of playing a larger role in international diplomacy that we stopped living in denial about the current state of UK defence and that rather than preach political messages pretending very little is wrong, we admit the seriousness of the many issues and shortfalls in defence that we face.
It is also time in my view that we stopped kidding ourselves that in terms of balancing the defence budget books the notion of pushing back and delaying procurement contract awards, slowing programmes down, cutting capacity through reducing equipment and manpower resources and continually repeating the message that we are one of only five NATO members that spends 2% or more of our GDP on defence unless we grasp that in an island nation and one that is still looked up by others, we must accept that if we are to play above our weight we have no choice but to have a far greater level of defence requirement than others in Europe. Why? Because if we fail to ensure that we have sufficient air and maritime capability to protect our vital national interests worldwide, to defend our dependent territories and our own islands from potential threats and to play the large scale NATO role that we do, how on earth will we be able to play a fuller role on world stage that will assist us in respect of future trade?
To this I would add that while I will always accept that defence is a political choice, rather than sending false messages or pretending that we can extend our international reach without providing the our military with the equipment they require, we should admit that without spending more on defence our ambitions just cannot be met.
So, just as many others are including a great many that are silenced from presenting a view, I tire of being told that we have sufficient defence capability in the form of both equipment and personnel to do all that is required of us. I admit to being tired now of hearing the message from the Secretary of State for Defence that we are spending £500 million more on the defence budget each year [between 2016 and 2020] when the reality is that we have placed the defence budget under huge additional strain by adding in cyber security and increased intelligence requirements, military pensions and the full cost of Trident replacement,
That all the above are very necessary components of defence and homeland security is not disagreed but that all have now found their way onto the defence budget in order to allow the claim to be made that we do spend 2% of our GDP on defence is I believe not in the spirit of honesty – indeed it is underhand.
None of this makes calls by our Secretary of State for Defence and his US counterpart calling on Germany plus other nations that lag behind to increase spending on defence wrong of course. Far from it but we here in the UK, we should in my view not be quite so smug about what we are doing ourselves albeit there is no doubt that we are the largest European contributor to NATO.
Of course, should Germany manage to carry out its presupposed plan of raising spending on defence from a current 1.2% of GDP to 2% by 2024 this would make Germany by then the most potent defence force in Europe. This is enough to allow conjecture that, given the current laws of the land in relation to what the military in Germany are allowed to do in respect of international deployment activity and the role that they can play in theatre, whether they would actually trust themselves to have so much additional capability that an almost 80% increase in defence spending as outlined by 2024 would provide? As someone said to me recently in reply to my NATO Defence (4) commentary, the military to Germany is what vodka is to a recovering alcoholic!
Interestingly, the Times article on Friday quoted General Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, a former chief of the defence staff, talking about the pretence that he believes defence politics has become today and that in his view “this mantra, whilst laudable, becomes a veil behind which the Government hides” adding that “the growing mismatch between ambition and capability must be addressed”. Importantly and agreeing with the tone of ‘The Times’ piece, Richards said that “the most egregious strategic error any government can make is to deceive itself, let alone our allies or putative enemies, that our armed forces are materially stronger than they really are”.
Yesterday, the Observer reported former NATO Secretary, the now Lord Robertson of Port Ellen and who had also been the respected first Secretary of State for Defence in the Blair government of 1997, launching a powerful attack on dogmatic supporters of Brexit, accusing them of seeking to use the UK’s Armed Forces as a bargaining chip to secure a future trade deal with the EU.
Lord Robertson apparently said that “There is no doubt, from discussions I have had with some of the Brexit supporters that they want to use the British military as part of a bargaining tool. We don’t stop being part of Europe, part of the neighbourhood, or remote from our allies, and certainly not remote from the threat … if there is going to be a European capability, then it needs Britain. It can’t be done by the other European countries on their own. George Robertson’s comments were I believe in direct response to a Sunday Telegraph report that, according to leaked meeting minutes, cabinet ministers have agreed secretly that the UK should use its dominant role in European defence issues during Brexit negotiations, after identifying EU fears about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
To that suggestion all that I wish to repeat is that neither defence of the nation nor of our involvement in European defence or NATO should be allowed to become an ‘issue’ that can be pawned in within any negotiating process. However, if the European’s are stupid enough to allow any weakening of NATO through an attempt to form an alternative structure and if they decline to significantly increase spending on defence we will have no option but to review our position. That is not to suggest that this is an issue that can be bargained in the overall Brexit negotiations.
This morning I see that UK Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon is reported as saying that “trade and security cannot be separated in negotiations over Brexit” – this after the government was accused of threatening the EU by suggesting that it could stop sharing intelligence on terrorism. Fallon also said that ‘It’s very important to link trade and security because what we are now looking for is a deep and special partnership that covers both economic and security cooperation. Those two things go together”.
On a separate tack I am beginning to tire of hearing the Secretary of State for Defence preaching only positive messages whilst seemingly ignoring shortages of capacity such as the massacre that has taken place in Royal Navy surface ship capacity, genuine concerns over the lack of potential escort capability to protect the new aircraft carriers from 2020, shortage of trained pilots together with many other serious shortfalls right across defence engineering and technical trades sectors together of course with the now well-known shortage of training capacity and of those qualified to train. Indeed, I am not sure that I have ever heard the current Secretary of State for Defence talk about serious problem of retention other than to suggest this is being addressed. Actions to me speak louder than words!
Yes, with the two new Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, the first cutting of steel on Type 26 frigates expected in the summer of this year and the proposed new Type 31E frigates further down the line together with more F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Typhoon aircraft coming on stream, Warrior and Challenger tank upgrades and procurement of Ajax all being examples of where we are spending money on new defence capability, but why is it that I hear little about what we are spending on our people, on the defence estate and in providing more support that our military personnel and their families deserve. On these matters the Government remains silent and in denial.
While it is technically true of course that the defence budget is being increased by £500 million each year and that we are modernising many aspects of equipment that our armed forces need as outlined above, we do seem to be in denial that this is being done at the same time as reducing overall equipment capacity in terms of actual numbers and that military personnel numbers are continuing to decline. And in respect of the vital ISTAR role, what I wonder is happening in regard of to the promise to upgrade Sentry E3-D capability?
I digress but back in the real world, one look at how the Royal Navy has contracted in respect of numbers of frigates and destroyers and how the Service in respect of capability has been allowed to decline over the past decade is hardly representative of the supposed political ambitions that we have.
While the bottom does to have been reached in respect of planned number of Royal Air Force squadrons before they begin to rise again as outlined in SDSR 2015, suspicions will remain that more capability cuts are the underlying order of the day. Indeed, as the SDSR 2015 spending review had itself decreed, £11 billion of savings would need to be made within UK defence over the five years that the review covered. Having learned from the National Audit Office (NAO) that considerable risks remain in the 2016 – 2026 Defence Equipment Plan, it came as no surprise to read in the Times article that our armed forces face a £10 billion shortfall due to rising costs.
One former Royal Navy officer, now a defence commentator and someone who is also respected for being independent of any political position, Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham has regularly spoken out about what he regards to be the perilous state of the current Royal Navy position is respect of manpower and capacity shortages.
Blackham has previously stated a belief that the Royal Navy is short of around 4,000 people and from my perspective and however you view that this has been allowed to occur, it is high time that not only should we have an admission from the MOD that he is right but also, confirmation that a definitive strategy and realistic policy of how this dangerous situation is going to be addressed.
Competition from the outside world both domestically and internationally for qualified engineers and technicians is strong and while improvements have been made to some parts of the ‘offer’ in order to encourage some of those who have left to come back either as full-time or reservists, it seems to me that three years after the matter of serious personnel shortages was raised publically, little appears to have been achieved. Undoubtedly, Royal Navy capacity remains seriously stretched. Indeed, senior military leaders have openly acknowledged that the greatest risk which the defence board faces today is related to the ability to recruit and more importantly, retain skilled personnel. To be fair, the MOD has recognised the seriousness of skills shortages and it has taken certain actions to attempt to redress the situation, but it has clearly not done nearly enough to retain those that have become demotivated or attract and train those that it needs now and in the future to join the military.
I will dwell no further on personnel shortage and turn now to concerns that I have about numbers of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft the UK has currently ordered. Yes, we know that there is a commitment to order 138 F-35’s of either the B or A variant over the lifetime of the programme and which may well of course be excess of 30 years. My concern here is that while I have nothing but praise for the infrastructure support work now being done to accommodate carrier strike capability at Portsmouth Royal Navy base and at RAF Marham, up to now only 15 F-35 jets have actually been ordered by the MOD.
I would of course be delighted to see similar F-35 jets operated by the US Marines being based on our new carriers and I expect that will be the case. But what I dislike here is the pretence from our Government that we will have sufficient UK sovereign air power capability on the ships by the time of their first deployment. Yes, we will undoubtedly have some but I suspect not nearly enough.
Carrier strike capability concerns for me include a potential lack of rotary power and I believe that the Royal Navy will need to increase numbers of Merlin EH101 helicopters in order to do the variety of work required particularly after some have been fitted with Crowsnest and the remaining Sea King Mk 7 rotary capability has been withdrawn. I also believe that if we are to return to full carrier strike capability, we may also need to re-examine the need to acquire tiltrotor capability ahead of SDSR 2020.
Defence has been living under a ‘mind the gap’ scenario for far too long. Yes, we have now ordered nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft to fill the dangerous gap left by crass decisions to leave this vital mission uncovered from 2010. Purchase of replacement Apache Attack Helicopter capability was also signalled in SDSR 2015 although I have as yet seen no confirmation that an order has yet been placed.
Meanwhile, HMS Ocean, a helicopter carrier that was only commissioned in 1998 and which remains the flagship of the Royal Navy arrived back in the UK last week ahead of planned decommissioning in 2018 and rumours of possible sale to a foreign country. Ahead of the commissioning of the first Queen Elizabeth class air craft carrier for the Royal Navy, I fail to understand the wisdom of doing this particularly when the Royal Navy is short of destroyer capability whilst propulsion problems are sorted in the Type 45’s. Meanwhile, Albion-class amphibious transport ship HMS Bulwark has now been placed in a period of extended readiness, her role being taken over by HMS Albion which had been placed in ‘extended readiness’ back in 2011.
There are wider political issues too of which I have so far merely touched on but suffice to hope that as we move into what is clearly going to be difficult period of Brexit negotiation process and that coincides with what is agreed by all concerned in defence to be a significant rise in the level of threats against us, that our Government might now start to be open and honest about the weak state of defence today as opposed to living in pretence?
Knowing him well as I do and while we may not always agree, I believe that in the following instance Rear Admiral Chris Parry, a former NATO commander and former director general in the Ministry of Defence who, like myself, is regarded as a defence opinion former, summed the situation in regard of rising costs in UK armed forces well on Friday when he said on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme that the “armed forces were being paid for on post-dated cheques” and that “at the moment, we have got a cut-price armed forces [mentality] that is going to have to operate in a very sophisticated operational environment in which we are failing to meet the challenge”.
Parry added that the current problems [faced within defence] are an “inevitable consequence of creative accounting of the previous Coalition Government” [this being a reference to claims then Defence Secretary Philip Hammond to have balanced the defence budget books and eliminated the huge ‘black hole’ inherited from the Gordon Brown government] and that “all that the Coalition Government had done in reality was to have kicked the can down the road” to the point now that “unfunded chickens are coming home to roost”.
Understandably, politicians and defence commentators alike were quick to round on the suggestion in the ‘Times’ article that Royal Marines size and capability will be sacrificed in order to keep the Royal Navy’s head above water. That there was no actual denial of this suggestion by the Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon when he was interviewed on the same programme suggests that there is more than a degree of truth in this. If so, it would just be yet another example of decimation of a hugely important Force that the UK requires in order to carry out its global role in defence.
I have not closed my eyes here to the thought that the Royal Navy is not without criticism in respect of being responsible for some of the issues and problems it currently faces although for the most part I am content to accept that it was decisions made around the turn of the century that it is partly paying the price for now.
Back in the wider world, Defence finds itself in capability, capacity and budget mess today for variety of reasons. Firstly, in order to ‘balance the books’ all that Philip Hammond did was to slash defence capability and, in order to cut the actual cash requirement, push procurement spend back as far as he could. So successful was he that that the difference between planned defence spend and actual spend was so large over three years from 2011 to 2014 that billions of pounds of underspend was returned to the Treasury.
Of course, defence spending has been being cut back consistently over the years and each and every defence review from ‘Options for Change’ in 1990, Strategic Defence Review and the SDR New Chapter in 1998 and 2002 respectively, the Defence White Papers of 2003/4 and SDRR 2010 have cut spending on defence in one way or another. Only during the early years of the first Thatcher Government in 1979 did spending on defence actually rise but even this was reversed by the Nott Review in 1981 which set out to realign the UK’s armed forces so as to meet the realities of the financial situation meaning, bringing equipment and procurement programmes into line with available resources. One effect of this was to be a cut in the maritime contribution to NATO and it was worth noting that the Royal Navy took 57% of the announced cuts. Six months later the invasion of the Falkland Islands occurred and some of the proposed cuts were withdrawn.
Options for Change followed the end of the Cold War and the emergence of what became known as the peace dividend. Introducing it Secretary of State for Defence, Tom King stated that “we have sought to devise a structure for our regular forces appropriate to the new security situation and meeting our essential peacetime operational needs and that the proposals will bring savings and a reduction in the share of GDP taken by defence”. The most significant cuts fell on the Army which saw its manpower strength reduced from 160,000 to 120,000. For the record, the Royal Air Force lost six squadrons and the number of Royal Navy frigates and destroyers would fall from 48 to 40. This would be the most serious undermining of defence capability seen since the 1966 Healey cuts and arguably, those of the 1957 Sandys cuts.
One is mindful of what Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden and General Sir David Ramsbotham said in 2004 in respect of the Defence Cots Study in 1994 and that led to the beginnings of serious outsourcing and Private Finance Initiatives (PFI’s) and also the introduction of tri-service capability – Joint Forces – “As more and more specialist tasks were moved to the civilian sector, so the availability of uniformed, trained specialists fell. For some specialisations, this trend could prove to be catastrophic in the long term. For example, the review resulted in the ability of the military medical services to support military operational deployments being virtually eliminated”.
This round of cuts impacted on the ability of UK armed forces to sustain the number of different types of operations that UK forces would be able to be involved in.
George Robertson’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review was largely welcomed mainly because it was perceived to have provided an insurance policy against future uncertainty by advocating a continuation of planning for the full range of defence capabilities, the precise balance of which could be reviewed and readjusted as necessary. The SDR did prompt some criticism, however, as some commentators thought that it lacked detail regarding the foreign policy baseline from which capability decisions outlined in the review were taken.
And so it all went on – more cuts were to come and then we arrive at SDSR 2010 details of which I do not need to remind here. What a shambles. Did SDSR 15 make it any better? I’ll leave you to answer that one yourselves!
CHW (London 3nd April 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785