How interesting it is that the immediate past Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon who held this very important cabinet post from 2014 to 2017 has written a ‘forward’ to a report published by Policy Exchange in which he states a belief that the MOD needs more resources to do the job.
I entirely agree with such a view and particularly one espousing that if the UK is prepared to recognise the increased level of threat that NATO allies face whilst at the same time expanding our presence outside of the traditional areas of North Atlantic and Mediterranean, we will need to find additional resources to do this properly. However, I am left somewhat scratching my head in an attempt to understand why with nothing particularly different now to the time that he was in office as head of the MOD that Sir Michael failed to shout louder and harder during the many years that he was there?
Regarded as being a very safe pair of hands in respect of overall defence strategy and also for understanding the key elements of diplomacy required in the job, suffice to say that during the almost four years that Sir Michael held the post of Secretary of State for Defence he almost always went out of his way to defend Government financial policy in respect of defence and rarely challenged it. Indeed, he was frequently heard to say that the UK has all that it required in respect of funding to do the job asked of it in defence.
I recall that Sir Michael would constantly remind any audience that the defence budget was rising (a fact that was absolutely true to the tune of an extra £500 million per annum in the period 2015 – 2020) and that his favourite phrase of all was that ‘the Navy is expanding’.
And yet the truth was that while the Royal Navy was getting two new aircraft carriers, six state-of-the-art Type 26 Frigates for submarine detection and other work and eventually, an increased number of Offshore Patrol Vessels together with an unspecified number of Type 31e Frigates in the longer term, in respect of numbers of ships and available capability or capacity if you like, Royal Navy surface ship capability was in fact shrinking under the strategy put in place by Sir Michael Fallon.
So too it has to be said were numbers of fast jet squadrons in the Royal Air Force been allowed to shrink further during his tenure at the MOD albeit that a plan did emerge in SDSR 2015 that would see the stand up of two addition Typhoon squadrons and also that the bulk of Tranche 1 Typhoon aircraft would now be retained.
Even so, the number of Tornado GR4 squadrons would fall to three and whilst plans were put in place by Sir Michael that would allow 617 Squadron to be stood up in April 2018 as the first operational F-35 squadron with the UK by then having taken delivery of 15 F-35 aircraft, the RAF was by then already struggling to train sufficient pilots for its needs.
Interestingly, I well recall the immediate past Air Officer Commanding 1 Group, the highly respected Air Vice Marshal Gerry Mayhew, currently Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, saying to me mid-way through last year at RAF Syerston, I believe this was just after he had handed over the AOC 1 Group responsibility to AVM Harvey Smyth, that he had been the first AOC1 Group for many years past to have been in a position to hand over more fast military jet platforms to his successor than he himself had actually inherited.
That statement was certainly absolutely true but since then we should not lose sight of the fact that the RAF has lost its last fifty Tornado GR4 platforms in its inventory whilst gaining, as far as I am aware, just one additional F-35 platform. I fear that AVM Smyth will not be in any similar position to the one that AVM Mayhew found himself when he hands over to his successor!
Whilst I readily accept that technology means we do not need as many platforms as before and that other capabilities such as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) play a crucial role in defence, my point is that while the shrinkages may have been conceived before Sir Michael’s tenure in office of Secretary of State for Defence he did nothing to reduce the impact. Now, all of a sudden and out of the blue, he expresses a view that suggests we need to spend more on defence. I am bound to agree of course but if Sir Michael’s agreeable views are to have merit, credibility and be perceived to have value, he needs to tell us why he did not do more to fight the Treasury and Cabinet Office for more funds when he was in office.
The Policy Exchange study, written I understand by a Dr. Patalano and for which Sir Michael has written in his forward some very interesting views such as his belief that the Royal Navy had “confined itself” to the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas for decades” and that “now the fastest-growing region of the world demands our attention again” makes perfect sense.
Sir Michael adds in his forward that “Instability on the Korean peninsula, tension over Taiwan, the competing claims in the South China Sea, and the increase in defence spending by countries such as India and Australia, all point to the need for us to contribute to the security of trading routes on which we now depend much more heavily. I absolutely agree.
Sir Michael adds a comment that “the French never left and the implication of what Dr Patalano states in this document is that Britain, is that Britain as the world’s fifth or sixth largest military power, should return East of Suez fifty years after it departed. I take no issue with that as long as we don’t kid ourselves that we have sufficient people and equipment capability to do the job properly. Presence requires after all more than one available surface ship.
Finally, Sir Michael states in his forward that:
“Now my successor wants to restore bases further east [of Suez] and to deploy our new carriers into contested waters. That should come” Sir Michael believes, “with three obvious caveats. First, permanent bases cost significant money and will require a further uplift in the overall defence budget. Second, the Royal Navy can no longer operate on its own: freedom of navigation operations, the deployment of the carriers, overflights and exercising all need us to work in tandem with allied navies and air forces and to reflect their differing priorities. Third, any such strategic positioning needs to be properly thought through, right across government, to ensure that our security, military and trading interests are properly aligned.”
Again, I agree with all of what Sir Michael says in his forward. I note too that the Policy Exchange paper argues for an additional new UK base in Australia and also for the UK to be able to access agreements to bases in Japan, all of which makes sense provided that we have sufficient resource. What worries me in respect of the Royal Navy is that even if the First Sea Lord is correct in his assertion that he has sufficient numbers of trained personnel to man both Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers that he doesn’t have sufficient numbers of trained personnel, including engineers and weapons technicians to man all nineteen Type 23 and Type 45 Destroyers and that even if he did the Royal Navy would still be short of sufficient surface ship capability to be able to do all that is asked of it.
I believe that I am correct in suggesting that four Royal Navy Type 45 ‘Destroyers’ are currently at sea with the two remaining vessels in Portsmouth ahead of the start of a programme to provide them with additional power and that possibly as many of three Type 23 frigates are now laid up with their fate awaited. The theory was that Type 23 vessels would be replaced on a like for like basis with Type 26 and Type 31e but my fear remains that this will from a timing point of view at least, now not be the case. If that does prove to be the case then the Royal Navy could for a couple of years find itself with the lowest level of combative surface ship capability in its history and at a time when even more is being demanded of it.
So, thank you Sir Michael for putting forward a number of interesting new views in your forward to the Policy Exchange report. I take issue with none of what you say but am bound to wonder why it is you have chosen now to make a point that you should have been making four years and more ago!
(Commentary will return on Thursday)
CHW (London – 1st April 2019)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785