Right or wrong, the current round of negative speculation in regard of likely emerging cuts to the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army and the Royal Air Force is hugely damaging not only to our national defence and security, our standing in the world and unintended consequences that lack of resolve and weakening of intention demonstrates to our allies but worse is the damage that it does to the morale of our military personnel.
This past week, along with extended press, media and social media influence given to rumours and notions that the MOD plans to cut the number of Royal Marines by maybe as much as one fifth, there has also been some seemingly ‘well-informed’ speculation that the Royal Navy might well be forced to scrap two specialist landing ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark. The thought that we as a nation might do away with our two remaining amphibious assault landing ships and further cut numbers of Royal Marines has not surprisingly caused shock waves across the defence community and perhaps ‘woken-up’ those that had fallen for the idea that because the defence budget is still rising and that, as we keep being reminded in respect of MOD methods of calculation, we are still spending 2% of GDP on defence, that all is far from well.
I have recently written in respect of my concerns in respect of the military being silenced in respect of providing their own views but with news that emerged over the weekend that one senior and highly respected Royal Navy Officer has now resigned having merely expressed concern at some of the above ‘cut’ suggestions, I am bound to ask how much longer before politicians in Westminster wake up to reality of what really is going on inside the corridors of power rather than believing the constant round of positive spin emanating from the Secretary of State for Defence. High time that they stopped burying their heads in the sand?
Bad enough that Royal Navy might appears to be bearing the brunt of the latest round of cost pressures and I am not about to get into the causes and reasons, some of which go back a very long way, here. But it isn’t just the Royal Navy if speculation is to be believed, as equally well informed sources are suggesting that Army Air Corps might also be considerably shrunk – maybe by as much as one quarter and also that the Royal Navy might also be forced to substantially cut numbers of Wildcat helicopters. Yes, all of this is speculation and some if not all of it may well prove to be untrue but the trouble is that it is out in the public domain and none of it has yet been denied.
From my perspective what hurts most is that whether true or false, speculation is damaging the already weak morale of our soldiers, sailors and airmen. Equally important and what I find really hard to comprehend, is that if some of the speculation is proved to eventually be correct then it will prove that decisions currently being made inside the MOD are more than likely being made outside of the separate Cabinet Office review that is supposed to be considering what the UK’s national strategic priorities should be! SDSR 2010 lacked any vestige of coherent strategy and I am bound to ask the question, are we by default about to repeat the process?
As already mentioned, on Saturday, Deborah Haynes, the Defence Editor of the Times, reported that Rear Admiral Alex Burton, Commander of the UK’s Maritime Forces – a brilliant Royal Navy officer who I know well – and who is interestingly a former Commanding Officer of HMS Bulwark, had resigned from the Royal Navy. If true, I can only imagine that his departure has something to do with voicing discontent in regard of navy cuts. I regret this very much.
While I am yet to be in a position to either confirm or deny the above resignation story, it is certainly true that on Friday, in direct response to a tweet by Major General R Magowan, Commandant General of the Royal Marines, Rear Admiral Burton had said that “I can work around the temporary lack of a flat-top (meaning an aircraft carrier) but I couldn’t work around delivering theatre entry without HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark”.
The loss of an important, vibrant and still relatively young senior Royal Navy officer such as Alex Burton would be a serious one for the Royal Navy to swallow in any event but already that will have sent damaging shock waves throughout the defence community. That Burton had the guts to provide some kind of warning to our political masters that they risk going too far is to his eternal credit. Knowing him as I do, I also know that he is not one who would venture such remarks without excellent reason.
It is just too bad that all we hear Ministers of the Crown saying is that all is well in defence, that we are doing this, we are doing that and that we are growing defence. Time and time again throughout this year we have heard the expression from the Secretary of State for Defence that ‘this is the year of the Royal Navy’ and that ‘we are expanding the Royal Navy’ and yet no mention about the debate over further intended serious cuts that is currently going on and that, if reported speculation is to be believed, could well see another two hugely important Royal Navy ships be decommissioned along with the already confirmed action to decommission HMS Ocean.
The dishonesty, the lack of lack of integrity of those in charge of UK defence has now sunk to new lows and I am bound to wonder how our silenced military leaders are able to cope. Of course, the answer to that they can and do cope because it is their ‘duty’ to so do and because that is what they have been trained to do. But while I have lived through and talked of many a worse situation than what may be about to unfold, my view is that the unfolding situation, intended and unintended leaks and the damaging speculation that occurs as a result of both, simply beggar’s belief. I feel absolutely ashamed at some of what I am hearing and, just as those that have voted with their feet and left the military over recent years, I feel utterly let down by the current Secretary of State for Defence.
Such has been the external ‘denial’ that a defence budget crisis even exists, unless the Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon gets to grips with the worsening situation soon, particularly given the rising level of geo-political tensions and threats, and starts to bring some order, honesty, integrity and leadership into what appears to have been allowed to become a very disorderly situation, I am bound to consider that the only satisfactory way out for him would be pass the mantle of Defence portfolio responsibility to someone who can restore confidence.
We have, in my view, been burying our heads in the sand for far too long and I include myself in that for allowing myself to believe that when the review process is complete we might see some sound policy emerging from a well thought out and agreed strategy for future defence and security.
We may all love to hear our senior politicians using the two new aircraft carriers and the standing up of ‘carrier strike’ as an excuse to talk of extending UK presence but it is high time that we told the whole story as well. For instance, even when one of our new carriers has received a handful of UK procured F-35’B’ STOVL aircraft on board, in order to have anywhere near the level of air power capability required at sea, to protect the carriers and to be able to fully demonstrate deterrence, we will not be able to do this on our own and with our own capability. For ‘carrier strike’ to work will require that we accommodate US Marine Corp F-35’s. Nothing wrong in that but for heaven’s sake, let’s be honest about it.
These days, all we seem to get from defence leadership are half-truths and denials. With further possibly substantial cuts looming it seems to me that if the speculation and testing of the water is to be believed, rather than this being ‘the year of the Royal Navy’ it may well end up yet being regarded as quite the opposite of that.
Last week at the Conservative Party Conference when he implied that Britain should be spending more than 2% of its GDP on defence, Sir Michael Fallon reasoned that Britain needs to increase spending on its Armed Forces in the face of growing threats from terrorism and states such as Russia and North Korea. Most if not all of us in the defence community would agree with that but does Sir Michael really mean what he says? I doubt that he does and that this is merely political rhetoric, nice sounding words that will be picked up and spun by the gallery.
Even if he did believe what he said and was prepared to fight in Cabinet to action it, what’s the betting that what they might well do is increase funding but also placing more onto the defence budget that is currently on other budgets such as DfID and maybe, aspects of Home Office expenditure? On the other hand, if such remarks were meant to be a shot across the bows of a Treasury that appears more determined than ever to rein back spending on defence, whilst I would of course welcome it I am bound to fear that it will have already have fallen on deaf ears in buildings on the left hand side of Whitehall.
I noted with some pleasure yesterday that former Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Defence from 2010 to 2012, Sir Gerald Howarth also chose to launch a broadside at Sir Michael Fallon when speaking at a ‘fringe’ conference event last week by reminding him that ensuring we have sufficient capability requirement is far more than being just about talking numbers. I couldn’t agree more.
It is all very well the Secretary of State for Defence to go on repeating as he does, that Britain has ordered the first batch of Type 26 anti-submarine Frigates, that we have launched the Type 31 ‘General Purpose Frigate’ programme this year, that we have ordered another Astute class submarine, begun work on the Successor class nuclear submarine programme, seen the first new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier for the Royal Navy embark on sea trials and then come into her home port of Portsmouth for the first time and also naming of the second ship, HMS Prince of Wales, all of which is true. But if you are planning to decommission ships that we need now and tomorrow such as HMS Ocean, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion without there being suitable replacement capability and capacity having been properly considered and before the other new ships being built have been commissioned, then what you are doing is weakening the Royal Navy rather than growing it.
As in so many other aspects of UK Defence for which he alone is responsible, Sir Michael Fallon is often vague and talks with forked tongue. His persistent reminders that the Government is increasing spending on defence by £500 million in each of the next four remaining years has a very hollow ring particularly when we look at how, day by day, UK defence is continually being hollowed out.
The truth is that unlike the position that existed ten and twenty years ago and despite what he says publically, Britain is no longer looked up to by our allies in respect of defence capabilities that is has and can offer. The US may well be prepared to continue working with us and to help us as our main ally in NATO and thank heavens for that, but they also know well that as an ally Britain is now extremely limited in what it can do and in what it is able to support in respect of future deployment. They very much regret that!
Yes of course, we do still play a very large part in NATO and there can be no argument that Britain still remains the largest European contributor to the alliance. So it should. Yes, we do still have a level of capability that is sufficient to enable our continuing to play a significant role within NATO and in defending our own skies and shores, playing the necessary role in provision of humanitarian aid, policing and supporting at some of our vulnerable dependent territories and deploying troops when required. The Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the Army continue to be deployed in various international theatres but if you were to ask the question whether they could do that much more than they are currently doing then I fear that the answer is most probably no.
Not once has the Secretary of State or any of his junior ministerial team admitted in public that the current defence budget deficit mess that they are struggling to resolve exists let alone admitting the fact that considerable work is going on inside the MOD and at military establishments looking at more ways of reducing costs. Yes, there has been some recognition of the wider Cabinet Office led refresh review of future defence and security requirements but again, not once has Sir Michael admitted that intentions behind SDSR 2015 had been far too over-ambitious, that there was insufficient funding behind them or even that SDSR 2010, for which Sir Michael was not personally responsible for overseeing, had irrevocably damaged UK defence capability and left us with little more than the hollowed out force we have today.
As I have already implied, if Alex Burton really is leaving the Royal Navy he will be doing so for the most honourable of reasons. Others have left the armed forces for similarly honourable reasons too whilst many others have voted with their feet to depart for personal reasons of discontentment. One of those said to me recently that he was leaving “because having lived under a 1% pay rise/freeze for heaven only how many years and that it would be foolish to stay in a career that is paying you less [after inflation] each year”. People he said “would be idiots to remain” and went on to remind that the married quarter crisis has yet to bite.
As I mentioned in last week’s defence paper, the MOD led reviews looking at immediate and future defence capability and procurement needs and potential cost savings together with the separate Cabinet Office led ‘refresh’ of defence and security strategy are well under way now and it is increasingly clear that the individual service chiefs who, allow me to remind, are now responsible for their own budgets, are under huge pressure from ministers to come up with more solutions that might ease the current budget overspend.
These are clearly very difficult times for the First Sea Lord, the Chief of the Air Staff and Chief of the General Staff and their respective teams as they search hard and look for ways to further cut the cost of defence whilst retaining what they consider to be necessary capability.
Like everyone else, I regret that we now find ourselves in the position that we do and that once again we are being forced to find even more savings by cutting capability but, whether we like it or not, we are where we are. Defence is, as I often remind, a political choice and I am afraid that in a nation that lacks conviction and leadership and one in which our political masters are rather content to play to the gallery and respond to media rather than leading from the front, what on earth can you expect?
The past few weeks has seen far too many press and media reports claiming to know what the MOD review process has already decided in respect of cuts to the Royal Navy and the Army to allow for denial. Thus I would be stupid to deny that some of what has been reported has to be true and I am well aware that much of what has been written, published and spoken has come from informed comment or should I say, leaks from the Cabinet Office and elsewhere. What worries me most about this, apart from the fear that we will live to regret cutting capacity further, is the damage that all this dangerous speculation does to the morale of those in the military.
Given what I do professionally, you will not be surprised to learn that over the past few weeks I have received no end of calls asking me to respond to the various press and media articles that claim to know what is likely to emerge in the next round of defence cuts. More normally in such situations, I rarely if ever attempt to answer to speculation choosing discretion over valour and better to lie low and gulp at some of what I may have heard. That position remains for now – whatever I may think that I know I will keep to myself and what I do not know, I cannot possibly say.
That does not stop me from reminding all of you what some of the press and media suggestions have been. For instance, a report from the BBC on Friday suggested that the Royal Navy “could lose its ability to assault enemy held beaches, under plans being considered in the Ministry of Defence”. We were told that the BBC understands “that the head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, has formulated moves to cut two specialist landing ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark (along with the already announced plan to retire HMS Ocean) as part of a package designed to balance the books and free up sailors for the service’s two new aircraft carriers and that there will be a reduction of 1,000 in the number of Royal Marines along with the early retirement of two mine-hunting plus one survey vessel. In addition we were told that plans exist to retire two mine-hunting vessels and one survey vessel
Some weeks ago the Times told us that the Royal Air Force could slow down orders of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and that the Army could lose dozens of helicopters as part of their efforts towards the same goal. The only thing that is certain is that reasoning the inability of the MOD to create the £11 billion of required savings that were announced in SDSR 2015 and that were the basis on which large scale procurement of various programmes was planned together with factors arising from the depreciation of sterling and the negative impact that this has on procurement purchases of foreign equipment making them even more expensive is correct.
So where are we going from here? With the centrally held ten-year near £10.7 billion contingency fund probably all but used up and with little scope to cut the near £9 billion that is spent on military personnel unless the Army takes a major hit on number (it is I think a given that the Royal Navy is short of personnel and the Royal Air Force barely able to manage on those that it has) scope for personnel cuts is limited.
For the record, roughly 40 per cent of the defence budget is spent on maintaining existing equipment together with procurement of new equipment. As said above, about 30 per cent is spent on personnel and the rest on a mixture of infrastructure, pensions, consultancy, consumables and other related costs. Within a ten-year £178 billion equipment spending plan annual expenditure is running at around £16 billion per annum is, if I remember correctly, based on an inflation plus 1 per cent annual increase.
(Note: an urgent request please to those of you within the military that have already changed over to MOD.net email addresses, could you please confirm this and send me your new address by replying to this email so that I can change you over. Thank you)
CHW (London – 9th October 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785