“Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, has the right instincts (“Gulf conflict reminds us to prepare for future wars”, Comment, February 27), but he is economical with the truth when he talks of “the biggest defence investment since the end of the Cold War” focusing “on the threats”. Notwithstanding the much-welcomed four-year uplift to defence spending announced last November, the relative amount of money spent on defence has steadily declined for many years. The result has been that, despite warm words by governments of all persuasions, the driver of each review has been cost and not countering threats to our nation and people. Talk of “giving us deployable, capable forces, equipped with next-generation capabilities” will not disguise a further reduction in our nation’s overall military capability.”
Amid much hype and speculation, sometime over the next two weeks the Government is expected to publish the next stage of the much delayed so-called ‘Integrated Review’ process. I am not here and now going to add to the speculation of what the Government has finally decided although I will say that I have become rather fed up of hearing responses from Whitehall that no final decisions on the IR have yet been made and to which I say – of-course they have, each and every blessed one of them in the form of internally agreed recommendation albeit that as I write this I suspect nothing has yet been signed off in Cabinet.
If I was to proffer any advice beforehand it would be ‘prepare for the worst’. Yes, there will be promises galore and many references made I suspect to the four-year £16 billion increase in defence spending that was confirmed by the PM two months ago.
Yes, there will be much hype about how the government is rightly investing in space, cyber, artificial intelligence (AI) reconnaissance and other important elements of future security and defence along with a rather smaller sat of foreign policy ambitions than had originally been anticipated, but the reality of the IR conclusions for many of those on whom it will really impact – those in the military whose work and dedication to duty are at the heart of UK defence, will be about planned cuts in existing capabilities. Sadly, despite words of comfort and reassurance, I doubt that there will be many positives for them to take away in respect to ‘the offer’ or investment in people.
Last week in a speech delivered to RUSI members Shadow Secretary of State John Healey provided what he termed as the Labour Party’s four principles for defence. The first was an ‘unshakable commitment to NATO’ the second, “non-negotiable support” for the UK nuclear Deterrent, the third “adhering to “international law on human rights” and fourthly, that investment in UK defence manufacturing was “fundamental”.
On the latter, Mr. Healey said that Labour believed that we must strengthen the defence industrial base, resilience and capacity to regenerate and build sovereign capabilities with a long erm plan to boost foundation industries. Of course, we should – who in their right mind would not agree with such a statement where and when such might be appropriate but on the other hand, this has to be seen as being affordable? In any case, that to an extent is what the Government has been doing with Type 26, Type 31, Dreadnought and ‘Tempest, being perfect examples.
Labour has never been seen as the ‘party’ of defence but then, neither have the Tories. The old adage – easy to say but harder to achieve’ springs to mind here and Mr. Healey well knows that even if his party is given another chance in government one day, he will not be the one charged with putting those words into action.
Mr. Healey says that planned capabilities and procurement should be based on realism and a force structure in order to best face threats and provided necessary flexibility. Of course, they should be – that is what IR was supposed to have been based on in conjunction with deciding what if any of our future foreign policy ambitions are achievable and affordable.
Sovereign capability is everything but please let us not imagine that we either have the knowledge, expertise, skills and money to go back to a time when in respect of defence, we really could develop and build everything that we needed. Given the limits of capacity available, the need to take risk let alone increase spending on research and development let alone accepting a much higher cost of manufacturing for reduced numbers and accepting that even if we had the will to achieve all this ensuring that we are competitive enough in respect of achieving potential exports cannot be ignored.
Mr. Healey ignores that the international customer of today comes to the UK for expertise rather than product. They accept that the UK is excellent in respect of capability design but when it comes to large capital projects such as naval vessels that they increasingly desire to acquire UK knowledge, design expertise, skills and support in order to build the final end product at home. Nothing wrong in that and we should accept that what we are exceptionally good at today and build on those strengths. None of that is to suggest that we should do anything other than maintain and continue to invest in our remaining sovereign capability. On that there can be absolutely no doubt.
On the other aspects of Mr. Healey’s speech – those I regard of offering full threat assessment based on the known ability and motives of our would-be enemies and their ability to exploit our vulnerabilities, committing Labour to the Euro-Atlantic area being treated as a priority for defence, attempting to deepen the security relationship with the EU and a brief mention about placing ‘personnel’ at the centre of their approach to defence – I can add little other than to say that all this sounds superb but that I suspect the same would not be being said when and they were in government.
Finally, and from what I observe Mr. Healey saying last week, he talked of British multilateralism being a force for good and that we must equip British forces to fulfil commitments to NATO and the United Nations, maintaining sea lines of communications and reverse cuts to development aid. I concur with all of this although given the impact of the C-19 effect I do support the government line of temporary suspending some aspects of development aid.
As we all know, it is easy to promise and criticise when on the opposition benches of the House of Commons but all credit to Mr. Healey for being seen to be on top of his subject. It is a sad fact that during the course of my professional career I have known several opposition party shadow spokesmen in both main parties talking on subjects in which they had too little knowledge.
And when it comes to capability withdrawn prematurely, conclusion on Thursday last week of the final operational mission of the brilliant Raytheon Sentinel R1 Astor long range, wide area battlefield surveillance Royal Air Force capability, one that has provided unparalled situational awareness through its exceptional airborne Stand-Off Radar says it all. Another day, another superb capability that we need has now gone. Seeing capability that we continue to need being thrown out so prematurely and without taking any of the above into consideration can only but further frustrate our NATO allies. Talk of increasing spend on defence is meaningless if all that our allies see in terms of action is about further capability cuts.
CHW (London – 1st March 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785