Having last week been forced to read ill-informed comments that cast doubt on the viability of the Team Tempest project development that the UK and two major European partners are currently engaged and that because of Brexit and affordability Britain’s ambition to become a leading player on the world stage are being tested I make no apology for initially feeling somewhat concerned when I read yesterday that, speaking to the Sunday Times, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace was reported to have said that Britain may have to fight future conflicts without the help of the US as its key ally.
Underlying the Secretary of State’s argument is an apparent belief that increasing isolationist policies of US President Donald Trump mean that the UK may need to rethink the assumptions that have underpinned its defence planning for the last 10 years and a tacit admission by Wallace “that the thought of the US stepping back from its international role keeps me awake at night” adding that “I worry if the United States withdraws from its leadership around the world that would be bad for the world and bad for us. We plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
Mr. Wallace’s remarks will no doubt have surprised those that read them in the Pentagon yesterday and particularly those that have and continue to engage with the UK in standing up of Carrier Strike and supporting in respect of US Marine Corps F-35 aircraft have been working and training alongside our own aircraft when HMS Queen Elizabeth was in the US and importantly, the many Royal Air Force personnel that have been embedded with the US Navy training in readiness for the standing up of the nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft that the UK is purchasing from the US. Many other examples of our working together also exist.
Personally, I believe such concerns to be totally unnecessary and that by seemingly reacting to them Mr. Wallace has added yet another dimension to various mix messages we have seen in defence of late. The US remains our number one ally and will in my view remain so no matter who occupies the White House. Whilst US foreign and defence policies may sometimes differ from some of our own, I remain in little doubt that we will continue to work alongside each other wherever that is deemed applicable.
While it is perfectly in order that Mr. Wallace should believe that the UK Government should use the upcoming 2020 Strategic Defence and Security Review process to look into new capabilities (AI, satellite communication, weapon systems, space and cyber protection) and to an extent could perhaps lead to our being less dependent in the longer term on the US I am not sure that using the examples of the US pulling out from Syria or the perfectly correct belief by the US that NATO should do more in the Middle East are particularly relevant to the more general interpretation of Mr. Wallace’s remarks.
In the article Mr. Wallace said that “The assumptions of 2010 that we were always going to be part of a US coalition is really just not where we are going to be. We are very dependent on American air cover and American intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. We need to diversify our assets.” Maybe we do but I suspect that few in the Treasury are going to be persuaded that all of a sudden we should start designing equipment that we haven’t made in decades unless of course the Government was really prepared to step up to the plate and spend three or four times the level it does on research and development.
And it is still less than five years since a previous Secretary of State for Defence and later Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond told the Defence Select Committee that the UK would not be deploying its military internationally any time soon and the public was in no mood for it to do so. What a stupid remark that proved to be!
Quite rightly Mr Wallace called in the article yesterday for the armed forces to have a more modern approach saying that “any changes made in the upcoming SDSR 2020 review will need to “reflect the 21st century”, this taken for instance as suggesting that infantry are replaced with “1,000 hackers” or better trained specialists, to help deal with modern threats. That we need to rethink certain types of warfare engagement, what our specialisms are and where we want to be in respect of supporting our allies is taken for granted but it wasn’t long before some armchair critics interpreted that this as potentially including a rethink on ‘Carrier Strike’ strategy, something that I for one would completely rule out.
I and most others of sound mind agree with Mr. Wallace when he says that “How we deliver defence cannot be dominated by sentimentality. We really have to embrace new technology.” And while there is already considerable effort going on to ensure that we do embrace new technologies at the heart of future need I would remind that it is less than a month since he told the BBC’s Nick Robinson that the UK military will need to “cut its cloth to meet its ambitions”.
While I very much admire the underlying tone of the Wallace belief – that we should be less reliant on the US in the longer term – rightly or wrongly I fear that affordability will remain at the heart of the UK defence argument.
To believe that even if we have now raised our international ambitions and accepted the need for raised presence that, all of a sudden, we are going to reverse decades of scaling back defence capacity is quite frankly at odds with Downing Street and Treasury messaging. Thus, whilst I might love the gist of a belief to be less reliant on others and spend more on developing what we believe we might need in the future I will take a lot more convincing that what Mr. Wallace is attempting to say is merely anything more than an attempt to balance what others are suggesting in the form of further cut backs.
I have no doubt that Mr. Wallace’s belief that Dominic Cummings, now seemingly charged with heading the SDSR 2020 review process, has many interesting and new ideas that could change the current way we conduct defence and support our NATO allies. That big changes and indeed, shocks are likely in the review process can be almost taken for granted.
That said, we are investing in research and development and Tempest, a sixth generation Combat Aircraft made up of a group on industry partners including BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, MBDA and Leonardo and where both Italy and Sweden have joined the UK in what will be the largest international partnership project is a perfect example. Partnership is in my view the only way forward and to believe that, having allowed so many industry design and development skills to disappear over the past twenty-five years, had Mr. Wallace talked about growing partnerships internationally rather than alluding to the idea of the UK going it alone I fear that his remarks might have been better understood.
The UK is of course already engaged in many diverse defence partnership arrangements not least of which is Typhoon with European partners, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme for which the UK is a Tier One partner with Lockheed Martin and various others across the air and land domains. As the two new aircraft carriers built for the Royal Navy by the Carrier Alliance amply demonstrate, the ongoing build of Type 26 frigates and Astute Submarines by BAE Systems and the more recent announcement of contracts being placed with Babcock International for the Type 31 frigate, we have what it takes when it comes to building naval ships and submarines ships. We are also building the next generation Dreadnought nuclear powered and armed submarines that will replace the existing Vanguard class.
But, if I was to tell you that we don’t even have a rotary helicopter strategy in the UK and that it would be foolish to imagine that all of a sudden we are going to design, develop and build aircraft that can be equipped and used for reconnaissance and intelligence you would surely believe that I had lost the plot.
We will, and this is probably at the heart of Mr. Wallace’s thinking, design and develop may of the new forms of Artificial Intelligence (AI) communication, satellite and space technology and so we should. That along with superb projects like Tempest must be the way forward for the UK.
CHW (London – 13th January 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785