Following the somewhat swift departure of Alec Shelbrooke from the position as Minister of State for Defence Procurement (MinDP), as yet and as I write this commentary piece this morning, unless I have missed it, we do not yet know who the next MinDP will officially be?
Having replaced the highly respected Jeremy Quin only six weeks ago, Shelbrooke had been in the MinDP role for less than two months during which period, the only announcement that I actually read that had his name on it in detail was last week when it was announced that testing of the much troubled Ajax tracked armoured vehicle had restarted.
As we know, Ajax has unfortunately turned out to be one of the worst MOD procurement disasters since the failed attempt in the late 1980’s by the then GEC Marconi to convert a batch of Nimrod MR!/MR2’s into what was termed the Nimrod AEW3 airborne early warning aircraft in order to replace an extremely elderly fleet of Avro Shackleton aircraft and which in the end were forced to soldier on until 1991 by which time we had sensibly decided to purchase eight Sentry AWACS aircraft from Boeing.
The remaining RAF Sentry E3D AWACS aircraft were, along with the excellent small fleet of Raytheon Sentinel (R1) Astor capability, prematurely withdrawn last year before any successor aircraft was available. They were sold to international buyers in order to save money despite this meaning that the UK today, apart from the three excellent Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft and the small fleet of Shadow R1 capability and making occasional use of NATO Sentry capability, has extremely limited fixed wing ISTAR related resources ahead of the eventual – probably still some years away from being commissioned into RAF service – reduced number of just three Boeing E7 Wedgetail aircraft finally come on stream in the mid 2020’s. Yes, we do have Reaper and soon, its planned replacement Protector plus recognition that Typhoon and F-35 military fast jet capability is able to transfer information and data when operational but nothing in defence beats the formal and specific ‘eye in the sky’ capability designed purely for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) purposes.
Back to ministerial appointments:
With the appointment yesterday of Johnny Mercer as Minister of State for Veterans Affairs (this being an appointment outside of MOD responsibility as it is placed directly under Cabinet Office responsibility) my current understanding is that MOD based defence ministerial appointments that come under Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace responsibility comprises James Heappey as Minister of State for Armed Forces and Veterans (a different role from that of Johnny Mercer), Sarah Atherton as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Personnel, Families and Veterans) and Alex Chalk who was appointed as Minister of State Defence yesterday and who I might rightly or wrongly assume, in the absence of any other appointments being made later today, could well become the next MinDP Procurement. I should also add Baroness Goldie who remains as MinDP House of Lords – the latter being an important but unpaid role.
I have met Alex Chalk on a couple of past occasions although I could hardly say that I know him well. Nevertheless, if he is to become the next MinDP I might tongue in cheek suggest that he will go down somewhat better in Main Building than the former MinDP he might replace.
No criticism of either minister is made or implied, but with Shelbrooke’s sacking by Rishi Sunak being, I am told, quietly welcomed in Main Building, when we do get formal confirmation of a replacement MinDP by the MOD, the said person will be the third that overworked military staff and defence civil servants will have ‘trained’ and worked with in under a year and the eighth in the past six years.
We need to remember in this argument that it takes a lot of time and effort to ‘train’ new ministers into the vital work of defence HQ and, unlike one or two other government departments that I could mention and where time may not be of the absolute essence, the complexities of defence require not only a high degree of intelligence on the part of the new minister but also time, effort and patience by those whose job it is to brief and train new ministers.
The lack of continuity that comes with the raft of different ministerial appointments within defence over the past eight years almost beggar’s belief and it is a sad fact that some of the ministerial appointments to defence have, shall we say, left a lot to be desired. Each new minister will need to visit various Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy bases and where senior military staff must always be present. New presentations have to be made so that they understand or should I say, fully comprehend the range of complexities, shortages, difficulties and procurement related issues.
Bad enough that I have through the past 35 years known or sometimes worked with over twenty different Secretaries of State Defence so far and heaven only knows how many Ministers – either as Under Secretaries or Ministers of State for Defence Procurement I have known let alone those who when as members of HM Opposition have occasionally called on me for advice!
Of all Defence Procurement Minsters that I have either worked with or known I would probably single out those of Philip Dunne, Sir Gerald Howarth and Peter Luff as having been the very best and who not only picked up their respective briefs extremely quickly but also, during their tenure, added value to defence in spades. For rather different reasons and too often forgotten, I would have to add those charged with responsibility as MinDP House for Lords – Lord Bach, Lord Astor of Hever and Earl Howe, all of whom I worked with and who in my view worked absolutely tirelessly in support of defence.
Of past Secretary of State for Defence that I have either known well or worked with then, if asked, I would always put George (now Lord Robertson of Port Ellen) as having been the most brilliant that I have known but for different reasons I would have to say that I very much enjoyed working with Geoff Hoon and Dr. Liam Fox.
As to the worst – for that I will use one of my favourite expressions stolen from House of Cards – ‘well you may well ask but I really couldn’t possibly say!’
CHW (London – 27th October 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785