Held every two years at the Excel Centre in London, DSEI 2021 which opens tomorrow offers a forum for those engaged in all aspects of UK Defence to meet with its industry partners, to create, build and strengthen existing relationships, to share knowledge and to discuss the technological innovations that will support UK military objectives and those of our NATO allies they look toward and react to the increased challenges and threats that they face within an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world.
DSEI is about powering progress and defining the future of defence and for those in government, in the military and in the corporate and industrial sectors and who realise the importance and necessity of being one step ahead of those who would threaten us it is a very important international event.
As the world’s largest and most important defence equipment trade show, DSEI is a showcase not only for emphasis on what is best in UK defence technology and innovation but also in bringing together of potential and existing strategic partners, international governments and defence companies. The four-day event offers a unique opportunity for the military and companies to meet and forge relationships that will lead to future collaboration, partnerships and cooperation that move the ideals and agenda of collective global defence and security.
Importantly, apart from being and international event in which large companies from countries from all over the world display their products and expertise, DSEI is an important event for the many hundreds of small and medium sized UK enterprises engaged in various aspects of defence to show the world what they are doing and to meet new and existing customers. SME’s play a vital role in what they do and their importance not only the larger players in defence and to the UK economy in respect of employment and exports must never be ignored.
Of many the many recurring issues to be discussed by visitors and exhibitors at DSEI 2021 will be the current state of play in relation to the impacts of the Integrated Review, MOD defence procurement issues such as the mess that is the Ajax Armoured Fighting Vehicle and many other aspects surrounding UK defence and the military. The Integrated Review process which was only completed last year is already history and in the wake of what we have subsequently learned it appears that we may need to go back to the drawing board. The need and realisation of what we need to do in order to properly defend the UK and its dependent territories, to play our part within NATO in an increasingly aggressive and uncertain world, must be based on having well thought out strategy that can be delivered in an affordable manner. For too long UK defence has lacked honesty and credibility.
The UK Defence Budget may have been increased but it is being lumbered with additional burdens that do not relate directly to defence. It is all very well that we look to the future requirements of space, artificial intelligence, swarming drones cyber and greater intelligence but that should not mean that we ignore the realisation that while future wars may be very different and led by very different technologies, the loss of crucial elements of UK ISTAR capabilities before replacement is but one example of what I mean.
With rather too much emphasis placed on soft power and increased presence and rather too little on upgrading and maintaining sufficient levels of hard power, UK defence in respect of air and maritime power is far from being as strong as government likes to portray.
We require honesty and integrity in defence and a better realisation that without the public on-side defence becomes moribund. That is where we are today in my view and its reversal requires better and informed messaging. Government must not only better fund defence with realism rather than promise but it needs to stress the absolute and crucial importance of maintaining strong defence and the values of what NATO as an alliance achieves. We need the public back on-side and it is no use any longer those in government hiding behind the old adage of defence rarely wins votes. Defence may be a political choice but only until the enemy is at the gate.
Finally, amongst the many discussion topics at DSEI, will be the choice of next Chief of the Defence Staff, First Sea Lord, Chief of the Air Staff and Chief of the General Staff. CDS is chosen by the Prime Minister and Mr. Johnson has in his infinite wisdom decided that we might need to ignore tradition and look to a three-star perhaps being appointed as the next incumbent shows just how badly our current four-star commanders are thought of in Whitehall. Whilst I accept that the choice of one of the four-star commanders – current heads of either the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy as the next CDS leaves much to be desired, having seen examples of individuals being promoted too quickly and without merit, I caution the approach.
The next CDS needs to be strong and without any form of single service bias. We need someone who can be looked up to and who can command universal respect by all those involved within UK defence – military, civilian and politician alike and also by our NATO allies.
We need someone who is prepared to speak out and who feels able to call government out when and if necessary. We certainly do not need a puppet of government but what we do need is someone who can fight for the military, who does strategy well and with intent, who will challenge and earn the respect of government for the knowledge they bring.
The next CDS must be able to communicate with ease and exude knowledge and views that all can understand freely and openly. We need someone who is prepared to give honest answers to perfectly reasonable questions rather than someone talking from pre-prepared political statements.
Perhaps most important of all, we need someone who is prepared to fall on his sword and resign on principle if that be the only way that the value of the point can be made and understood by the powers that be. Sadly. what I suspect we will get will be a very far cry from any of the above!
Note: As I will be at DSEI for the rest of this week Commentary will be unlikely to appear until next Monday 20th September.
CHW (London -13th September 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785