If but a fraction of what various newspaper headlines and articles published over the past week are very soon proved to be true in their emphasising the current weakness of UK defence capability why is it that as a nation that pretends to have global ambition that our political masters continue to hide behind the dangerous and very false pretence that the UK has more than sufficient means to defend itself and to play its full role in international defence alongside our Nato allies?
While I recognise the absolute need to accept words such as affordability and that in peacetime, defence to an extent almost always becomes a political choice, events over the past year in Ukraine and indeed, rom both Russia and China in regard of their respective potential ambitions, I cannot regard the period of uncertainty that we are now living and moving through as being what I would regard as peacetime.
Intelligence they say, is no barrier to stupidity and while I completely understand that political objectives require vast sums to be spent fostering other domestic based requirements, a nation that does not spend enough of its means ensuring that it can adequately defend itself is a nation that has lost its way. That is, very sadly, how some of our major Nato allies are now seeing the UK in regard of its reducing levels of defence capability and lack of will.
Various press related articles penned over the past week have contained real substance particularly in their quoting of Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace and the small collection of long ago retired defence chiefs who – even though I would much prefer to hear such comments emanating from those charged with responsibility for defence today – speaking what I regard to be absolute truths in respect of UK defence weakness – particularly in regard of munitions, complex weapons and air power capability.
Those from the Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace himself stood out. Phrases such as “we need to invest in defence properly” along with “Wallace Demands up to £11bn extra for the military budget” and particularly telling was the suggestion that the “Defence Budget has been raided and there is an uphill battle to get more” were I hope read with more than a passing interest by those that matter in No 10 Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury. More likely they fell on deaf ears once again albeit that with so many articles and comments on social media in respect of the UK’s perceived overall defence weakness, one might at the very least hope that the intenseness of this unusual style of lobbying through press and media by a serving Secretary of State might just be sufficient to achieve a half decent result.
The essential and underlying message preached to all and sundry by Mr. Wallace himself is that in an increasingly unstable world, the UK cannot afford to allow defence to be further weakened by failure of the Government to invest in the necessary manpower and equipment capability that, despite the usual silence of our service chiefs, we urgently require and that the much heralded ‘Integrated Review Refresh’ and which was by now supposed to have been all but signed off and agreed by Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt ahead of his Spring Budget announcement to the House of Commons due on March 15th.
One very much admires the attacking stance taken by Mr. Wallace in respect of a clear need to increase defence spending but whilst I do expect that there to be some element of extra money provided, sadly I am under no illusion that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak or his Chancellor of the Exchequer are about to cave in to but a fraction of the demands made by the current Secretary of State for Defence. Talk the political talk they might but neither are from a generation of political masters that really understand the clear and very urgent need to stop kidding ourselves when it comes to just how weak the UK is today in regard of defence capability. While it may not be their fault individually it is, in my humble view, the abounding duty of the PM and the Chancellor to remedy collectively now.
It is very good to see a Secretary of State for Defence actively fighting his cause. From a political standpoint one might argue that Mr. Wallace has very little to lose and probably far more to gain from being seen to stand up to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the PM. After all, Wallace may not be around in ‘Main Building’ for that much longer either because, with Jens Stoltenberg having now formally announced that he will step down as the current Secretary General of Nato at the end of his third term in October, those in No 10 and quite probably Mr. Wallace himself could well be ;ed to believe that he [Wallace] has a fighting chance of becoming the next Secretary General of Nato. On that basis, Mr Wallace is unlikely to be moved out of Main Building just yet.
Ben Wallace may not have achieved a very high position during his Army career but he is well liked in the corridors of power in Westminster. However, one should note in respect of the above that, due to proposed boundary change recommendations that impact on his existing Wyre and Preston North constituency, Mr. Wallace’s seat is I believe set to be abolished at the next General Election and, even assuming that his name was put forward as a potential successor to Jens Stoltenberg is already be set in stone in Brussels, should he fail in this objective later this year it would appear that unless one of the sitting Tory MP’s choses to stand down, Mr. Wallace might well struggle to secure another seat to successfully contest ahead of the next General Election which is due in late 2024 or early 2025.
For all that, it is highly unusual for a serving Secretary of State for Defence to challenge his political masters for increased funds in the way that he has and is doing and whatever his primary motives may be, he deserves not only much credit for being prepared to stand up and be counted but our absolute support as well.
Previous incumbents as Secretary of State for Defence such as Sir Michael Fallon, Philip Hammond and Liam Fox may have rattled a few feathers from time to time in the Cabinet Office and Treasury but Ben Wallace is probably the only one who was prepared to really stand up and be counted for expressing an absolute and undeniable need for the UK to spend more and to better prioritise defence. To be absolutely fair, I should also mention here that Sir Gavin Williamson who held the position of Secretary of State for Defence for two years between November 2017 and May 2019, a period of which for the most part was under the premiership of Theresa May, also fought hard to strengthen UK defence capability but found himself for the most part under a PM who, I recall, neither did or had any desire to either understand, comprehend or support the vital need for strong UK defence.
The upcoming Integrated Review refresh provides what I regard as being a very last chance to reverse the long and sadly, unchallenged decline in UK defence capability. I am not optimistic of likely outcomes. I sincerely hope that Mr. Wallace is being given all the support that he needs from the Chief of the Defence Staff and I have no reason to doubt that he is not.
Suffice to say that the Royal Navy is now in a better position than it perhaps was five years ago and I note too that the fifth of seven Astute class submarines was handed over to the RN by BAE last week. Two more of these excellent vessels are in build. Type 26 (BAE Systems) and Type 31 (Babcock International) Frigate programmes are proceeding well and it is particularly pleasing to see the Type 45 ‘propulsion system upgrade’ progressing so well.
While there is still a very long way to go, it is pleasing that the Chief of the General Staff General Sir Patrick Sanders is getting to grips with Army manpower and equipment capability shortage and a lack of distinct strategy that the Army has lacked for so long. He too is fighting his cause and I am sure that in a few years from now the Army will be in a better place th
However, it is regrettable that I do not hear similar messages emanating from the Royal Air Force hierarchy and that in a recent hearing of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee and when questioned and provided with a golden opportunity to at the very least accept that the RAF now has limited military fast jet capability, ISTAR capability and issues in respect of medium and heavy-lift aircraft capability, was passed by the current Chief of the Air Staff.
To the point though and close to twelve years since I wrote UK Defence 39 – No Holiday From History – it seems that rather than mover forward in our attitude and approach to the continual need for strong defence we continue to allow ourselves to moved further backwards.
Our Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer may have a lot on their plates but they fail to understand the needs of defence at their and our peril. There neither is nor can there ever be any holiday for history in regard of defence. The mass of articles this past few days should at the very least be seen to be a view that emanates from the people and their desire above everything else to know that the UK will no longer flinch when it comes to ensuring that we have sufficient levels of defence capability both in respect of manpower and equipment capability and that while thinking and planning for tomorrows wars in respect of technology development is right, it cannot be done by ignoring the needs of defence today.
(P.S. – In regards of Ukraine I would commend reading of two articles published by Professor Justin Bronk of RUSI – the first in the current issue of the Spectator entitled ‘The West shouldn’t underestimate Russia in Ukraine’ and the second, a RUSI publication – The Russian Air War and the Ukrainian Requirements for Air Defence)
CHW (London -20th February 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785