Few could disagree that the political mountain that Prime Minister, Theresa May and her new government will need to climb if they are to ‘see Brexit through’ let alone survive will be littered with many political land mines and other obstacles to progress. Complex, all this certainly is and the pain of it all self-inflicted too.
A friend said to me last night that the electorate got what it wanted but I am not sure that anyone would have voted for a government that lacked authority and power. Still, there we are and if Mrs. May was to look at the newspapers this morning, particularly in respect of DUP demands, talk of potential blocking of Brexit legislation by the House of Lords, Labour and Lib-Dems threatening to vote down Tory manifesto pledges that fail to find sufficient public support, she would be entitled to ask herself what on earth am I putting myself through all this for – might it be easier if I was to throw in the towel now?
As I have said before, while it is inevitable that Mrs. May will be forced to stand down at some point over the next year, I have no wish to see her stand down before Brexit negotiations are well under way and that we have taken additional steps to bolster national security. Mrs, May and her ministers, like them or not, have an important job to do and I believe that all of us – politicians and public alike – need time to adjust to the rather different and unexpected world that we have now been thrust into since Mrs. May lost her majority and some would say, her integrity as well. The last thing we need now though is yet another leadership contest or general election.
When it came to matters relating to defence in the Queen’s speech yesterday I am afraid that defence was afforded little more than just a couple of lines. “My ministers will continue to invest in our gallant Armed Forces, meeting the NATO commitment to spend at least two per cent of national income on defence, and delivering on the Armed Forces Covenant across the United Kingdom”. Sad that the words NATO did not even appear in the speech at all but I suppose with politicians taking their lead from the public and the public having little interest let alone understanding of the importance of strong defence and of what NATO is there for and achieves, it is in this unfortunate day and age, only to be expected that defence is not about to be prioritised as it should be.
On matter related to national security Her Majesty informed us that the “government will bring forward proposals to ensure that critical national infrastructure is protected to safeguard national security. A commission for countering extremism will be established to support the government in stamping out extremist ideology in all its forms, both across society and on the internet, so it is denied a safe space to spread. In the light of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, my government’s counter-terrorism strategy will be reviewed to ensure that the police and security services have all the powers they need, and that the length of custodial sentences for terrorism-related offences are sufficient to keep the population safe”.
There is not much that I say at this stage in relation to the above as we need time to allow plans and intentions to unfold. Government policy in relation to security should not in my view be questioned and I for one am certainly not going to question its record.
Not surprisingly, the speech confirmed that the Government “will ensure that the United Kingdom’s leading role on the world stage is maintained and enhanced as it leaves the European Union” and that “as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, committed to spending zero point seven per cent of national income on international development, my government will continue to drive international efforts that increase global security and project British values around the world. My government” The Queen said “will work to find sustainable political solutions to conflicts across the Middle East. It will work to tackle the threat of terrorism at source by continuing the United Kingdom’s leading role in international military action to destroy Daesh in Iraq and Syria. It will also lead efforts to reform the international system to improve the United Kingdom’s ability to tackle mass migration, alleviate poverty, and end modern slavery”
The above are all fine, well intended words and I have no doubt that they are sincerely meant. I remain totally supportive of Britain spending 0.7% of its GDP on international development aid as long as that money is wisely spent and that those responsible for doing this are fully accountable. We are after all the sixth or seventh largest economy in the world and we do have a duty of care and responsibility to give something back to those less fortunate than ourselves.
Apart from failing to respond to the clear need to spend more on defence that we are doing and that despite the fact that defence spending is rising by £500 million each year until 2023, where I have a problem is the pretense that we will be in a position to maintain and enhance what the speech refers to as our “leading role on the world stage”. Respected we undoubtedly are but not as in the past. Yes, we remain as a permanent member of the Security Council and we are rightly planning to replace our nuclear deterrent capability. But our conventional defence capability is palpably weak compared to how it was ten years ago and significantly weaker that it was at the time of the Robertson Defence Review of 1997/8.
What you see is not necessarily what you get in UK defence right now and with the 60 day review of capability expenditure initiated by the Permanent-under-Secretary Defence now running and that, following its conclusion, my understanding is that the Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon will then order a further 90 day review of defence that reflects fully the need to stop the defence budget spiraling out of control and that will in effect be a final additional chapter added to the SDSR 2015 review, defence will I fear be little short of being considered moribund until the end of the year ahead of facing the prospect of being further eroded again next year.
I doubt the above scenario will stop the Government from announcing or confirming certain defence related procurement programmes – ones where need cannot be questioned or argued or that link to existing ongoing programme developments – but we must prepare for the inevitability that some intended programmes will either be pushed further back or maybe never see the light of day.
Carrier Strike capability enhancement will at least continue and to that end Sir Michael Fallon confirmed yesterday the award of a support contract, worth £135 million, for enhancements at RAF Marham that will include delivery of a new aircraft hangar capable of housing 12 F-35 jets, improving existing facilities including resurfacing of the two existing runways and taxiways, fitting of vertical landing pads that will enable the aircraft to land vertically.
I would expect to see similar announcements built around carrier strike capability enhancement over the coming months and also the first steel being cut on Type 26. Sadly though, although much capability intention announced within SDSR 2015 has already been ordered, such as the first small batch of Boeing P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft and some 38 of an ‘intended’ 50 Boeing Apache Attack helicopters, other announced intentions may well find themselves being placed on the back-burner or worse, never seeing the light of day.
CHW (London – 22nd June 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785