A short Friday defence related comment this morning following on from a Daily Telegraph interview with Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson:
It is unusual that a Secretary of State for Defence, the Chief of the General Staff and indeed, the Chief of the Defence Staff should be quite so vociferous in warning of specific threats against the UK from Russia or anywhere else but, provided this is done in a responsible manner and if they really feel that more needs to be done by their political masters, then so they should. That, in one way or another, in regard of the threat from Russia is what each of the current holders of those titles has done over the past month.
Ever since the now Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond laid down the law that speeches to be delivered by senior military officers must first be vetted and that press and media interviews should be discouraged, defence in the press and media has relied on speculation mixed with an understandable cynicism. What information or concern that has been expressed has, particularly in respect of the NSCR, all too often come through leaks from the Treasury, Cabinet Office or MOD itself.
Back in the day the likes of Auchinleck, Ismay, Wavell and Alanbrooke were seemingly allowed to speak freely and to challenge their political masters. They often disagreed but if they did, they knew well what the consequences of their actions might be. But I suppose the real point to make here is that none of the arguments, challenges or debate was allowed to get out into the press or public.
No so in the modern era of defence and for that reason, not only do senior military officers rarely appear to be seen to challenge they have also found that most lines of communication to the outside world have also been closed. Sometimes it can seem that if advice or warnings are provided to government senior members of the military they are stamped on hard. Those in the military on my list will well remember the advice that Air Marshal Sir Simon Bryant privately gave in relation to the ability through lack of capacity to sustain capability on two separate warfronts and of how he was slapped down by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron with the words, you do the fighting, we’ll do the talking.
In this day and age raising awareness does appear to be very necessary and in an interview with the Daily Telegraph this morning the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Gavin Williamson warned that Russia could cause “thousands and thousands and thousands of deaths” by crippling UK infrastructure and that Russia was spying on [UK] energy supplies (a reference to undersea power and communication cables] which, if cut, could cause “total chaos” in the country and called this “the real threat…the country was facing at the moment”.
Earlier this week the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, delivered what was clearly a vetted and approved speech along similar lines that had clearly vetted and approved speech to members of RUSI in which he warned the UK is struggling to keep up with Russian capabilities.
Cynics are entitled to argue that the sudden bout of new warnings being heard are primarily aimed at the Treasury, Cabinet Office and No 10 in order to push forward the case for strengthening defence as opposed to planning another round of cuts out of the upcoming NSCR. Well, if the cap fits wear it and if by pushing forward the reality of the situation is the only way to get the message through to the Chancellor of the Exchequer then so be it.
That said, I do completely understand the view of those who would question why do we need to trumpet our weaknesses to both friend and adversary? Their belief – and I completely understand where they are coming from – is that lobbying should be tough but quiet and that it should use persuasion not bullying on the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. As one prominent amongst them said to me this week “this kind of noise is the opposite of the tactics of Churchill in 1940, now immortalised on film. Then we had no capability but we told the enemy persuasively that we were mightier than they thought. This country will never take on Russia – or anyone else, alone. That is why we are in the NATO alliance so projecting weakness instead of proclaiming the strength we represent is a crazy self-defeating tactic”.
We are however already along the road of lobbying concerns in public. Back in December, once again at RUSI, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach made a similar point to the one that the Secretary of State for Defence has been talking about in his interview today reminding that the UK military has prioritised the protection of undersea cables. He present this question to his audience “Can you imagine a scenario where those cables are cut or disrupted which would immediately and potentially catastrophically affect both our economy and other ways of living?”. Air Chief Marshal Peach added that ‘Therefore we must continue to develop our maritime forces with our allies to match and understand Russian fleet modernisation. If we don’t change with the threats we face, we risk being overmatched.’
It was also the Chief of Defence Staff who recently said “As I have made clear several times, the global security situation continues to deteriorate. We face rising state-on-sate competition and challenge, and new risks to our way of life. These are proliferating at an increased rate. We need to be ready to contain or confront the threats and risks we face, and therefore we must adapt as early as possible alongside our allies in NATO and beyond in order to keep ahead of our adversaries – this programme will allow us to do just that”.
However it is done, let us hope that the message gets through but whatever, let it be done with caution and common sense in the realisation that would-be enemies are listening to every word.
CHW (London – 26th January 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785