This is a subject matter that I have previously often expressed views but, with a General Election looming, it is one I feel passionately about the need to express in written form once again and here’s why:
Even if you are content to take a view that the Conservatives under Prime Minister, Theresa May will win the election on June 8th, don’t forget that it is perfectly feasible that Mrs. May will then use the opportunity of a ‘convincing’ win to reshuffle her front bench team. If so, that could mean that the present Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt. Hon Sir Michael Fallon could find himself moved to another senior position in Cabinet and that we get a new Secretary of State for Defence!
A new Secretary of State would, just as the team of defence ministers that would be appointed under him or her, need time to come to terms with their respective briefs. Some do it very quickly, for instance when Philip Dunne was appointed Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology – the role that takes in defence procurement, he appeared to be on top of his brief within just a few hours of being appointed! Others take longer and some never really do get it!
Anyway, as likely as not and in order to give themselves sufficient time to understand the full complexities of defence and its many and still growing problems, particularly those in respect of budgets, retention and key manpower and equipment capability shortages, a new Secretary of State for Defence will quite probably order either a ‘mini review of defence’ or maybe, given the seriousness of last Friday’s cyber related attack and that the last review, SDSR 2015, was not only far too ambitious but seriously underfunded, order a new full review of defence and security. Doing this would of course provide a further excuse for delay in ordering new and much needed equipment capability.
So where and why does all this lead into my chosen subject title?
Over the very long period that I have engaged in supporting the need for strong UK defence and security, doing my bit professionally to raise awareness, and expressing a view for this to be prioritised by government as being THE single most important aspect of responsibility for any government, the more I have become convinced that that until we better sell the concept of defence to the public the more likely we are to fail to push defence back up the agenda.
History tells us that in regard to military and defence the public is always there when a government needs them. The people gave everything they had to support both government and the military in the two great wars of the 20th century and so they undoubtedly would again today if we were attacked.
Thereby hangs the problem because defence requirement today isn’t necessarily about our being directly attacked – it is also about NATO being attacked and understanding that we and another 27 members of the Alliance signed up to an agreement in April 1949 that essentially says, if one member state is threatened or attacked then so it is deemed that all 28 members have also been ‘attacked’. And if that is so then we are obliged to muster and provide every element of support to our allies that we can.
Whilst not always the case, generally I believe that it is a truism to say that when large numbers of our armed forces are engaged abroad, as they had been in Afghanistan for example, the British public is steadfastly behind them. But it is also a truism to suggest that when fewer of our armed forces are visibly seen to be deployed abroad, the public tends to begin to forget about defence because it drops off the headlines. Indeed, unless press and media are presenting them with evidence of what we do or maybe questioning why we are doing what we do with too little support or how little we are putting into defence meaning ‘mind the gap’ interest in defence quickly wanes in the eye of the public.
Even when defence is out of view, so to speak, you and I know that there is no let-up in the role that our armed forces play with defence diplomacy and indeed, the important role of presence. That may matter less to the public than we may like to imagine because they are rarely informed about these aspects of defence. Indeed, unless they are informed they are in no position to make any judgment as to the very large role that defence plays in respect of ‘diplomacy’.
Sadly, it is also true to say that for many members of the public and indeed, some politicians as well, the fact that the Royal Air Force is actively working out of RAF Akrotiri deployed in support of the campaign to break ISIL and separately, in supporting our Eastern European NATO allies who feel potentially threatened by Russian aggression or indeed, that Royal Navy ships are out there as I write this, patrolling the Mediterranean, the Gulf Region not to mention the regular role that the Royal Navy has in protecting the seas around the UK and those of our dependent territories, just as the Royal Air Force does in equal measure in respect of the air, the public doesn’t get that much opportunity to see and understand what the UK is doing in respect of defence, why it is doing it and what it is achieving.
On that subject I note that the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn was expounding a theory on Saturday that Britain had not been at war since 1945. I was quick to remind via Twitter that during the 30 years of troubles in Northern Ireland, 3,600 people lost their lives, 32% of whom had been members of the British security forces. I reminded too that the families of all those members of our armed forces who died or were injured in the Malaya, Kenya, Aden, Falklands, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Libya and other conflicts in which UK armed forces personnel have been involved would be pleased to hear such ridiculous words.
Despite all the serious and very dangerous cuts to UK defence that emanated from SDSR 2010 perhaps arguably the worst outcome for me is that ever since then senior military personnel have been silenced meaning that they are no longer allowed to express views in public unless such views have first been signed off by the MOD. The practice is deplorable and in my view, seriously against the public interest.
In respect of providing more knowledge to the public, there is then the subject of the public understanding of NATO itself which in my view is very poor and sometimes none existent.
I have often said before, that if we do not better inform the public as to what NATO is, what NATO stands for and why Britain plays such a very important and extensive role in NATO you cannot reasonably expect them to support our role within it unless they are informed. Somehow I doubt that there will be that much mention about NATO or defence as a whole for that matter in the party manifestos’ except perhaps for a few more false promises in respect of spending 2% and more of GDP on defence and that the defence budget is supposedly rising.
Certainly there will be no mention of the Royal Navy’s plight in respect of shortages of engineers and technicians and that the budget that it has been given to conduct its very significant role is far from enough.
All those reading this short defence commentary understand and realise the issues and risks if we do not ensure that the nation has strong defence capability. The public does not. The Government pretence is that all is well and that we are spending more defence to provide our armed forces with what they need. In part this is true but it is sadly not nearly enough.
The Armed Forces Covenant is the promise from the nation that those who serve or have served, and their families, are treated fairly. The Government preaches that it is working with businesses, local authorities, charities and community organisations to support our armed forces through services, policy and projects. That is as maybe but what they don’t tell you is that the homes that they provide, the support that they provide their people, the pay and the pensions are far from being satisfactory. The public needs to be aware that our armed forces are still being treated very badly.
As a friend of mine said to me last week, In our crazy world of nimbyism, fake news and twitter as a source of truth, we need to do more to make it [defence] personal to everyone or else it looks irrelevant compared to health, education, social care etc. it is up to us.
On Saturday evening I was one of many invited guests on board the Royal Navy Type 23 Frigate HMS Richmond for a formal reception. The vessel was undertaking a goodwill visit to the West India Dock in London’s Canary Wharf. The Royal Navy embraces the public where it can and over 1,500 members of the public had been on board during the day. Next month, Royal Air Force Cosford Air Show will take place – this being a brilliant occasion to see the RAF in action. But in all honesty, although both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force do their best they are seriously limited in respect of resources in order to better inform and demonstrate to the public what they do.
Events such as a Royal Navy ship coming into a home port such as London or Liverpool for a couple of days are brilliant. So too are air-show events like the one held annually at RAF Cosford! The importance of events such as these is also that they help bring in the next generation of young people into armed forces professions and trades. The recent Channel 4 series filmed on the shortly to be decommissioned HMS Ocean are very helpful too just as previous Channel 4 and BBC1 shows on board ships or in the case of the latter, at RAF Valley showing how pilots are trained are extremely helpful.
But in respect of better informing the public about the value of importance of strong defence I fear that we have not even begun to plan how we should fight the battle ahead. Remember, Governments only ever respond to anything if they know or believe that the public wishes something to happen. If Government doesn’t believe the public is interested in defence then don’t be surprised when it tries to push defence even further down the agenda. It is up to all of us, you, me, industry, our armed forces and everyone who believes in strong defence to make themselves heard loud and clear on the subject – NOW!
I’ll end with a repeat from something I said last week: ‘While none of the above may be particularly new to those that understand defence and recognise its value and importance, all of it is still very relevant. We need to strengthen defence rather than close our eyes to it. We need to raise defence as a national priority and fund it in manner that recognises not only the threats against us but also the damage that has been done to defence by successive government failures’. To that I would add that we need to better engage the public in defence.
CHW (London 14th/15th May 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785