Hard on the heel of the ‘Times’ article last week headlined ‘Hollowed-out military can’t send division into war’ and that is the result of decades of underfunding and coming just six weeks ahead of what most assume will lead to a major revamping of the 2021 Integrated Review comes yet another dire warning through Deborah Haynes, Sky News Defence Editor, that a senior US General has apparently told the UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace that the British Army is no longer regarded as a “tier 1” force.
Excellent reporting as this story certainly is and one that should be brought to the attention of politicians and public time and time again until the penny finally drops, I must respectfully suggest that none of this comes as any surprise to those whose professional work is engaged around defence.
In context, I would also add that following the SDSR 2010 confirmation of further huge cuts to be made in defence that the then Secretary of State for Defence, Dr. Liam Fox was summoned to the US for a meeting with then Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates to explain the severity of the cuts and that while Gates was, following an interesting surprise phone conversation that I had with him, reassured although I would never go as far as to suggest that he was in any way content!
While it is probably true to say that we are no longer to be considered a ‘Tier 1’ force our problems in respect of how we treat defence and our needs go back a very long way. Over the decades defence reviews came and went and almost all where based on cuts. In fact, during my career surrounding defence only one, that of Lord Robertson in SDR97, could be regarded as having been a well thought through and sensible forward strategy.
In the current era we must lay most of the blame on David Cameron and George Osborne who not only allowed defence capability to be massively further cut but manipulated the figures by adding in previously separated out pensions to cover up the overall near 2% cut in defence spending before being forced to allow defence spending to rise between 2016 and 2020 due to the appalling legacy that they had created.
Who will ever forget the dangerous words given in evidence by the Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond to a House of Commons Defence Select Committee hearing in 2013 during which he suggested that Britain is ‘war-weary’ and that only in extreme circumstances could the public be persuaded to back British troops being deployed abroad! Hammond was known as ‘Forensic Phil’ for good reason and not only was he ruthless in making cuts but he also pushed a substantial level of equipment capability purchase back by two years and more in order to save cash – the majority of which went back to the Treasury coffers rather than stay within defence.
Cameron didn’t get defence and sadly, neither did Theresa May. The theme of capability and capacity cuts is one of the very few things in defence that has remained consistent even if the Government PR message has a nasty habit of sounding positive. We must be absolutely mad and there will at some point be a dreadful price to pay.
Back in relation to SDSR 2010 the subsequent concerns raised would not necessarily be centred on the Army but on the Royal Navy and this probably followed comments made by the then highly respected First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope who if I recall correctly, said back in 2010 that the Royal Navy “was struggling to fulfil its commitments”.
Whilst it can possibly be argued that in respect of surface ship capability under construction and with those currently on order along with having to an extent sorted some of the engineering and weapon systems manpower shortage issues that the Royal Navy has suffered means that the service is in a better position than it was after SDSR 2010 the issue of lack of available capacity to carry out all mission requirements has not gone away completely. The bottom line is that while the Royal Navy probably has sufficient sub-surface capability it does not have sufficient numbers of capital ships.
Sadly, in terms of equipment capability the same cannot be said of either the Army or Royal Air Force. Deborah Haynes quoted “sources” suggesting that “History will look back at the choices they [the Government] make in the coming weeks as fundamental to whether this government genuinely believes its primary duty is defence of the realm or whether that’s just a slogan to be given lip service”.
Of course, any of us could have said that ahead of any of the past three defence and security reviews and the upcoming IR review process rethink although I perceive [although do not know] that the source quoted is probably a serving senior member of the Army. Whatever, the comments are certainly appropriate just as they are likely to fall on deaf ears in the Treasury and Cabinet Office – and despite the clear understanding that the IR refresh will at the very least address some of the very apparent issues impacting on all three services.
Whilst attempting to plan forward and look at the capability and technology required to fight tomorrows wars the UK can rightly be accused of ignoring requirements that we need today combined with the unfortunate belief that the way we will need to defend ourselves in the immediate future is that different from the past. Of course, technology and particularly in respect of digital has provided the opportunity to radically rethink what we need but Ukraine is a constant reminder that we also need to have sufficient capacity both in terms of manpower and equipment capability.
And the poor situation that we find ourselves in today is not just down to the lack of consistency caused by the many different government defence policies on defence since the Thatcher years ended – be these Conservative, Coalition or Labour – but to an attitude that continues to suggest that defence today must play second fiddle to the needs of health, welfare and paying the huge interest charges on our ever increasing levels of debt.
That we have for far too long neglected the needs of defence is a given but that fact cannot all be put down to government. The Armed Forces have allowed themselves to be silenced and not a single service chief has yet resigned because he disagreed with government policy towards defence. In order to make change you need military leadership that is free to challenge and thereby one of the other big problems we face is exposed – missing qualities of leadership.
There is much more that I could say on these subjects and I am not in any way trying to defence government. Far from it but while we keep repeating what stares us in the face, we hear little if any challenge being made to government from those whose responsibility used to include leadership and military strategy. Today our military chiefs appear rather too content to just do as they are behest and stay silent. UK defence is the worse for that.
The UK does still account as the fifth largest spender on defence and the other issue is that under HMT accounting in respect of public expenditure by department, defence accounts for 5.9% of total government departmental spending. That may well be considered as a drop in the ocean by some but when it comes to how the £71.4 billion (including depreciation, pensions, impairment and fixed asset write-offs) is spent? I will come back to that one on another day but in respect of the Army and the unfortunate consistency in lack of well thought out forward strategy in regard of equipment capability and of how this is often done on a collegiate basis, I have at least left you with a clue.
As to the Royal Air Force which is struggling with a number of issues be these shortages of available capacity on the form of combat jet capability, the severity of a range of pilot training issues, dangerous gaps that have been allowed to form in ISTAR capability and with, in my view, far too many senior offices leaving the service because merit has been ignored and that many now perceive potential for future promotion limited, I will go no further on these extremely troubling aspects today and live in hope that the Defence Select Committee take up some of them when the Chief of the Air Staff Sir Michael Wigston and the Deputy Commander Capability at Air Command, Air Marshal Richard Knighton provide oral evidence to the Committee on Wednesday!
CHW (London – 30th January 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785