02 Jun 15. Ahead of a visit to Birmingham University this afternoon I will express a few quick thoughts on comments reported to have been made by US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter earlier this week and that have been encapsulated by most under the suitable heading of UK ‘Weakened’ By Defence Cutbacks.
First though, may I take this opportunity of thanking the literally hundreds of you that have written to me over the past few days in response to three recent views: firstly, the one that covered TSR2 and the late Sydney Camm, secondly the one on Rolls-Royce and thirdly, yesterdays’ piece which was a direct response to a defence related article that had been published in the Daily Telegraph on Monday. On this last matter you may be interested to know that an edited version of my response has now been published on the Daily Telegraph website.
In terms of the first two pieces to which I refer particular thanks go to members of the Royal Aeronautical Society who responded with extensive detail and views in particular to the piece of TSR2/Sydney Camm. The responses made excellent and very informative reading and it is clear that many respondents had either been directly or indirectly engaged with the TSR2 programme development itself or who had perhaps had some other connection with either the Royal Air Force, Vickers, English Electric or, as far as Sydney Camm is concerned, with Hawker Siddeley or perhaps the wider UK aerospace industry or political scene at the time. I have very much enjoyed reading all of them and rest assured that I will attempt to reply to most in due course.
Interviewed I believe by the BBC earlier this week, US Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter gave a stark and what is to my mind a very real warning that Britain could fail to fulfil its role in the world if it cut military spending any further.
Mr. Carter spoke out amid growing fears that the UK will fail to meet its NATO target of spending 2% of national income on defence beyond 2016. This is of course a real fear and one that is shared by all those that have a duty, care or responsibility for defence.
In the interview Mr. Carter said that “Britain has always had the ability to punch above its weight and I would hate to see that go away. I think it’s a great loss to the world” he said “when a country of that much history and standing takes actions which seem to indicate disengagement. “We need” he said “an engaged United Kingdom”.
I have of course already made my views known about our lack of foreign policy initiative and our complete lack of vision. While other nations look forward it seems that all that we can do is look over our shoulder at what we regard as new found political correctness. A lack of direction is quite bad enough but when that is combined with lack of leadership we are a nation in trouble. We are not at that stage yet heaven forbid but unless we take a rain-check and realise that the way we are headed is now being perceived as disengagement I fear that we will enter into a long period of decline.
Carters underlying message of course was far more than just about sticking to the 2% NATO pledge or indeed, the belief that countries already on or close to spending 2% of GDP on defence should aim for a 3% target. While I have made plain my own view in two recent addresses that I would prefer that all NATO member states worked toward spending 7% of what is termed government or state expenditure on defence as opposed to that of a percentage of GDP I take nothing away from what Secretary Carter has said. The bottom line is that this was a stark warning that if Britain continued to disengage it would permanently lose the place it has in the world and that most believed that it cherished.
Mr Carter is far from being the first to warn Britain about disengagement or that in terms of capacity and resilience our defence capability now falls well short of our being able to deliver a requirement that befits our current standing or the visibly increased levels of geo-political instability and threats. President Obama has expressed similar concerns to David Cameron as have various senior US chiefs of staff past and present. All of them have stated genuine and reasonable concerns about Britain’s future ability to work alongside NATO allies in required conflict engagement.
An additional point of concern for me is that our military engage and work with our US allies on a great many aspects of shared defence capability. In order for Britain to retain necessary skills in respect of the Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability gap Royal Air Force personnel have been working with their US military contemporaries. It is the same story across many aspects of defence and our US allies have bent over backwards to support us. But if all that we do is to present a desire to disengage at what point might they say enough is enough?
I do know that Prime Minister, David Cameron does get the message about defence and the need to beef up capability. But it seems to me that he is being hampered by those that prefer to believe that in the post Afghanistan era Britain should no longer be prepared to put troops on the ground in terms of conflict resolution engagement. I may well be wrong but just as I had throughout the last Coalition Government, I still sense a dichotomy of views in which the Cabinet Office really is the one that is most opposed to defence.
Sadly defence of the realm is not ring-fenced and neither is it going to be any time soon. Substantial damage has been done to the core of defence capability that no matter how we might believe that we can there is no longer the required capability and strength available in the UK for us to do what we have previously done. We must not only repair that damage over the next five years we must rethink our whole attitude and approach to defence. It is just not acceptable to close our eyes to what is going on in the wider world or to kid ourselves that we have sufficient capability to meet all of our current commitments.
Yesterday the US Secretary of State for Defense was in Singapore and today he is in India. This past week he given forthright warnings China on its land reclamation projects in the South China Sea. He has left allies and would-be adversaries in no doubt that the US will play a ‘pivotal’ role in Asia where it sees the greatest level of potential threats to peace and stability.
You may ask where Britain has been in all this and I have no answer. Iraq and Syria remain big issues and with the addition of more specialist support the situation is hardly likely to change. And then there is the vexing issue of Ukraine which to all intents and purposes Britain appears to believe is someone else’s problem rather than ours to lead.
I hate being critical but I have no choice in saying it really is time that Britain woke up to reality and realised that its defence capability particularly in terms of air and maritime capability is woefully inadequate. We cannot afford to avoid the issues that stare us in the face and while I accept that defence is a political choice I believe that must, along with national security, be given a far higher level of priority.
CHW (3rd June 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS