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UK DEFENCE – FILBUSTERING ON 2% GDP DEBATE HUGELY DAMAGING By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

hammond08 Mar 15. British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond is perfectly correct to say that we cannot yet predict the outcome of the next Defence and Security review (SDSR 2015) or indeed, what the Comprehensive Spending Review that is also due later this year might decide. Others are already taking a very different view and this morning the Daily Telegraph reports that the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) will today publish a report that suggests the UK defence budget could be cut by as much as 10% during the next five year parliament. The report apparently suggests that this could mean shrinking the armed forces personnel numbers by as many as 42,000.

Whilst I consider the above to be somewhat alarmist and note the earlier very clear rejection by the present Secretary of State for Defence a month ago when rumours that Army personnel numbers might be cut by 20,000 from 82,000 to 62,000 surfaced we are reminded of the old adage that there is no smoke without fire. I would also welcome hearing the Foreign Secretary tell us exactly what it is and where it is that he sees Britain wanting to be in terms of its place in the world and that might then allow us to formulate foreign policy objectives that can be properly linked to well thought out defence and security strategy.

The Coalition Government will of course attempt to reject alarmist notions of large scale defence cuts just as it can also be expected to reject or, at the very least, attempt to walk away from the most optimistic reminders that even if the overall defence budget is cut by 10% that the equipment side of the equation is still guaranteed a one per cent real terms rise, a reference to the promise made by the Prime Minister following the disaster of SDSR 2010.

What we know about what happens next is very little but what we fear is now extensive and very dangerous – huge scale cuts in defence over the next parliament. In terms of difference between the political parties we are left to fear what the Tories might do to defence and absolutely dread what Labour might do. It is as simple as that and for now we have no choice but to recognise that no matter who wins the coming election the political view is hell bent on more cuts to defence. How shameful and dangerous is this!

Meanwhile what we do know with absolute certainty is that the level of threat against the UK has risen just as it has also risen against all members of NATO. And while we recognise your reluctance for political reasons and choices to accept that in the life of a nation nothing matters more than knowledge that we have adequate defence and security you could at the very least have said that ‘I firmly believe that further cuts to our armed forces capability should now be ruled out on the grounds that, as you yourself implied quite publically less than eighteen months ago when you were Secretary of State for Defence, enough is enough.

That you did find yourself able to suggest that there probably won’t be “further cuts to our regular armed forces [number]” should the Tory Party be elected in May was welcome. But I am afraid that alone provides insufficient reassurance that the overall intention of the Treasury is that overall defence capability will be further weakened over the next five years. And yes, you are I am sure quite right to suggest that Prime Minister David Cameron really is passionate about our armed forces and that he is not prepared to preside over further cuts to our regular armed forces”. But I am afraid that actions speak far louder than words and experience speaks volumes meaning that while it is plain to see that the PM gets it the rest of us know that these days decisions on how the Government spends taxpayer money are far from being the gift of the Prime Minister alone.

Nevertheless, it was good to hear just a few eloquent words of quasi support for defence coming from the Foreign Secretary on the BBC Andrew Marr Show yesterday morning. This was the same man remember who told us less than a year ago when he was Secretary of State for Defence that “the public appetite for expeditionary warfare is pretty low and that based on the experience of 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan it would be realistic to say that, except in the most extreme circumstances, there is a manifestation of great appetite for plunging into a prolonged period of expeditionary warfare any time soon.”

Since then UK armed forces have been engaged in providing additional Royal Air Force reconnaissance support to some of the newer Eastern European NATO states that border Russia and also in supplying copious amounts of military kit that we no longer require. Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 jets based in Cyprus have also been in constant air strike engagement over Iraq in the war against IS together with their attendant Voyager air-to-air refueling  and Sentry E3D AWACS aircraft. Neither should we forget the great work being done by the Army and Royal Navy in the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone. Russian submarines reported to be in UK waters required that we should ask the US and French for help whilst at the same time the Royal Air Force has been kept busy on now routine work chasing off Russian Tupolev TU-95 ‘Bear’ bombers that frequently venture very close to UK shores.

What we can I believe read from the latest utterances from the Foreign Secretary is that no further personnel cuts will be contemplated by the present Government. As to whether we might now see such policy writ large in the Conservative Party manifesto is probably going one step too far. Another way to see this is complete condemnation by the Foreign Secretary (note that the Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon has been away in the Middle East) of rumours that appeared in one newspaper a few weeks ago suggesting that Army numbers might be further slashed by 20,000. So, while the suggestion that, in terms of regular Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel numbers, if Mr. Cameron is in charge after May, these will not fall below figures that had been previously announced in SDSR 2010 as part of the overall Future Force 2020 plan should I suspect be welcomed.

There is of course nothing in what the Foreign Secretary said to suggest that numbers might, as they surely should be, increased and this despite the very strong and clear message from many former service chiefs that our armed forces are now so constrained in what they can do means that the position we have reached should be considered dangerous. The word ‘regular’ meaning full-time as opposed to reserves was emphasised several times by the Foreign Secretary yesterday suggesting that there may well be a level of rethinking in terms of downwardly adjusting the intended numbers of Reserves that the Army will have in the future.

Even if we leave aside the thought that measured against the current level of threat to national security existing numbers of military personnel are already far too low I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has allowed himself to be part drawn into the subject of defence spending and also that he should both he and the Prime Minister have distanced themselves from the idea of further armed forces personnel cuts. I am of course certainly not naïve enough to believe that politicians always say what they mean and mean what they say and I regret that Mr. Hammond failed to suggest that the level of UK defence capability was now such that no further cuts in defence should or could be contemplated.

At what stage Article 5 of the NATO alliance treaty will come back to haunt us I cannot know but I believe it will sooner rather than later. We are already supporting our allies in Iraq and I wonder how much longer before we are asked to give even greater support than we are already providing to more of our Eastern European NATO allies.

In what is clearly a less stable world in which NATO member governments are once again being pressured and further tested by Russia we should not lose sight of what we and others signed up to in Article 5 of the founding NATO charter. Article 5 states that any armed attack against one member of the alliance is an attack against all of them. Known as the “one for all and all for one” article this is the core that sits at the heart of the NATO alliance. It is what binds all 28 member states together and that an attack against one will automatically set in motion the process of collective defence. Ukraine may not be a NATO member but how long I wonder before Russian ambitions see the beginnings of manipulation in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all countries that are now members of NATO.

All of which brings home the importance of what we and the other 27 NATO member states signed up to in Wales last September – the agreement to work toward spending a minimum of 2% of GDP on defence. The 2% figure was not plucked out of thin air and neither can it be allowed to be treated with cynicism by those that were so eager to put this high on the agenda in Wales last year. We all of us need to be spending at least 2% of our GDP on defence and we must recognise that if we fail to embrace this we will be failing our people. Defence may be a political choice but of all choices that governments make it will always be the most important.

Nevertheless, even facing the prospect of a mutiny in the House of Commons on Thursday from various numbers of backbench Tory MP’s in a defence debate that calls on the government to honour the 2% GDP commitment that it and all other NATO member governments signed up I do not hold out much hope of success. To spend just 2% of the national income on doing whatever one can to secure the nation, to ensure that our trade routes are kept open, that we have sufficient power and deterrent capability at our disposal to both show a would-be aggressor or maybe to use in retaliation of threats made against us, to protect our dependent territories and to conduct our role within NATO is quite frankly in my view an infinitesimal amount.

I have already made my view on the 2% GDP debate perfectly clear and notwithstanding that as the economy grows, which I assume that it will, I have already pointed out that this would mean spending far more than we do now if we are to maintain defence at such a low level of overall GDP. But with the Labour Party in practice if not in actual policy deed clearly against spending more on defence I can hardly see the possibility that by the end of Thursday Mr.  Cameron will have been forced to agree to honour an intention that was after all made in perfectly good faith and yet in reality was merely an attempt to force others to spend more on defence than they are currently doing.

On the related subject as to whether or not Mr Hammond or anyone else in the Tory party reminded that there are no votes in defence I can hardly comment other than to say that I can well imagine voices from both the Cabinet Office and Treasury suggesting this. They are as Aldershot MP Sir Gerald Howarth said yesterday in the Mail on Sunday “symptomatic of the view of the party leadership” too. Howarth went on to say that “what they [the party leadership] have to understand is that defence is part of the DNA of the Conservative Party. And that’s true even in constituencies which don’t have a garrison. Conservative voters” he said “instinctively believe that defence of the realm is the first priority of government and if people around the country do not see that is the case they will ask themselves what is the Conservative Party for?’

In a separate matter Gerald Howarth also noted that “we are following through a Lib-Dem promise to spend 0.7 per cent on aid and yet we will not commit to spending 2% on defence spending”. “People” he said “are asking is this the right order of priorities?”

Sir Gerald Howarth is, along with his former boss Liam Fox MP and to an extent even Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond pushing the same message that we must reverse our attitude to defence spending. They along with others including myself are pushing the message that defence must be made into an election issue. Indeed, even Rory Stewart MP, chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee (HCDC), said last week that ‘the fundamental point is the world is unfortunately more dangerous now than it has been in the past 20 years at least. That means major powers like Britain have to spend more on defence.”

How absolutely right is this and yet there are a great many Tory MP’s, even more Labour and that together with Lib-Dems and members of the SNP that would if they could further cut spending on defence. Fellow Tory James Gray said it would be a major error for Britain to drop its guard at a time of increased Russian aggression and the growing threat from Islamic State.

James Gray MP who is also a member of the HCDC and who was one of five ‘committee’ members who attended my Slessor lecture two weeks ago (this lecture is available from me on request) is quoted in the same Mail on Sunday article yesterday saying that “the people of the UK want to see strong defence of the realm and that as they see attacks being carried out by ISIS and the Russian Bear bombers close to the UK they realise that the world is an extremely dangerous place” adding that “they want the government to step up and hold to the [2% GDP] promise that they made at the Nato Summit.’

Conservative MPs now plan to use a Commons debate next Thursday to force a vote on the issue. The Mail quoted a senior Tory MP saying that there was a ‘determination’ to force a vote, despite pressure from Downing Street to avoid a damaging split in the run-up to the election.

Although a positive vote committing the Government to spend 2% of GDP as a minimum on defence would not be binding there is little doubt that with an election just weeks away defeat would be embarrassing.

The Mail article also pointed out that China will boost military spending by 10 per cent this year to £94 billion making the country the world’s second-biggest spender on defence. Last year China spent £85 billion on defence compared with the £37.4 billion budget for total UK spend and which represents about one-third of what the US spends on defence annually.

hwheeldon@wheeldonstrategic.com

Tel: 07710 779785

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