So, we must await the outcome of the review headed by Foreign Policy Advisor Professor John Bew which is due to be published before the end of this year or very early next, and that will attempt to understand whether the three inter-connected sections of the delayed 2021 Integrated Defence & Security Strategy – Defence in a Competitive Age, Defence Command Paper and Defence & Security Industrial Strategy that had agreed £16.4 billion of additional funding to defence through the current Parliament – still make any sense or whether they are now to be considered as being unfit for purpose before Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Cabinet Office and Treasury decide the future course of defence spending.
On the face of it and given that there was a tacit if only grudging acceptance last Thursday that Rishi Sunak and Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt do at least recognise the need to spend more on defence and consequently perhaps, with the ‘unwritten’ proviso that subsequent Ukraine based events require now that the 2021 Integrated Review – Global Britain in a Competitive Age process is deemed to be out of date and best confined to the House of Commons library – while it might be as well at this stage not to anticipate any potentially sudden or dramatic positive change in HMG’s approach to UK defence needs, we should at the very least be grateful that defence is now being looked at in greater light albeit that the case for affordability and creating ever more efficiencies in defence is not about to go away.
We should also be aware that as we once again face up to the long standing lack of consistency in UK Defence strategy and policy and also the possibility that in little more than two years, the UK could well find itself under a Labour administration meaning the possibility of more inconsistency, that uncertainty in regard of patterns of investment behaviour in defence are unlikely to change.
With the exception of a few positives that emerged from the SDSR 2015 review process and that were designed to rectify some of the more appalling decisions taken in SDSR2010 process, defence has been on a downward spiral ever since David Cameron moved into No 10 Downing Street twelve years ago.
During that period, we have had no fewer than three attempts at reviewing defence strategy, requirements and change and not one of them has yet proved to be timely or right or more importantly, sustainable.
Yet another constant theme running through all three past defence and security reviews is that they attempted to envisage what we might need in the digital age including Space whilst arguably ignoring the constant need to ensure we had sufficient conventional equipment capabilities. Writ large throughout all three reviews was an almost ridiculous understanding and belief that conventional warfare might soon be dead. Not only has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prove those theories wrong it has come rather too late and after the UK has despatched too much conventional warfare capability to the scrapheap without replacement and left us with probably the lowest levels of defence equipment capability and capacity than any of us can remember.
As we draw to the end of 2022 we should be under no illusion that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not only changed operational and resource thinking amongst those charged with responsibility for UK and Nato defence but in our case specifically, it has also exposed the extreme levels of weakness in UK ground and air defence equipment and in conventional warfare Capability as a whole. Russia and the military growth and ambitions of China are wake-up calls to the UK to get its act better together just as they are for all Nato members.
The hope is that by making no reference to the possibility of further defence cuts and whilst being prepared to wait three months for Bew review report and recommendations, accepting albeit tacitly, that the defence budget is going to need to be increased, we might better what little emerged in relation to defence in the Autumn Statement as admission by HMG that begins to suggest recognition that they get defence and understand that they haven’t yet got it right!
Yes, I live in hope rather than anticipation and I do well understand that we are not, all of a sudden, going to witness massive change. In saying this I am assuming that the review of IR agrees that priorities in defence need now to be radically changed and updated, but I do at least get the sense that the new lot in Whitehall are not about to allow defence to be further damaged.
I recall my own wincing every time I heard Sir Michael Fallon protest that ‘this is the year of the Navy’ when he was Secretary of State for Defence a few years ago and his seemingly apparent belief that in respect of air power and land equipment capability the Royal Air Force and Army were well placed. Today, weakened though it has been as the number of capital ships continues to decrease with yet another Type 23 frigate, HMS Montrose soon to be decommissioned taking the number of commissioned Royal Navy Type 23 frigates down to just eleven.
In response to the Autumn Statement and in conversation with Andrew Chuter of Defense News and as quoted by him last week:
“I did not expect the review will lead to specific cuts to military capabilities. Wording is everything, and while a real rise in defense spend[ing] has been effectively ruled out for now, given that U.K. GDP is itself likely to fall, there is tacit suggestion in the Autumn Statement that we will not see specific cuts,” Wheeldon said. “I’m not suggesting, though, that we won’t see delays to signing off on projects through pushing back in order to manage defense inflation and minimize cash outlay.”
But, he warned, ‘take care not to read too much positivity in the chancellor’s remarks today. Wording is always important, however guarded it may be, but while decisive actions in relation to tacit acceptance of the need to raise spending on defense were clearly missing in the statement today., I suspect that the bottom line of all this is that while it could have been worse, there are sadly few reasons for the military or industry to be more than just relieved, short term, but increasingly concerned for the longer term.”
So, in terms of defence capability, where does this leave us in respect of the Autumn Statement and beyond. My own view is that although I have no wish to undermine whatever the recommendations of the Bew Review of IR might be, with the one single possibility of Ajax, I do not believe we will witness dramatic or unexpected defence cuts emerging out of this review of a review process although that is not to suggest my belief that any of the previous ill thought out cuts in respect of conventional capability such as the idiotic plan to prematurely dispose of C-130J capability and rely on A400M capability for all medium to large military transport requirement, will be reversed.
Strategy aspects relating to ‘Global Britain’ and other aspirations will likely be ditched in favour of a return of common sense and starting to fill the gaps left by unsound policies adopted over the past few years. Rightly, ensuring our now reduced ability to meet Nato demands will remain a large part of defence strategy as will be supporting of the AUKUS agreement between Australia, the UK and US. These are of paramount importance and will remain centre stage. I do not envisage change occurring in our Indo-Pacific strategy.
Worryingly, with RAF ISTAR capability now a ‘shadow’ of its former self, RAF pilot training and retention quite probably in a far worse state than the current chief of the Air Staff who was charged with sorting it out had found nearly three years ago, with Typhoon military combat jet capacity and capability significantly stretched with too few aircraft and not enough investment being placed in this brilliant capability by MOD and that question how the UK will meet its primary future and longer term operational and mission requirements, limited numbers of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter capability, there does in my view need to be substantial recognition in the ‘review’ of how air power capability has diminished and what needs to be done. This may or may not be an outcome that the Bew review touches on but in my view, it is one that it needs to.
As to the Army which in theory at least is working its way through a ten-year £23 billion modernisation effort one is almost inclined to say ‘less said the better’ That of course would be unfair and it is increasingly clear that with so much uncertainty and derision surrounding Ajax, whilst appreciate that we are also acquiring Boxer, it seems to me that militarily, planned scrapping of Warrior APV in 2025 needs to be pushed back. Army manning is not an area of specific expertise for me so I will make little comment on future personnel numbers requirement but what I will say is that we must ensure that a greater percentage of Army personnel are trained and ready to potentially deploy than we seemingly have now. I also agree that continuing the Ranger regiment stand-up and equipping with the very specific high precision firepower, small powerful UAV’s, electronic warfare, cyber and potentially, AI capability is essential.
The bottom line is that there is precious little capability left in the cupboard to scrap and that having allowed stocks of precision weapons to shrink we must quickly start the process of reversing the damage done.
CHW (London – 21st November 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785