11 Feb 15. The latest and most serious expression of concern to date reportedly proffered by President Obama to Prime Minister, David Cameron on the matter of future UK defence cuts during his recent visit to Washington DC is the first of what I hope will be many. In the eyes of the US our seeming determination to further cut defence spending later this year and in closing our eyes and ears to what is going on in the rest of the world suggests to them that we have now reached the point that we are no longer prepared to play a significant role in securing future world peace and stability.
There is of course a history to all this and the US well knows that despite the results of forthcoming 2015 review on defence and security not being due for another nine months yet that many in Whitehall are now very busy working out what else can be cut from the defence budget. Denied as this is by the Coalition Government most know it to be true. Note here that well before the Coalition Government had finally published its ‘slash and burn’ tactics in the so-called Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2010 published in November that year wholesale fears had already been expressed by the US in respect of what they anticipated or feared would likely emerge. Indeed, the first public expression of concern that I noted on the subject came as early as August that year from Philip Gordon, the state department’s senior European official.
Whilst it was most likely that Afghanistan was a singularly important issue on his mind Mr. Gordon provided a strong argument in respect of Britain’s ability to continue playing the very necessary and important role within the wider international agenda. A month later, in September 2010, the then Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Liam Fox visited Washington DC to meet with his US counterpart, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in an attempt to reassure him and the US that whatever the UK does as part of the SDSR 2010 process UK forces will still be available to provide support.
Liam Fox enjoyed an excellent relationship with Robert Gates and the reassurance that was provided at the time by him was accepted for what it was. But the reality is that despite intervention made by the US and the serious expression of doubt made very little if any difference to UK policy on defence at all. Indeed, on indicative suggestions with regard to the forthcoming SDSR 2010, I note that I said at the time that “prior to any intervention by the Prime Minister it would seem to have been an impossible task for UK military commanders to have met any additional burden outside of the existing commitment to Afghanistan”. That of course was before the so-called Arab Spring and Libya.
As the days and weeks moved on there did appear to be a small change of heart on the part of those charged with cutting the defence model. Following a wise intervention by Dr. Fox in a private letter sent to the Prime Minister at the beginning of October 2010, a month before publication of SDSR 2010, and that was subsequently ‘leaked’ the Secretary of State for Defence had stressed that the government risked “destroying much of the reputation and capital” they have built up on defence”. Clearly the hope being expressed by Dr. Fox was that the second meeting between the Prime Minister and the National Security Council which was shortly to take place and at which would be discussed the severity of the proposed cuts that a degree of common sense might now prevail. Dr. Fox always chose his words with care but in calling the level of proposed cuts indefensible and in warning of “brutal reaction from party, press and military if we do not recognise the dangers and continue to push for such draconian cuts [in the existing £37bn defence budget] at a time when we are [still] at war” brutally sums up the feeling of defence chiefs and military specialists alike.
I was fortunate in having a good relationship with the Secretary of Defence at that time and we were completely at one with what was being said in direct criticism of likely cuts. As I have said, Dr Fox enjoyed an excellent relationship with Robert Gates and in UK Defence 13 – ‘America Rightly Frets Over SDSR’ published on October 10th 2010 I reminded that from “a lasting friendship and shared military partnership that had developed from the moment that President Franklin Roosevelt acquiesced to provide the United Kingdom with military support during the second stage of the second world-war the relationship between Britain and the US as military allies had grown into a relationship that not only helped secure peace in Europe but that the UK has been able nurture ever since as one of the essential pillars of foreign and security policy”.
To Pentagon eyes the manner in which the UK SDSR process was being conducted at the time appeared nothing less than a slash and burn process and that was ignorant of all lessons of recent history. I asked at the time, “what price for NATO now? What price for continued American support even if countries such as Britain are no longer prepared or able to provide a large share of support? What price freedom and what price will we eventually need to pay to ensure that the terrorist threat that was very visible in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere is not allowed to spread”?
You know the rest and five years on we appear to be in no better place. Is anyone listening? I doubt that they are. The Obama concern is genuine and it is built around a fear that not only will the UK fall well behind the NATO alliance target of 2% GDP spend on defence but that if it does the commitment made at the NATO summit is Wales that all member states should work toward the 2% target spend is worthless. By taking another £1.5bn out of defence, a figure being banded around in Treasury and MOD circles and assuming that the UK GDP continues to improve as a result of continued growth I could see UK defence spending coming down as low as 1.6% of GDP by 2020. We cannot allow this to occur.
I am far less concerned that when it comes to defence the Prime Minister and his Treasury and Cabinet Office colleagues are not speaking as one than I am that the views of the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, Army and Joint Forces Command chiefs are either not being asked or falling on deaf ears. The views of the senior military chiefs cannot be silenced and it is in the public interest that they are heard loud and clear and free of all encumbrance. Last week Con Coughlin wrote a piece in the Daily telegraph entitled ‘Can Britain Defend Itself’ in which he rightly pointed out that in the coming General Election not one of the contesting political parties will stand up for defence or be prepared to push it higher up the agenda where it needs to be. He went so far as to suggest that Britain’s armed forces could even go from being a source of pride to a national embarrassment. I might not choose to go that far myself, but I certainly take the point.
I know from my own conversation with the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband that their strategy for defence would see it pushed further down the political agenda and priority list that it already is. The Lib-Dems have no policy on defence other than perhaps to scrap it but they do matter if perchance they hold balance of power. We know what the Scottish National Party believes and we also know that the Conservative Party is wedded to maintaining the current protected international aid budget of which Britain has spent £60bn over the past four years. I suspect though I do not know it that to get round the problem of maintaining GDP spend whoever is in power in Whitehall from May will attempt to merge part of the aid budget with that of defence. If so this would be a crude way of showing any form of commitment but in this day and age absolutely nothing would surprise me.
Britain just can’t afford to turn a blind eye to the threat to international peace and stability caused by Russia, ISIL, Syria and other potential aggressors. Neither is it any use thinking that because our troops are coming home from Germany, that they are already back from Afghanistan and that as Mr. Cameron and the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon have rubbished any suggestion of taking Army numbers below 82,000 that all is well. Far from it. We may have some pretty good kit but we just don’t have nearly enough of it. The UK military is not just stretched it dangerously impaired in terms of what it may be asked to do. We have to get the message and if politicians are blind then it is up to the rest of us that can see the light to sell it to the public.
I am told that the article by Coughlin last week brought about a large element of support for defence in the ensuing letters. That doesn’t surprise and frankly it is just the same as I receive from the 10,000 plus of you that receive ‘Commentary’ particularly when I write on defence. The public does get it so why is it I wonder that politicians do not? Britain’s national defence may be one of the most modern but in post war history it has never been weaker than now. Of course, we are not alone and several large NATO member states in Europe have done the same and also cut spending on defence. But it is Britain that has consistently stood out from the crowd as the lead for NATO in Europe and the need for this to continue has rarely been greater than now.
Should the US be worried? Yes it should. In October 2010 I see that I had the need to lambast single minded views that had emerged from the former head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt and that in my view had been nothing short of an attempt to denigrate the vital roles of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. Many of my American readers were quick to praise remarks that I had made and at the same time they stressed the importance that they still place on the special relationship; the important role that Britain was playing in Afghanistan and moreover, the huge NATO and sovereign base role played out across the world by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. Thankfully we have moved on a long way from then and the military of today has no need for destructive words aimed at fostering promotion for one service over that of another. But we do still need strong words that might help get the message across and I can only view that what President Obama likely said to David Cameron as being helpful. Whatever, if the next Government fails to get the message shed no tears that Britain will soon lose any remaining serious influence in the world.
Tel: 07710 779785