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UK Defence – Sleepwalking to Mediocrity  By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.


fallon29 Jun 15. Another day, and various articles over the past few days calling on the government in the face of the worsening geo-political climate and the increasing level of threats that we face to change what many of us regard as an unacceptable attitude to defence spending. There was another semi-interesting 207 page report published by the so-called think-tank Civitas last week entitled ‘Defence Acquisition for the Twenty-First Century’. The report author and editor was the Conservative MP, Bernard Jenkin.

I know the author well and on previous occasions he and I have regularly agreed and begged to differ on our respective individual views. I suspect that for me not much is about to change although from the outset I should say that my reason for refraining from comment last week when the report first came out was because, having read it through the first time, I took the view that I required more time to understand exactly what it was exactly that report was calling for. This required also that I should read it again.

In its own words the headline piece and the main approach through the whole document argues for a “completely new approach to defence acquisition. That much is consistent and I am pleased that, in its own words again, “this is not to denigrate the MOD’s recent efforts, nor to decry much of the thinking that has gone into defence acquisition in recent years”. Nor, we are told, is it an attempt to “claim that all the thinking in this paper is ‘new’ but by bringing this together, we hope that we can promote a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the scale of the new thinking which 9in the view of the report] it is imperative to apply”.

There are of course as many aspects that I will agree with in this report just as there are those that I might beg to differ. For instance, I am in absolute agreement when it highlights that for the Foreign Secretary to talk about ‘no strategic shrinkage’ is incompatible with what we have done to the size and capability of the UK’s diplomatic service and armed forces”. Well said and hence I chose to use ‘sleepwalking to mediocrity’ as my title for todays’ particular commentary.

The report goes on to suggest that “we either need to spend more or do things differently or, give up the idea of getting involved in any campaigns that rely on sustained diplomatic effort or military deterrence, let alone the ability to deliver force”. Again I have to agree that we do need to spend more [money on defence] in the face of rapidly growing number of threats and the perceived weakness that our would-be enemies see us being in now. Note this morning for instance that the Argentinian Government has threatened to freeze any assets of companies seeking to drill for oil around the Falkland Islands.

I suppose that I should be grateful that the author, together with academics at Civitas who assisted in the project, declined to make specific recommendation on what we should do. Telling us that something is being done wrong is the easy bit, telling us how it should be better done when there is seemingly little money around is somewhat harder. Of course, I might have liked to see the report emphasise that defence and security and this foreign policy too is and should be the number one priority of government. I might have liked to see the report say that such is the level of increased threats against us that we need to increase defence spending significantly but it goes nowhere near to doing that. Interestingly it stays away from the more emotive subject of the need to spend a minimum 2% of GDP on defence and sticks very much to the defence procurement and acquisition role. There is of course an underlying criticism and attempt to blame industry for the woes of UK defence today and I regret this. It is simply not true that industry has failed to play its part in improving the defence acquisition process and making itself more efficient so that costs to the taxpayer can be reduced.

Yes, as I have said many times before, it is right to blame the lack of foreign, defence and security strategy on government and the dangers as I see them of policy be driven without well-thought out strategy to support it although this is not emphasised as a particular problem in this report. The report does however say that the “present model of defence policy is based on an attempt to assess future threats and to forecast what we might need our armed forces to do”. These it tells us “are defence planning assumptions” and it then goes on to say that “the defence budget is unrelated to these threats, or to the investment plans of our allies”. I may argue with this and while I have no wish to praise what defence policy there is in the UK could take the opposite view.

I note that the report talks of it being dangerous to maintain a high proportion of the equipment budget in platforms at the expense of investment in weapon systems” but I think this rather misses the point that we tend to talk about capability these days as opposed to platforms and specific weapons systems. True, we have failed to ensure that big programmes such as Typhoon are properly funded to ensure they have all the weapons system capability required from day one and we have wasted significant money and lost defence export potential in the process.

We are told in the report “that the MOD signs contracts for the equipment programmes which it hopes will enable our armed forces to do the specific things, assuming our predictions turn out to be correct, and that we can counter numerical superiority in the threats ]that] we face through the superiority of our equipment and people”. In part this may be true and from a defence diplomacy aspect it certainly is true but with the odd rare exception I take the view that we long ago accepted that any role that we play within an international conflict zone will always be as part of and alongside our NATO allies.

The point that the report makes about the need to invest far more than we do in research and development and the very interesting table that shows the decline over the past 15 years of applied strategic and specific research and also research on experimental development is however very poignant. I absolutely agree that we need to double if not treble the miserable level that we spend on defence R&D and that we need to think of doubling the size of DSTL.

The Civitas report claims that “politicians still behave as though the UK has the same [level of] power as [it had] ten or twenty years ago, but that this is an illusion which is positively dangerous”. I would answer this point by saying that if, having cut Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Defence budgets and by having no responsible foreign policy, security policy, defence policy objectives and allowed defence to fall from the number one priority of government to the number seven on the list and on an unprotected budget at that, one can dare to say that politicians are still believing that the UK has the same level of power than it did a few years ago? In any case, the remarks seem to me be at odds with reality and other aspects of the report. That said, if this was referring purely to the rather large number of back-bench politicians from all sides of the House that believe spending on defence has fallen too far then I might understand the point they are making albeit that I could never agree.

The report goes on to say that “everyone agrees that we need an agile and flexible military capability but that this cannot be delivered by depending first and foremost on large and expensive equipment”. This is presumably a reference to spending large sums of money of aircraft carriers, destroyers, submarines, frigates and fast jet capability over that of maintaining or maybe increasing numbers of Army personnel? But the report also says that (excluding the nuclear deterrent capability) that the Royal Navy is now below critical mass and goes on to talk of this becoming “a strategic capability which is becoming sub-strategic in scale and military effect”.

I agree with the latter point but what they are saying appears to conflict with the criticism above that politicians are alluding themselves if they believe Britain is still as powerful as it was ten or twenty years ago. What is it they are asking for I wonder?

They go on to say in regard to overall defence that “we either have to spend more, or do things differently, or give up the idea of getting involved in any campaigns that rely on sustained diplomatic effort or military deterrence, let alone on the ability to deliver force”. The trouble is that while putting forward various problems that perhaps do need to be addressed they make the classic error of failing to put forward a recommended solution.

Whilst it is true that they do advocate a tailored approach that responds to specific threats and campaigns, with more emphasis being placed on research and development I would take the view that if at the centre of this argument they are talking about equipment capability they appear to be ignoring the fact that it can take between five, ten and even fifteen years to develop this, let alone build it and commission it into service. It isn’t just in the UK that problems like this exist, it is the US too.

Enough and as the caption on a Bruce Bairnsweather cartoon so aptly put it, “well, if you knows of a better ole, Go to it”

CHW (London – 29th June 2015)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel; 07710 779785

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