02 Mar 15. Little more than a week ago it was the former Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon together with other former defence chiefs sounding succinct warnings on the parlous state of UK defence and the potential ability of our armed forces to engage in future conflict.
Over the past weekend it was the turn of the former head of the British Army, General Sir Peter Wall to be heard calling on the major political parties to make a General Election manifesto commitment on defence spending. And just yesterday, former Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt. Hon Dr. Liam Fox MP who was in 2010 responsible for overseeing the devastating round of cuts that emerged in SDSR 2010, said that “Tory MP’s would find it hard to swallow” should defence spending fall below the 2% threshold whilst at the same time the pledge to spend (a ring-fenced) 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid was retained. I hope that he is right.
All the various comments made on defence during recent weeks expressing concern on levels of capability and the need to ensure that we continue to invest at least 2% of GDP on defence match in my view the increased reality and public perception that cuts in defence have already gone far too far. They confirm too the need to ensure that this time defence must also be an election issue.
I know too that many other former service chiefs are bitter and angry over what they see as the probability that the next Defence and Security Review – the so-called SDSR 2015 – will further attempt to slash defence spending even more. But while message of public discontent is growing it seems that we are unlikely to hear similar words of discontent and concern being expressed by the current batch of service chiefs. And the reason for this? Simply because they are effectively silenced by the Coalition Government from providing any form of personal opinion as to their view of the current state of military capability unless it ties-in with the official line and policy. How regrettable and dangerous this is.
The ‘four’ Service chiefs, a reference to the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter and the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford together with General Sir Richard Barrons, Commander – Joint Forces Command, all have individual and collective responsibility for not only managing the limited capability available but also for their budgets. They all report to General Sir Nick Houghton, Chief of the Defence Staff and to just to remind here, it is the Secretary of State for Defence who makes defence policy (not strategy) and he who also chairs the Defence Council, its service boards and importantly, the Defence Board.
Through this construct our military chiefs do of course have direct contact with various Defence Ministers and current Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt. Hon Michael Fallon. But what they do not have, unlike their predecessors, is the right to express concerns that they may have in terms of capability limitation in public. In other words, the military voice on the UK is silenced.
If a reminder is needed of just how difficult it is for a senior defence chief to warn of genuine concerns in the hope that policy could be changed let me remind of the discreet warning made by former Commander-in-chief Air, Air Chief Marshal Sir Simon Bryant in a private briefing to MP’s in May 2011 that was a few weeks later to be leaked to media. ACM Bryant warned [this in particular respect of the ongoing campaign in Libya and the limitations of resource capability available for Operation Ellamy] that many areas of the Royal Air Force [personnel and equipment capability] were “running hot” while service personnel’s sense that the nation valued their efforts was being undermined by government defence cuts.
Simon Bryant went on to add that “the true strength is in our people in continuing to deliver. Despite all that has been asked of them”. “Morale” he said “remains fragile”. “Although fighting spirit remains positive, this assessment will be challenged by individual harmony targets as Operation Ellamy endures after September”. He finished by suggesting that “the impact of SDSR 2010 cuts continues to undermine the sense of being valued”. “There is concern” he said “over perceived lack of strategic direction which is restricting confidence in the senior leadership”.
As the then second most senior officer in the Royal Air Force and one who I have had the honour of knowing personally for a very long time you may imagine that when I heard the Prime Minister, David Cameron rebuking CinC with the regrettably humiliating words “you do the fighting, I’ll do the talking” I was frankly appalled. How ironic it was that within a year the hugely important Royal Air Force position of CinC Air was abolished.
Just the week before ACM Bryant had made what had been intended to be private remarks to a handful of MP’s in the House of Commons, the then First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope expressed serious concern that continuing operations in Libya (Op Ellamy) beyond September would mean taking ships away from other tasks.
For senior military officers charged with such a heavy burden of responsibility when their people are engaged in conflict to be allowed to express concerns publically or to challenge when they believe that politicians are not getting the message is in my view an absolutely vital component of sound defence policy.
How sad it is that following ACM Bryant’s sensible warning the voices of all our senior military have effectively been silenced from providing personal views and opinion. If, as many of us believe, UK defence capability really has now been allowed to fall below the minimum desired level required by our military chiefs in order to undertake the various tasks that they have committed their forces too then as far as I am concerned we need to hear them say it. Their people need to hear them say it too just as they do hearing their superiors standing up for them. And the bottom line I suppose is that if they really do disagree with strategy and policy they should fight for what they believe or resign.
This morning another important voice was to be heard expressing very serious concern on the impact of spending cuts on the UK armed forces. The Head of the US Army, General Raymond Odierno is not the first senior US defence chief to express concern on Britain’s reducing level of defence capability but he is the first US Chief of Staff to be so genuine and open suggesting as he did that if we continue to go along the road of further defence cuts this could see British units operating within US ranks as opposed to working alongside each other.
In an excellent piece over the weekend Daily Mail columnist Ben Griffiths posed the question why when Prime Minister, David Cameron has persuaded all NATO members to sign up to working toward spending 2% of their respective GDP on defence at the NATO summit in Wales last September that Britain appears to be reneging on that commitment?
Taking my own theme from last week Griffiths’ reminded that properly funded and trained armed forces are always needed even if we are not engaged in a specific conflict. We are as he said “an island nation no longer self-sufficient in either energy or food” and that the importance of our ability to freely trade without encumbrance or threat should be foremost in terms of national priority. Taking up a hugely important point that I myself raised within my ‘Slessor lecture’ last week (this is available on request) he reminded that in terms of building complex defence equipment capability required today and training our military to use it “this takes years” rather than months to build.
Griffiths’ message that “our economic future, both individually and collectively depends on sea and security” and that by implication of damaging cuts means defence must be an issue at the forthcoming General Election is a message that must be heard by all political parties. Quoting one veteran defence analyst in his piece who made the succinct point that “if all our schools, hospitals, government offices and homes are a pile of ash and rubble there will be little point in ring fencing other departmental spending” I may sense a touch of real fear that suggests the possibility emerging for a political fudge in relation to maintaining defence spending at 2% GDP – merging defence spending with that of foreign aid. If that is in the mind of any politicians or Treasury mandarin all that I can say is that they had better forget it.
There can be little doubt that a new head of steam is appearing in the public attitude to defence. In terms of press support for the issue to become one that must be deeply aired in the General Election debate Ben Griffiths is certainly not a lone voice. Daily Telegraph columnist Con Coughlin is yet another well respected journalist who has been expressing serious doubts over the limitations of UK military capability for some time and I might add that it was he who interviewed the US army Chief of Staff. General Raymond Odierno.
Not only does Defence need to be made into a General Election issue but it is high time that we should be allowed to hear the real voices of our military chiefs.
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