17 Mar 15. What follows is in part taken from a House of Commons Debate that was held on the afternoon of 28th February 1956 during which the [then] Minister of Defence, Sir Walter Monkton begged to move ‘That this House approves the Statement of Defence 1956 (Command Paper 9691).
Dated though some of the content that you will find further down in this commentary piece may be suffice to say that from an historic context, with SDSR 2015 little more than eight months away and with ‘Main Gate’ decision on the ‘Successor’ Trident replacement programme anticipated early in 2016 it is I believe timely to be reminded of how defence, both conventional and nuclear, needs to be approached and indeed, prioritised.
There are I believe interesting parallels to be found that link what Sir Walter Monkton said fifty-nine years ago in this debate with that of defence policy today. For instance, the reference given to ministerial assistance that includes the three individual Service Ministers who were in place at that time plus the importance stressed on the inter relationship with Defence and the Home Office. Interestingly though, there was to be no mention of the Foreign Office or relationship of FO policy to defence – a point that given the context of the Suez crisis being just six months away at the time I might find surprising.
Sadly, in terms of links between Foreign Office policy and that of defence we may observe today that little has subsequently changed. That I believe Foreign Office policy and that of defence should be intertwined is clearly not shared by our politicians and with no clarity of what it is and where it is that they want Britain to be in the world is it any wonder that defence of the nation is in such a mess.
I digress but there were interesting references in the debate as to the assistance provided by the Chiefs of Staff and who, in the defence world of today, we now refer to as the Service Chiefs. Back then (in 1956) should any of the Chiefs of Staff be opposed to Government policy they did have a limited amount of freedom to voice concerns through certain channels. Sadly, observing the silence from those charged with running our armed forces today I am not sure the same is any longer the case.
Finally, in terms of observation on my part ahead of your reading this and in terms of suitable links to the defence crisis we face today, I note that Sir Walter Monkton talked of being concerned “mainly about principles already established to the programmes of defence, the size and shape of the [armed] forces and the allocation of resources in their support”. These are perhaps all factors that in the world of defence today we might if we so chose attempt to attribute to the so-called ‘Future Force 2020’.
It is fair to remind that Monkton was not aware of what would occur post Suez just a year later when his replacement as Minister of Defence, Mr. Duncan Sandys, took a very sharp knife to defence by cancelling various large defence programmes. In doing so he intended that this might lead to significant industry consolidation.
While Duncan Sandys may be seen as the most formidable of all those that have so far taken an axe to conventional defence capability he is to be commended in one respect – for placing a greater relative importance of maintaining nuclear deterrent capability, albeit that it is surely regrettable that he singularly failed to prioritise the need to have a truly independent UK nuclear deterrent preferring to concentrate his efforts on ballistic missiles as being the new way forward.
Back to the year before the 1957 Defence Review though and I hope that you might agree that the following really is worth reading again particularly in the context of the crisis that UK defence is now facing once again. I would in particular draw your attention to the very final paragraph:
Sir Walter Monkton
“It is a heavy burden for one who has held the office of Minister of Defence for only two months to undertake the opening of the debate on this White Paper, and I am as conscious of my inexperience and my shortcomings as I am of the interest and importance of the task which I have been called upon to perform. I want to say a word about the task to give the setting for the observations which I must make to the House”.
“As I understand it, I am responsible, subject, of course, to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, for formulating proposals on defence policy, and, in the light of that policy, for shaping the defence programme as a whole and determining how the total resources available for defence in men, materials and money can best be distributed between the various main sectors of our defence effort. In that task, I have the help of the three Service Ministers and the Minister of Supply, and, on the home defence side, I work in close co-operation with the Home Secretary and the other Ministers concerned; I also rely upon the advice of the Chiefs of Staff, who in their corporate capacity are the military advisers of the Government”
“This year’s White Paper is accordingly concerned mainly with the application of the principles already established to the programmes of defence, the size and shape of the forces and the allocation of resources in their support”.
“When we come to try to apply the principles, one has to bear in mind from the outset, firstly, what are the likely threats that the forces should be prepared to meet; and what is needed in men, materials and money for that purpose; and, secondly, what we can afford. It has always been plain that we could never afford to do everything that might be regarded as militarily desirable. The review of the defence programme which has been going on since the last Statement on Defence was published has shown that the resources available for defence will be stretched to the utmost in meeting even essential needs. If we were to try to do more, we should impose an intolerable strain on the national economy and so defeat our own ends; in other words, full insurance cover is beyond our means, and some degree of risk is inevitable, but this risk must be a calculated risk”.
“What does the problem become? It becomes, I suggest to the House, a problem of priorities, and this question of priorities is about as difficult a question as a Minister of Defence can have to face. Nobody will dispute the need to put some things in front of others, but everybody will have his own idea about which things should come first. The Government have made a resolute attempt in this White Paper to get the priorities right, but our conclusions, which are set out in the White Paper, are not, of course, immutable or final. In the nature of things, they cannot be”.
“On the one hand, with the rapid technical advances which have been made, we cannot plan too far ahead without founding ourselves on mere guesswork. On the other hand, we must, in making proposals for this year or for any other year, have regard to probable developments over a longer period. It was for that reason that, as is explained in paragraph 13 of the White Paper, in our review this year we have tried to have regard to probable developments over the next seven years. In such circumstances, if this is the task that we are trying to do, it is of the first importance that, in matching our forces to the priority tasks which they may be called upon to perform, we should keep the plans flexible enough to make adjustments to meet changing conditions in the period over which we are looking, while, of course, avoiding drastic reorganisation every time it might seem to suggest itself”.
“What it comes to, I suggest, is that with our limited resources we have to make a selective effort and concentrate on the things that we really must do, leaving the rest on one side. This applies to all the problems—the problem of the use of manpower, the production programme, research and development, and the apportionment of resources between the various Services”.
“To deal with that, one must first consider what, in order of priority, are the tasks which the forces will be required to fulfil. Here, our first and chief objective must be to prevent global war. To this end, we must make our contribution to the Allied deterrent, for we believe that the increased power of the deterrent—the nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it—has made, and will make, global war less likely. We, on our part, shall never be the aggressors, but others must be deterred from risking aggression against us by the sure knowledge of the overwhelming retaliation which they would receive in return. That is the first task”.
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