14 Apr 15. I make no apologies for the subject matter for today’s edition of ‘Commentary’ once again being orientated solely on defence although I do apologise for yesterday sending out the unchecked version that included several typo errors as opposed to the correctly edited version due to a technical error on my part. As I said yesterday, lack of resilience and capacity across many aspects of UK Defence is and should be a very serious matter of concern for all of us and not just those of us who are either within the military, within industry or those of us who may be official commentators, retirees or maybe just serious observers. The point though is that with the UK General Election now just over three weeks away the importance of understanding what the main political parties are offering in terms of commitment to defence and of how they intend to play out our role and future commitment we have within NATO makes defence a priority for me to observe and to comment on in the days and weeks ahead.
No surprise that both Labour and Tory Party manifestos which have been published this week are attempting to place defence well down the list of national priorities. True, at least Labour has made more than a half-hearted commitment to maintaining continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent capability although in terms of capacity, in other words future numbers of Trident submarines required to effect this, it has said nothing. Nevertheless, it seems that within Labour’s intentions in terms of Trident replacement there is no specific commitment made to maintaining the Trident system of missiles. Neither has it seen fit to make any commitment to the numbers of armed forces personnel it would retain or signing up to spending 2% of GDP on defence. All of this poses serious issues of concern just as does a complete avoidance of talking about maintain existing levels of conventional defence. In terms of wording I would suggest that Labour has chosen to hide conventional defence intentions behind the upcoming SDSR 2015 that we can expect to be published shortly after the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review are made known during the late autumn.
I have yet to read the Conservative Party manifesto in any great detail but to a greater or lesser extent, remembering of course that the devil is always in the detail, we can be sure that there will be no positive surprises for defence. In terms of detailed expectations I suspect that the best that we might be likely to observe will be further confirmation of commitment to Trident replacement and, just like Labour, there will be avoidance of any commitment that the UK has already signed up to under Mr. Cameron of spending 2% of GDP on defence. Again there is an element of attempting to hide behind the upcoming SDSR 2015.
This evening on BBC Radio 4 the reporter Mark Urban will present a programme called ‘The Edge’ in which he will pose and attempt to answer the question of whether the West, through the very visible level of defence cuts made over recent years, has now lost its military edge. Produced by Michael Gallagher and importantly, edited by Richard Knight who is the son of former AOC No 1 Group and who was later to become the senior UK military representative to NATO and having retired from the Royal Air Force, Chairman of Cobham plc, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight. I mention these fact for several reasons: firstly because I know Sir Michael Knight extremely well personally and also happen to have met his son. Thus, for once, I think that we can be pretty sure that the need for strong defence will, on this programme at any rate, get a good hearing.
That is not to suggest that the ‘The Edge’ (this can be heard on BBC Radio 4 at 2000 Hours Tuesday) will attempt to ignore failings in the NATO alliance or to question whether the structure is fit for purpose. But I do suggest that it will emphasise strongly a message that suggests by cutting back on defence expenditure NATO member states including the US, UK, Germany, France, Netherlands and others have seriously weakened the ability of the alliance to meet the increasing dangerous range of threats that it now faces. I hope that it will also bring up the ‘what if’ and the ‘why should’ European NATO member states remain so dependent on the US to carry so much of the burden of European defence if there is such a reluctance by European member states to take on an increased share of the burden themselves.
The point to be made by this programme is to question whether Vladimir Putin’s increased challenge, China’s inexorable economic and military growth together with the sudden rise in Islamic radicalism means that our failure to embrace the level and extent of the new threats that we face means that we are now so weak that we have no choice but to raise our game. I would of course say that yes is the answer to this and most of you reading this would as well. But our politicians are it seems reading a different set of menus to the ones that you and I are reading. They are simply living in hope as opposed to opening their eyes to reality.
Whilst I have a personal dislike of those former members of the senior military who upon leaving the UK armed forces then nail their political colours to the mast or maybe become advisors to a respective political party I have huge respect for former senior military officers who raise issues and talk common sense on defence. One such many is General Sir Richard Shirreff who was until last year Nato deputy commander in Europe. Some of his words of wisdom will I believe feature in ‘The Edge’ programme this evening but here are some of the things that General Sir Richard has said of late including that “we [in Britain] lack credibility in the eyes of our fellow members [of Nato] having trumpeted the importance of the two per-cent in last year’s Nato summit in Wales”. “If” he said “we have puffed ourselves up about how clever we are for spending 2%, then not doing that undermines our credibility”.
General Shirreff recently accused the UK of being a “bit player” in Ukraine questioning “where is Britain” in this campaign? Worse perhaps was his direct criticism of the Prime Minister when he suggested “he is clearly a bit player that nobody is taking any notice of….he is now a foreign policy irrelevance”. Such criticisms have more than a ring of truth about them and David Cameron is in that respect no statesman. Neither are any of the others playing out their hands for power in this election campaign. Reminding that “the UK is a major Nato member, it is a major EU member, it is a member of the UN Security Council, it is a G8 member” General Shirreff clearly despises the lack of leadership from the PM and Foreign Office during the present struggle in Ukraine. I agree but sadly such wise words have fallen on very deaf ears.
The most serious recent point made by General Shirreff recently and not directed at the UK alone was when he said that “Unless Nato speaks from a position of strength we are gifting the advantage potentially to Mr Putin”. “Wars” he said “start from a position of weakness, not as a result of strength. That dynamic, once started, gets worse if there is a sense of weakness in one side”. It is time that we understood that.
CHW (London – 14th April 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785