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By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

18 Dec 13. Giving the keynote address at a Royal United Services Institution (RUSI) event last evening Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) General Sir Nicholas Houghton took the opportunity to warn that Britain’s military will become a ‘hollow force’ with state-of-the-art equipment but not enough people to operate it unless manpower budgets increase. Calling the opportunity to speak out as “an outing of professional conscience” he said that “Britain risked being left without enough military manpower in the future” and that the Royal Navy was already “perilously close to its critical mass” after cuts to sailor numbers. “Unattended, our current course leads to a strategically incoherent force structure – exquisite equipment but insufficient resources to man that equipment or train on it”.

In what will likely be my final defence paper for 2013 I will attempt to examine and analyse the context of what CDS said and of what it means. First though we should ask ourselves why a speech of such magnitude and that seemingly goes against the grain of the MOD message and that will in the normal manner of how speeches given by senior military officers must first be vetted and authorised by Secretary of State for Defence was delivered. Is there anything more sinister behind this message? Does it imply a small signal reversal by Secretary of State Philip Hammond that SDSR 2010 went too far and that what the UK military has been left with is a force that is no longer fit for purpose? Or is it a hard message that in effect is one that is being delivered to Her Majesty’s Treasury and Cabinet Office that the Ministry of Defence cannot contemplate any more cuts in SDSR 2015 – indeed, that far from further cutting defence expenditure we need to start increasing it now?

One clue is that in his speech CDS claimed that years of spending on technology to support British arms companies combined with the sacking of servicemen could leave the Armed Forces with an ‘incoherent’ structure. The use of the term ‘arms companies’ may be an unfortunate oversight but his message that spending decisions were too often being made “with an eye on supporting the UK’s defence industrial base” does to me appear to have the Hammond hallmark writ large all over it. Thus we could conclude that this is a reminder from Secretary of State through the CDS mouthpiece that the Government has no wish to be seen supporting the UK defence industry and that in equipment terms would much prefer to buy-off-the shelf. Nevertheless, CDS went on to say in his speech that a programme of “balanced investment” in manpower and equipment was needed and that while limited resources had been increasingly channeled into what he termed “large capital equipment programmes” that our “armed forces had been left critically deficient in key capabilities such as intelligence, surveillance, communications, logistics and tactical transport”.

What a great pity that CDS he failed to use the opportunity last evening to add that since the crass decision to scrap Nimrod Britain is a maritime nation without a maritime aircraft. What a shame that he chose to single out but one of our three armed forces as being critically short of manpower and skills. What a pity that he failed to mention that there was as yet no official decision to permanently retain the small fleet of ‘Sentinel’ intelligence and surveillance aircraft in service with the Royal Air Force and that have so brilliantly proved themselves to our NATO allies as such a brilliant piece of capability beyond maybe 2016. What a pity that CDS failed to bring up the topic of Britain’s nuclear deterrent capability in the form of Trident replacement by saying that this should be done outside of the MoD budget.

What a shame that CDS did not choose the opportunity to remind those that those champing at the bit in the MOD and the Treasury

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