UK DEFENCE – GAINING RENEWED PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR DEFENCE REQUIRES EFFORT AND ENGAGEMENT
By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
08 Oct 14. The decision by the Canadian parliament to support recommendations of the Harper government to send military aircraft to join with US, French, Australian, Danish, Belgian and British air forces in making air strikes against IS targets in Iraq is welcomed but it is worrying that the vote to back the move was won by a fairly narrow margin. In the face of public opinion weaned on continuing conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and an increasing level of reluctance to engage in what the public sees as the disputes of others it is with regret that governments such as Canada and the UK are now required to tread a very cautious path in electing to support allies in a conflict that impacts on all of us. For the record, Canada will provide six military fast jet attack aircraft plus other ISTAR and tanker refuelling air support but, as with other members of this vitally important ‘coalition of the willing’ it will send no ground troops in.
It is not my intention to discuss the rights and wrongs of whether to win this dangerous and worsening conflict against a militant force of unknown quantity and that has spread its tentacles over large parts of Iraq and Syria. We all have our own specific views on that particular issue and the decision of whether we should or should not send in troops is one that in my mind is one best left to our elected governments. But having said that, I do recognise that because governments have in the past often failed to provide adequate leadership and has provided poor means of communication to the public we should not be quite so surprised that when public support for specific defence policy is needed it may not always be there. If and when our nation is directly threatened there can be no doubt that the public will be there to support. But when the threat is indirect involving shall we say other nations many thousands of miles away it seems that our ability to sell to the public the notion that conflict elsewhere poses an equally dangerous threat to the fabric of our own nation we too often fail.
Defence should be the most important priority of any government but today it has fallen down the agenda not just in the UK but in many other NATO countries too. It is a trend that must be reversed and one that I hope decisions made at the NATO summit last month will have secured. To think that while Russia has trebled spending on defence since the year 2000 we have done little else but cut spending over here. To cut out waste, to make defence more efficient, accountable and even more transparent is certainly right but to allow defence in the minds of both public and government to fall as low as it has in terms of priority is unforgivable.
Today those that would threaten us know full well that many NATO member countries are spending on far less on defence, a fact most often put down to what they term affordability. I might argue that defence should never be categorised as being either affordable or unaffordable but I am far to wise to know that that is an argument the public of today are prepared to accept. Governments are led by public opinion and while it is equally true to say that public opinion in this day and age is drafted by press and media as opposed to the other way round it is nonetheless not a matter that can be ignored by governments looking for another term in office.
The result is that defence is struggling not only in terms of shortage of funding but also in terms of public perception and value. While we do still have viable defence capability in the United Kingdom the fear over lack of resilience and of sustainability is real. Conflict resolution rightly remains a priority of most governments and the strength of individual NATO member strength plays a huge part in defence diplomacy. But in a fast changing world in which