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By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

01 Apr 14. The latest report from the House of Commons Defence Select Committee (HCDC) ‘Deterrence in the 21st Century’ adds to the now long list of those expressing a view that once Britain’s forces are cut back they will be very difficult to rebuild. James Arbuthnot who will shortly to stand down as the chair of the Defence Select Committee’s is right to emphasise that “deterrence must be credible to be effective” and also to say that that “Britain has to show [both] the capacity and will to respond proportionately and effectively to threats of every level”.

HCDC isn’t alone in expressing concern that cuts in UK defence have gone too far. Various senior military chiefs have been expressing serious angst and in an article published in the Sunday Times outgoing NATO Deputy Supreme Commander, General Sir Richard Shirreff added to the debate with a similar view that UK armed forces have been ‘cut to the bone’. Shirreff also said that “plans to recruit thousands of reserve troops to offset the dwindling regular army was a major risk and that there were still doubts over whether it would succeed”. Unsurprisingly, Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond dismissed the latest claims about defence cuts having gone too far as “nonsense”.

Adding weight to the ‘Hollow Force’ argument that had been expressed by Chief of the Defence Staff General, Sir Nicholas Houghton in his own well publicised speech to RUSI back in December 2013 General Shirreff added that Russia’s annexation of the Crimea had changed the ‘defence paradigm’ in Europe meaning that Britain should prioritise defence. Few engaged in the military or who are active commentators on defence as I am would disagree with the latter statement. Defence is currently well down the list of priorities and never in my own long career have I known the position to be as bad as this. It is as if geo-political events can pass Britain by and no matter what might occur in the world outside and whatever the threat may be eyes on the fifth floor of MOD Main Building and those beneath them must remain blinkered to a belief that in terms of both boots on the ground and equipment Britain has sufficient defence capability. Not surprisingly I would beg to differ.

The HCDC ‘Deterrence in the 21st Century’ report together with the article and speech remarks made by both General Shirreff and Gen Houghton should in my view be perceived as nothing less than a serious and very necessary warning to the Coalition Government that the aggressive range of ill thought out defence cuts have left Britain dangerously low in terms of effective capability. Stretched of resources, paired to the bone and in the certain knowledge that if left to the Coalition Government there is far worse to come there are so many holes in Britain’s defence strategy and policy it is increasingly hard to know where to start.
With initial planning work of SDSR 2015 already well under way and my earlier call for the review process to be pushed back by one year to 2016 allowing an incoming Government more time to understand the complexities of the issue [my understanding is that there is a fear that because a ‘new’ Government would automatically proceed with a full ‘Comprehensive Spending Review’ and that should the Ministry of Defence not be in a position at that time to decide what its needs over the following five year period would be there is a large risk that it would be forced to live within spending figures based purely on affordability that would emerge from CSR] ignored one is left to conclude that rather than designed long term defence strategy what is being asked of the military is that it must base its future delivery capability on short term tactical policy based on perceived affordability. One is left to consider that such policy is unlikely to change until the enemy is at the gate.

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