UK DEFENCE – VITAL DEFENCE CAPABILITY MESSAGES FALL ON DEAF GOVERNMENT EARS!
By Howard Wheeldon, Senior Strategist at BGC Partners
21 Jun 11. Stark warnings on stretched capability, overworked staff and low morale in the RAF from Air Chief Marshall Sir Simon Bryant (CinC Air) made privately to MP’s last month brought a typically pithy and very disappointing response from Prime Minister, David Cameron today. In reply and as reported on the BBC website, David Cameron said “there are moments when I wake up and read the newspapers and think ‘I tell you what, you do the fighting and I’ll do the talking’. This is so typical of the Prime Minister and tantamount in my view to suggesting that no matter what the military message is unless it includes the word ‘cuts’ the government will continue to bury its head in the sand refusing to listen. Frankly if that is the best that the Prime Minister can do then all that I can say is that it is little wonder that the morale within our armed forces is now so low it is almost at rock bottom.
While the Prime Minister has an absolute right to come back with an innuendo retort that sounds more like ‘get your troops off my back lawn’ he appears to forget that he also has a duty of care to listen to what very senior military officers such as ACM Bryant will seek to point out. In my experience rarely if ever over recent decades have two such senior officers – one in the Royal Air Force and one in the Royal Navy – both of whom are charged with direct operational responsibility for their respective forces found the situation on resource and capability so parlous that they should need to express very serious concern in the manner they have. The Prime Minister needs not only to listen to such concerns and to properly respond but also to remember that as the senior officers concerned have a duty of care and responsibility to ensure that the personnel in their care receive all the support that they need and that they should be properly motivated to undertake the important role that each has flippant answers such as the one he gave today have no place.
Last week it was the turn of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope to provide an equally stark message of capability concern with regard to the Royal Navy and that also appeared to fall on deaf ears. What a pity that ACM Bryant was then also put in a position last month that he should need to tell MP’s in the manner that he did that manpower and equipment resources in the RAF are now so stretched as the force fights a long term war in Afghanistan, a difficult air war over Libya and one that requires very heavy dependence on logistical support at the same time continuing to maintain necessary Quick Reaction Alert capability that provides vital protection over UK skies plus the equally important QRA facility role in the Falklands.
Cuts in defence are of course inevitable but that does not mean the military should be asked to provide something that is under resourced. There are limits of what any nation can ask its military to do and if the demands placed on them are too much then correspondingly expect morale to slip. That is clearly what ACM Bryant fears and it corresponds absolutely to the messages that I have put out within the last three papers in the UK Defence series. There is in my view no use beating about the bush – the PM just does not understand the plight of our armed forces not because he does not care but in my view because he is being ill advised by two Cabinet Office ministers that are between them determined to squeeze the pips out of UK defence capability. I have long been suspicious of what drives Messrs Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude on matters defence but if I had doubts as to their sincerity to ensure that Britain would always have adequate levels of defence capability they have now been completely shattered. Indeed, as if the rotten SDSR process itself was not bad enough the very fact that these same two ministers