UK DEFENCE – OF LEVELS AND LACKING AMBITION
By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
18 Mar 14. The worsening situation in Ukraine, Russia’s unsurprising decision to annex the Crimea together with distant voices wondering whether we might be returning to a rather different but equally dangerous style of ‘cold war’ politics question whether Britain has pulled defence expenditure back too far. Most of you know where I would stand on this issue already particularly in relation to air and maritime power capability but as a ‘defence commentator’ I must also look at defence not just through the eyes of our superb military and industry but attempt to see this through the eyes of our political masters as well.
One of the biggest criticisms that I had of SDSR 2010 was that it appeared to stand completely aloof of whatever UK foreign policy ambitions were. In this context defence cannot in itself be subjective but it must always be built around foreign policy objective. Sometimes I am not sure that we either know or understand what our foreign policy objectives are let alone our ambition. Equally, with affordability ringing in the ears of those currently charged with responsibility for our defence, whether they understand that it is no use setting and attempting to build levels of defence capability without these being matched to whatever foreign policy ambitions we may have. The point is that when it comes to strategy we lack leadership. The Defence Select Committee put it another way a few weeks ago when they said that in SDSR 2010 they could see no strategy. It seems that we may still have the wheels and that we may even still have the cart but when it comes to level, ambition and strategy we are missing the horse.
In the USA last week I was reminded that it was Winston Churchill who told us long ago that “not to have an adequate air force in the present state of the world is to compromise the foundation of national freedom and independence”. Those words are as true today as they had been when they were first used. But they were I believe spoken well before NATO had evolved. Today, as it has for the past seventy years, it is the role of NATO to which we look to ensure the peace and stability of Europe. At the core of NATO is the belief that if one member state is challenged then in effect, all are challenged. It works well but of course, Ukraine is not a member and thus it cannot be the role of NATO to intervene.
There are those that might take a different view as they see Russia challenge and attempt to undermine. Yesterday, in the House of Commons, Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond said that the UK would send Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft to assist the Polish Air Force in providing additional protection to the handful of former eastern bloc nations that are now within the NATO family. Of course I welcome this as being exactly what Britain should be doing. By the same token I am entitled to ask where are voices in Germany offering similar levels of support indeed, where on this occasion are the French?
Within this piece the central question being asked I supposed is what our future ambitions are? One hopes that they are at the very least to maintain the status quo. One hopes that they are to maintain our NATO commitment to the full and also to ensure that we play our part in assisting our allies wherever that may be. We do whether we like it or not have a large scale international role to play in policing and protection. Mature nation we may be but we remain one of the ten largest global economies. We have trade which we must not only protect but do all that we can to enhance. We have a group of dependent territories that we are duty bound to protect. We have a national requirement and duty of care to provide proper defence of the realm and last buy not least, we have a duty to provide all the care and support that we can to those that carry the true burden of responsib