UK DEFENCE – FUTURE DEFENCE NEEDS A MUCH WIDER DEBATE
By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
28 Apr 14. With little more than a year to go before the next general election might defence actually play a part in winning or losing votes in May next year? If the Shadow defence secretary, Vernon Coaker has his way the answer to that question is quite possibly yes. For decades the old saying that ‘there are no votes in defence’ has meant that UK elections have rarely if ever been played out on specific defence related issues. Traditionally defence issues in terms of intervention generally receive cross party support in the House of Commons but the argument can get far more heated when the issue involves defence capability and personnel.
Occasionally, as witnessed during last year on the Syria vote in the House of Commons and that arguably got President Obama off the same hook, the Government does not always win the argument in the House with its own party members let alone those of Her Majesty’s Opposition. But as a general rule of thumb unlike those from other government departments although decisions may be challenged those relating to matters defence are rarely directly opposed.
The Financial Times reports today that Labour is attempting to lift what it terms as a ‘shroud of secrecy’ that ministers have placed over the next strategic defence review. Coaker has demanded publication of sixty questions that he thinks are being asked by officials on the future threats to Britain and that in theory will determine the basis of the next National Security Review (NSR) next year and that of SDSR 2015.
Vernon Coaker who is the MP for Geddling, Nottinghamshire and who replaced Jim Murphy as shadow defence secretary in October last year has also called for an open and inclusive debate on Britain’s future role in the world. A year ahead of both the next general election and roughly sixteen months before the anticipated publication of the next Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2015) and maybe that of the next NSR it seems to me quite appropriate that the best way to learn lessons from the worst elements of defence strategic pretence that occurred out of SDSR 2010 really is to open the debate on defence to a wider audience. I fear that as usual the idea will fall on deaf ears and that with Government possibly readying itself to rush out various announcements before the doors are shut ahead of the election that the current very strict MOD policy that prevents external discussion and debate will persist.
Quietly behind the scenes and out of the public gaze those charged with responsibility for national defence and who generally sit on the fifth floor of MOD Main Building in Whitehall together with members of Cabinet Office, the Treasury, senior members of the three armed forces together, those engaged in the joint forces command structure plus academics and senior military and defence specialists are already discussing relevant issues that will emerge within SDSR 2015.
Readers will know that in an earlier defence paper I had called for SDSR 2015 to be postponed for maybe an extra year to allow an incoming government more time to digest and decide future policy but sadly this idea was foiled by the need for defence to have decided what it would require as opposed to being told what it could have ahead of the usual Comprehensive Spending Review process that will take place in the same year.
In November 2010 when the last SDSR was published and when Future Force 2020 emerged in all its glory as the landscape for future defence it didn’t take long to see that for strategy read affordability. What we hoped for was a well-defined and thought out strategy that would be based on real defence need built around strong Foreign Office policy guidelines relating to what Britain sees its future role in the world to be and importantly, what it wants to be in the world. What we got was a large docume