UK DEFENCE BETRAYED
By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
04 Dec 14. Note how in an otherwise excellent Autumn Statement yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne was at pains to praise the efforts of UK military personnel that have engaged in Afghanistan and those that are currently engaged in supporting the people of Sierra Leone. He might well have mentioned those engaged over Iraq and those currently supporting fellow NATO members in Eastern Europe or in other foreign parts as well but I will forgive him for the fact that he did not. The point though is that apart from this plus also confirmation that the Government intends to pay down any outstanding ‘war loans’ that date from the Great War one hundred years ago there was no actual mention about defence.
While the former Chief of the General Staff (CGS) General Sir Richard Dannatt may not have endeared himself to me since his retirement in 2009 I am mindful that the damning verdict of politicians that emerged in his book ‘Leading from the Front’ published in 2010 still ring in the ear. In the book Dannatt accused former Prime Minister Gordon Brown of being a “malign” influence by failing to honour guarantees on defence spending during his time at the Treasury. He also charged Tony Blair with “lacking moral courage” for failing to overrule his chancellor. Today I would accuse the present administration of playing an equally dangerous and in this case, obtuse game in regard of UK defence policy and one that we as a nation will live to regret. In part this boils down to what the Prime Minister promises today the Treasury and the Cabinet Office will likely remove tomorrow.
Whilst accepting that the former CGS along with others such as Lord West of Spithead, a former First Sea Lord, had made what in my opinion was the classic mistake of nailing their respective political colours to the defence mast it would be both difficult and churlish of me to challenge that accusations made by Dannatt in his book were anything other than absolutely fair and correct. Dannatt aimed his fire on chronic underfunding of the 1997/8 Strategic Defence Review suggesting that while the SDR was an attempt to set out a good framework for future defence policy it was quickly found to fail because it could not cope with troops being committed to Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time.
Today I would do the same of this Coalition Government in respect of its whole attitude and approach to defence, for the large scale weakness that have over the past five years emerged in the overall defence construct and that visibly demonstrate a structural weakness in our capability to the point that we must question our ability to potentially engage in a future large scale international conflict that requires airpower and maritime capability combined with troops on the ground.
In saying this I would remind of the words used by former Secretary of State, Philip Hammond to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee last year when he said that “public appetite for expeditionary warfare is pretty low and that based on the experience of ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan it would be realistic to say that I would not expect, except in the most extreme circumstances, a manifestation of great appetite for plunging (our military) into a prolonged period of expeditionary warfare anytime soon”. As we today support our allies in Iraq and in Eastern Europe and elsewhere history remind us that politicians should eat their own words.
Hammond went on to say that “it would take several years before politicians and military leaders could start to rebuild public support for military operations abroad” although he did at least have the grace to accept that unexpected events can and do act to very quickly transform public opinion. Mr. Hammond may have been ‘war weary’ and there may well be an element of public opinion that disliked our involvement in the wars that are essen