“The nature of war is changing and Britain needs to gear up for it” the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Gordon Messenger said in an interview published in the Times last week. Words of wisdom that those charged with responsibility for UK defence would be wise to take heed.
Coming ahead of news overnight that China is to increase defence spending by 8.1% remarks from VCDS were not only timely but spot on. Pleasing too that it should be the UK’s second highest-ranking military officer, one who is universally respected across our armed forces just as he is internationally amongst our NATO allies, that should be reminding all of us that Britain needs to be prepared for “deterioration in the international arena” within the next ten to fifteen years.
Just weeks after the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter delivered a speech at the Royal United Services Institute, one that had quite obviously a cleared by ministers, and in which he elaborated on some of the increasingly real threats that pose risk to the UK’s way of life and which he reminded that Russia now has “eye watering” capability that the world would struggle to match without spending more on defence, VCDS took the argument one stage further in the Times interview suggesting that “defence affordability is not something that we should shy away from” and that “we should be making the case for a larger budget in order to respond to those types of threats that are changing all of the time”.
General Messenger was not in any way attempting to create fear but was in my view providing a credible and realistic view of where we are being outmatched. This was a timely warning that cash was needed in order to match the expanding capabilities and complex weapons systems now being developed and produced by Russia, China and other would-be aggressors who do not see the world in the same way that we do.
Importantly, when discussing changing needs and planning for tomorrows wars, General Messenger stressed the importance of winning the information war and that “we have to wake up to the idea that our ability to turn data into information advantage, our ability to respond faster through cleverer decision-making which is enabled by the flow of information is as important, if not even more important, than whether our tanks [can] out-range an anti-tank missile implying also that some of the cherished military equipment being fielded today will become even less relevant.
In respect of capability gaps, the Vice Chief said that “the area we must focus on most is on information space and that we must elevate some of the principles of that into the broader DNA of defence. He said that the emergence of information as a weapon is akin to the evolution 100 years ago when tanks started to make horses redundant.” The UK, he said, was “playing catch up in the information space as countries such as China and Russia develop their own electronic warfare and cyber weapons”. Without in any way attempting to talk down our own military strengths, General Messenger reminded that “Russia had invested in certain capabilities, it has gone quite narrow and deep in the sorts of capabilities that it has invested in but that there are plenty of places where we can overmatch them”.
Of particular note was the point that General Messenger made in regard of credibility when he stalked in regard of bringing 29 nations that with each bringing their own niche areas of strategic advantage into NATO that “we have a compelling story to tell”. But he said, “Britain’s credibility among its NATO allies as a military power could be put at risk if defence is not adequately funded”.
General Messenger said that “If you can target a system or a sensor that the enemy has, through a variety of means – electronic warfare, offensive cyber, lasers which is another area we are seeking to develop national edge in then you are able to write the rules of the battlefield. If you don’t and you don’t know what is going on, you can’t trust your sensors and you’re not able to talk to everyone that you need to or you fear that you’re being second guessed by your adversary, then you are going to lose” adding that “This, was the area that concerned him most”.
In the Times interview which was, as far as I am aware, the first that has been done by a senior serving officer of such high rank since the new Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Gavin Williamson took over from Michael Fallon last year, General Messenger emphasised that the traditional lines between war and peace had been blurred. Highlighting fears over North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions, he suggested these as being a global security issue and he talked of how some countries and terror groups pose a fresh challenge today because they blur the lines of peace. “There is a duty for us” he said “as a key influential nation, to have capabilities that counter it, deter against it and from a national perspective, defend ourselves and our allies against it.”
Joining the Royal Marines in 1983 and having served in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, General Messenger has been Vice Chief since 2016. With ‘jointery’ flowing through his veins, VCDS speaks for the whole of UK defence and in doing so, for the Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, Joint Forces Command and the rest of us.
The Times interview with General Messenger came during what turned out to be a very active week of defence political rhetoric. Speaking in front of the joint House of Commons/House of Lords National Security Strategy Committee, the immediate former Joint Forces Commander, General Sir Richard Barrons who retired from the Army in 2016 said that the UK’s defence infrastructure had been eclipsed by new technology and he claimed that Britain’s obsolete military hardware means that Russian and Chinese missiles could wipe it out from thousands of miles away.
General Sir Richard argued that “we now live in an era where conventional military conflict is dominated by long range precision fire – cruise and ballistic missiles of various shapes and sizes.” He suggested that giant warships and HQs “that sit above ground” are “outmoded” although he failed to mention that the Chinese and Russians are investing in new ships and aircraft carriers just as much as western governments are.
In remarks similar to those made by VCDS to the Times, General Sir Richard said that “We have to grasp a much more transformative debate about how digital age technology will underpin the profound transformation of our capability. If we do that” he said “early and well, we will restore our competitive edge in defence at an affordable price, and to the great benefit of British industry. If we don’t, then we will just be done over by the people that do”.
In a final but no less important example, this time from one that came from the Secretary of State Gavin Williamson’s own Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and in what I would describe as having been a commanding performance in the House of Commons, Tobias Ellwood eloquently stressed the point that Britain must spend more on defence if it is to survive as an international power.
“The message has to be clear” Mr. Ellwood said, that “if we want to continue to play an influential role on the international stage, with full-spectrum capability, if we want to provide the critical security that post-Brexit trade deals will demand and that if we want to remain a leading contributor in the fight against extremism in the middle east and elsewhere, we cannot continue to do all that on a defence budget of just two per cent of GDP.”
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond who had himself been Secretary of State for Defence for three years from 2012 to 2014 said later that he “yields to no one in my admiration for the work that our armed forces do” and signalled that he was ready to give the armed forces an increase in money to fill a hole of at least £2 billion in the defence budget. With a ten year budget black hole approaching £20 billion predicted and this being primarily caused by continual underfunding of the defence, combined with the most recent SDSR 2015 review promising more than could be realistically delivered within the formal defence equipment budget process, Mr Hammond’s comments might well be viewed with a degree of scepticism.
Johnny Mercer, the Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View and himself a former army officer, had also asked the Chancellor for confirmation that there would be no further cuts to the armed forces while the ‘modernising defence programme’ which is due to be concluded before the summer recess, is carried out.
During Treasury questions in the House of Commons last week he said that he “understood how challenging it was to manage the £36 billion defence budget” adding that the “prime minister and myself are working very closely with our right honourable friend, the defence secretary, as he carries out the modernisation review,” Mr Hammond also said that “We will ensure defence has the funding it needs to continue to defend this country appropriately.”
As to what Tobias Ellwood said in the House of Commons and who I might add was described in several newspapers last week as having broken ranks said it was when he cited specific concerns over a potential training backlog and ‘financial pressure’ that he pointed out that the equipment programme is under that struck a chord. Mr. Ellwood emphasised that this is not just a question for this government, not just for Parliamentarians, but for Britain in respect of what status, what role, what responsibility do we aspire to play as we seek to trade more widely in a world that is becoming more dangerous.
General Messenger’s interview remarks are welcome not just because of the increased level of understanding but also for the honesty and integrity that they provide. After a gap of seven years, it is good to hear the most senior military personnel in the UK warning of the dangers of under investment in defence and pointing out where they believe we are weak. I think we know that the Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson has got the message about our current weaknesses. Let us hope as we go through the Modernising Defence Programmes review process over the coming months that others in the Treasury, Cabinet Office and those that defence serves get it too.
CHW (London – 5th March 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785