It appears that the UK has once again been saddled with a Prime Minister who while streets ahead of his immediate predecessors and well regarded by his European and North American peers is now up against press claims that, despite strong denials from No 10, “he has no interest in defence and security”. That may or may not be true but what I would suggest is that just like many of his predecessors over the past thirty years, a much better way of saying this is that he just does not understand the importance of an island nation such as we are here in the UK, maintaining strong defence capability as being the number one national priority.
Following Theresa May, who despite having done well as Home Secretary, had absolutely no understanding, comprehension or even interest in defence, Boris Johnson who appeared to think that the UK was already sitting on masses of defence capability that we would never need because no-one would dare attack us and that translated meant, we could well afford to give it away to Ukraine without replacing it and Liz Truss who, promised the earth for a day but delivered only the ashes of what she rather stupidly promised, one really is in almost despair that after so many previous lessons that we were forced to learn the hard way that certain aspects of UK defence capability are in tatters.
Oh, and before moving on any further, let’s not get too excited about plans in respect of defence of the realm from Labour. Yes, it is absolutely true that they are totally supportive of Government policy in respect of supporting Ukraine and yes, they do have a Defence Opposition Spokesman in the House of Commons in the form of John Healey who, although I have not met him, does as far as I can see get the need for maintaining strong defence.
But please note that in the now infamous ‘waffle speech’ last week and which was supposed to set the tone of his determination to become the next prime minister, the Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer did not even mention the word defence once!
And, being the age that I am, I recall several other past Labour Opposition Defence people promising much before a General Election only to find that they either didn’t get the top job when Labour was elected into Government or that what they promised was overtaken by other events and calls for cash from other government departments.
Of course, we also have a right to expect that our Nato and other European allies are getting their act together ensuring that they too are spending sufficient amounts on defence and that truly match the threats that we all face. Well, let me tell you that France is certainly doing that as are the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Norway, Finland and yes, even Greece which doesn’t really have an economy at all!
And yes, Germany is also raising its spending on defence quite significantly and while there are historic political issues and precedents set within Germany that can and do create obstacles to progress of what Germany is prepared to contribute internationally, Chancellor Olaf Scholz is to be congratulated for putting together a EUR100bn special fund in order to boost its defence capability overall.
Not here in the UK though and while we can anticipate that out of the Integrated Review ‘Refresh’ there will be some increase in defence spending, we should be very cautious in respect of expectations that Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace will have won but a fraction of the £10bn increase in defence spending that he is now apparently seeking.
Even if he seemingly does and they dress this up I am in little doubt that however this might be dressed up the Treasury and Cabinet Office would subsequently attempt to whittle it down or to extend any increase promised to be spread over a much longer period of say ten years.
Yes, I am writing on this crucial subject seeming ad nauseum these days but that is because I do understand the crucial importance of maintaining strong defence capability. I am absolutely appalled that not one of the three defence chiefs who report to the Chief of Defence Staff, with the possible exception of Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, is prepared to stand up and be counted and that not one has yet resigned with a clear statement that they are doing so because they can no longer accept responsibility for defence of the realm without having the level of capability that they believe is necessary to do the job.
Only now after much debate in the press and on a subject that I raised several years ago, is the UK apparently reviewing the size of its ammunition stockpiles. The word stockpiles is a lovely word to use but when it comes to what the UK is currently holding in respect of complex weapons that are not time or loading dated, I regard it as being somewhat over ambitious a term to use.
As so often the case it is only the brilliance of Sky News Defence Editor, Deborah Haynes in eking out the truth of any situation that is once again leading the way in regard of understanding the dire truth of where the UK is in regard of defence capability. As already mentioned, a government spokesperson has denied claims made that Rishi Sunak has no interest in defence and points to his being the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer who agreed the 2020 spending review that the spokesperson claims provided the MOD with the largest increase in defence investment since the Cold War.
What that spokesperson failed to add was that the increase mentioned here has been constantly whittled away by the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury and that in order to balance the defence budget many projects and intentions have been pushed back and that, in order to fund anything, the Royal Navy has had to sell or scrap ships, The Royal Air Force lose Sentry, Sentinel and C-130J capability because all of this was perceived by the Treasury to be saleable to a third party and so on.
CHW (London – 27th February 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785