It is now exactly three years since I produced a defence commentary entitled ‘War Weary Hammond Hints at More Structural Cuts’. For those of us engaged either directly or indirectly in defence, the remarks made by then Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt. Hon Philip Hammond on that October day in 2013 to a House of Commons Defence Select Committee hearing came as not only as a huge shock but they would show that a new low point had been reached by the then Coalition Government in its understanding and comprehension of need for strong defence.
Philip Hammond moved on to become Foreign Secretary a short time later and his place as Secretary of State for Defence was taken by the Rt. Hon Michael Fallon. Today Mr. Hammond is Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Conservative Government headed by Theresa May and although his views on the need for defence to be good value for the taxpayer and to be more accountable and transparent are quite rightly alive and well in the corridors of MOD Main Building and across all of the defence industry I am in little doubt that the new Government better understands the need to have strong defence than its predecessor and that more needs to be done. The hope is that despite the continuing spin that we are already spending 2% of our GDP on defence the reality will be that in the years ahead we increase real spending on defence to where it better should be in relation to the potential threats that we face. Nevertheless, we need always to be on guard against those who control our overall finances!
Even if there was an element of truth in the statement for the now Chancellor of the Exchequer that Britain was ‘war-weary’ this should never have been said. We all weary of war but most of us recognise that being seen to be weary would only encourage our adversaries or would-be enemies to test us or to attempt to take advantage. Russia has been increasingly testing our defences for many years and over the past there years it has increased the levels of ‘testing’ our resource. In saying that only in extreme circumstances could the public be persuaded to back British troops being deployed abroad Mr. Hammond was in my view displaying a level of weakness that I and others had thought never to see. The message to the world was that Britain no longer wanted to play the defence role for which over many decades it had earned the respect of the world.
During the evidence that he provided on October 9th 2013 Mr. Hammond told Defence Select Committee members 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 any time soon”. Mr. Hammond then 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 accept that “unexpected events can and do act to very quickly transform public opinion”. He also suggested that the military would need to face up to further structural cuts.
The Hammond message were received by members of the UK armed forces with considerable alarm. Leading military and defence specialists had little choice but to conclude that the political view from MOD Main Building and from No 10 was that defence would be further cut and that the Coalition Government had little understanding and comprehension of the importance of strong defence. This was new low point and to hear Mr. Hammond say that there would be no [further] significant military operations [involving British forces] any time soon and that he believed that once Britain’s mission in Afghanistan had ended in 2014 that our armed forces are unlikely to be involved in foreign deployments for many years to come was not only amazing but also as ridiculous as it would soon prove to be untrue.
That Mr. Hammond would quickly be proved wrong in making such ridiculous and dangerous statements is not the point. In hindsight we should perhaps be asking how could such a senior Cabinet Minister and his advisors get it so completely wrong? The natural sceptic in me was tempted to believe that with [then] early work already being done to formulate proposals that would eventually constitute SDSR 2015 along with the promised UK Security Strategy, what Mr. Hammond was doing in reality was warning of further cuts to Britain’s already much weakened defence capability that such was his intent to do this that he was now using a ‘get out of jail free card’ that might allow him to support further large cuts in our armed forces and get away with it.
However, I had long ago concluded that what you see with Mr. Hammond isn’t always what you get and his follow-on remarks that day suggesting that the rise in powers such as China means that Britain’s economic future depends on a willingness to defend western values of democracy and the rule of law meant that we are a nation far more dependent than others on an open global trading system, the survival of which is not a given, was a side of the Secretary of State that had been all too rarely heard or seen. To an extent this softened the blow but one would never lose sight that ‘Forensic Phil’ was alive and well.
In all seriousness I had never thought to hear a Secretary of State for Defence talk in such a manner as Mr. Hammond did on that dreadful day in October 2013. That I and many others were shocked was an understatement even though we had no choice but to accept that it would at that time have been churlish to argue against any notion that, following a long period of involvement in the ‘wars of others’ that the public was anything other than ‘war weary’. Nobody wants war of course and it would be ridiculous to believe otherwise.
As history has shown us again and again, while there have been long periods when the world has seemingly been at peace with itself, somewhere or other a war is being fought and often one that we cannot afford to ignore. Leaving the Baltic region aside, Europe has thankfully been at peace with itself now for over seventy years now. Understated and misunderstood as NATO often is by the public, it is this organisation and the actions of the larger force elements including those of Britain that have provided the knowledge and confidence that those who would threaten aggression against any single NATO member state would be more than equally matched. NATO has provided the foundations of peace, reconciliation and stability for the past 67 years and as the largest European contributor, Britain can be proud of the part that it has played in doing that.
Britain entered into campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and more recently back in Iraq and now also in attacking DIASH targets in Syria because our elected Government believed that it was right that we should. No matter what has transpired since in terms of perceived knowledge or evidence of whether our involvement in Iraq was right or wrong the point is that we did so because we genuinely believed it was right that we stood alongside our allies. Just over one hundred years ago we did so in the Great European War not just because we ourselves felt immediately threatened by German invasion but because those that we regarded as our allies and friends such as Belgium and France found themselves in the way of German ambitions. We did so again in 1939 when Poland was invaded and we came to the assistance of close allies such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway who were equally threatened. Would we do so again or, had Mr. Hammond’s words rung true, would we have dared say to the rest of the world including our enemies that we are war weary and that we no longer have the courage of our convictions to support freedom? I think not and certainly hope not despite the constant round of spin that keeps on telling us that we are spending 2% of our GDP on defence when we are clearly not and that ignores the need that we should be spending 3% on the defence and security of the nation and aspiring to send even more.
At the time of Mr. Hammond’s remarks I recall wondering what sort of message does what he said send to Argentina, to Russia, to China and others who would see us as their enemies too? I worried at the time how our NATO allies would read such statements and that maybe they might take the view that what we were really saying was that we were preparing to take ourselves further away from centre stage?
The reality was and is that we are and that we will always be prepared to support what we believe in and that thankfully, we will always be prepared to protect the freedoms of others just as we also will our own hard earned freedoms, culture and requirements of trade.
Thankfully we have moved on but for all the effort and all the talk and hope while we have invested in new defence capability since 2013 we remain short on resilience just as we are also short of defence capacity and capability. SDSR 2015 is a strategy of sorts that SDSR 2010 certainly was not. But it is not enough and whilst coping, our military are stretched. While SDSR 2015 went some way to redress the balance of need and to reverse the dangerous level that defence capability had been designed to shrink to in the political strategy that defined SDSR 2010 we still have many problems and issues to redress.
A new Prime Minster and one that on the face of it appears to better get the message about defence than her immediate two predecessors and a government clear now of some entrenched Cabinet Office and Treasury obstacles to progress and that have for too long been allowed to stand in the way of maintaining increased levels of defence capability is welcome. But that doesn’t mean that we can expect significant change in the defence approach. Brexit is an issue and caution will be the watchword here. Neither is the attitude of this government towards defence industrial policy and relations seemingly any better than the last.
We can I hope believe that the new Government gets the importance and relevance of defence exports and that. Following the example of the French over many years past, Minister will be more proactive. That is not to suggest that the past Minister of State for Defence Procurement, Philip Dunne was anything other than brilliant in the excellent work that he did. We need more government support though and we also need the MOD Defence Export Support Group to be far more proactive in their overall approach.
Another big concern for me is that despite the £500 million rise in annual defence budget in each of the next five years increasing defence capability still requires that £11.5 billion of savings are made to pay for it. Nine years of reducing capability, reducing military and civilian manpower has left all three elements of the military at a very low point. Yes, they can still do all that is asked of them but can they sustain that over a period? I doubt it. Being in a better place than we were is one thing but being able to see through shortages of specialist skills, capability and a requirement to sustain military capacity is another. We may be in a better place than we were a couple of years ago but there is still a very long way to go to achieve the necessary defence and security that a nation that is about to go through a massive political and strategic upheaval needs. We also need to address the too high level of process that governs too many elements throughout defence – a subject that I will be writing on shortly.
At the time of Mr. Hammond’s remarks I said that ‘whether you choose to believe war is inevitable is not the issue but even if there was a basis of truth I do not like to see statements of perceived war weariness. This last point would have been just as true had it been made in 1918 and again in 1945 not to mention after the twenty or so other conflicts that British forces have been involved since the end of the second-world-war. A good government does not prepare for war of course but it does prepare for the threat of war. By maintaining a strong military with excellent all round capability a good government is able to demonstrate strong conventional deterrent capabilities and in doing so sound a message of warning to a potential aggressor. I also questioned what sort of message this sent to members of the military.
Who knows what and where the next conflict that we might be involved in will be? I certainly don’t and it is perfectly true and responsible to say that our ability to analyse potential geo-political events remains as difficult today as it was a hundred years ago. But that does not mean that we cannot be prepared. That does not mean that we should not learn from past mistakes when we found ourselves inadequately equipped when the aggressor arrived at the back door.
There are a great many still alive today that can remember just how ill equipped we had been back in 1939 although I venture to suggest none today would remember how ill equipped our Army and particularly our Navy was to face the same aggressor in 1914. There are many around still that can and do remember the very huge mistake that the then Secretary of State for Defence, Duncan Sandys made back in 1955 when he decided that the future of air power would not be determined by fast jets but by missiles. Might that same mistake be about to be made again by the present incumbent as he pushes a view that the future may be about a greater ability to use unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver some of the capability requirement that we have somewhat cheaper?
CHW (London – 11th October 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS