In the wake of what we are being continually told is a £20 billion black hole in defence and the ongoing battle between the Treasury, Cabinet Office and MOD in respect of agreeing future requirements, ridiculous notions of threats said to have been made by Gavin Williamson that in my experience are far more likely to have emanated from the Downing Street side of Whitehall in order to damage the standing of the current Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, yesterday a much respected former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Lord Houghton of Richmond who stood down from the CDS post in 2016 added his wise and most welcome voice to the debate on what the UK needs in respect of defence.
The gist of the interview with Lord Houghton and of what he said was as follows:
Coinciding with the House of Commons Defence Select Committee Report calling for spending on defence to be raised to 3% of GDP, up from the current 2%, the Lord Houghton said in an interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the defence plan that the Government laid out in 2015 (known as SDSR 2015) was “wholly unaffordable” under current funding, adding that “we have slightly deluded the public of late that we have a defence programme which frankly we insiders know – those that run the select committees are aware – is unaffordable and that we are living a lie”.
Lord Houghton, a former highly respected Army man who was Chief of the Defence Staff between 2013 and 2016 said that spending 3% of GDP on defence was “not just what the armed forces need, it is actually what the country needs” adding that “failure to boost UK defence capabilities would encourage Russia to be more aggressive”. His central view in relation to spending was that the MOD should see a spending uplift at least proportionate to its budget as the recently announced £20 billion cash boost announced by the Government last week for the NHS, an increase that would be spread over the years to 2013. “More funding for health” he said “can win you, date I say, tactical advantage in domestic elections, but they don’t enhance Britain’s influence and power”.
Having started his interview by reminding that “The first duty of Government is protecting the nation” he waded into the present unpleasant political part of the defence debate saying that “it would be a great shame if the future of the defence budget and the armed forces of this country were part of a political game of power and ambition”. This last reference is clearly aimed at the Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson although I fear that with a little more digging around Lord Houghton might have found that the guilty culprits were located on the other side of Whitehall. As I said in my piece on Sunday, I do not believe that Gavin Williamson is responsible for the supposed well-publicised “I made her – I can break her” threats that were purported to have been made in his name – although I accept the possibility that I may be wrong. If I am wrong then as far as I am concerned he has wrecked any case for raising the defence budget and quite frankly he should go!
Back to the “UK is “living a lie” remarks from Lord Houghton and who went on to suggest that the government had to make a tough choice between losing its global standing as a leading defence nation or increasing spending on defence. Lord Houghton remarked that David Cameron’s defence programme in 2015 had been ambitious but did not have the required funding to match it, because it had assumed continued growth and that the army could make efficiencies where it could not and also that GDP would continue to rise making increases in the defence budget possible.
He referred to the SDSR 2015 plan as being without Brexit consideration – no-one then he suggested thought that Britain would opt to leave the European Union. And so, he suggested “We’ve got to make a hard choice therefore. Do we increase the defence budget to make it affordable, or diminish our status as a military power?” Having “deluded the public that we have a defence programme which insiders know is unaffordable we are to some extent living a lie” He said that “We stand at a strategic crossroads and we’ve got to come off the fence one way or another. It might be the UK should cease to be a world military power.”
In what was Lord General Houghton’s first intervention in the defence debate since he was freed of MOD shackles he emphasised the point that the SDSR 2015 process that was designed to rectify failing of the SDSR2010 process in order to rebuild the armed forces and that he had overseen as CDS and put together from a military requirement perspective had never really been fully funded. Instead he suggested, the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review process had been based on “herculean” assumptions about economic growth and “alchemic ideas” to find efficiencies.
So what do I think about all this?
Firstly I very much welcome the intervention of an all but current senior military officer into the debate. Having failed to hear relevant intervention in this crucial debate from any of the former Royal Navy, Army or Royal Air Force chiefs who served after 2007 (with the exception of former CDS and before that, Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Stirrup and occasionally, Lord Dannatt in House of Lords defence debates, Barron Richards of Herstmonceux) I am absolutely delighted that someone who was until 2016 Britain’s the most senior military officer is speaking his mind and without any political bias.
Before going any further and having said what I have above, I should add that we should all be very grateful for the many interventions in the defence debate that have occurred over the years from Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon (Chief of the Air Staff 1992-97) and also, the Lord West of Spithead (First Sea Lord 2002 to 2006 and later a Minister in the Labour Government). Former Secretaries of State for Defence such as Lord George Robertson who was later Secretary General of NATO and who, along with others such as Lord Reid of Cardowan together with those who have never held ministerial office such as Lord Bilimoria have been instrumental in keeping defence high on the priority list of government.
As I said on Sunday, I dislike defence numbers being played in relation to GDP. We need to spend on defence what not only our government and military believe but also what the public is prepared to support. How many time in the sequence of 323 defence papers so far have you seen me say that unless we sell defence to the public we cannot expect their support? Yes, the public is always there when it is needed but as the Lord Houghton has said, we have been selling them a lie in respect of affordability and whether the announced plan was properly and fully funded.
It is clear to me that the Defence Budget needs to be increased by the £4bn a year that I believe is the figure that Gavin Williamson is requesting. If that is so then I would like to hear and see this being detailed in the forthcoming Modernising Defence Programmes Review process, the headlines of which are, if the Cabinet Office finally approves an MOD plan, due to be announced during the NATO summit in Brussels in two-weeks.
There is of course another way that all sides in this rather too public defence funding debate can get round the problem – remove the Trident replacement programme off the MOD budget back to the Treasury where it properly belongs. Note that back in December 2017 the National Security Adviser, Mark Sedwill suggested that the government was considering shifting the cost of the Trident nuclear deterrent away from the overall MOD defence budget. Back in 2010 when he was Secretary of State for Defence, Dr. Liam Fox fought with the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne to do the same. He lost then but perhaps the best course for Gavin Williamson might be to try again!
Summing up, thank you Lord Houghton for speaking your mind and telling it how it is. That your hands were tied and that you had no choice but to obey your political masters and go along with the fudge that was SDSR 2015 is fully understood. Perhaps your successors in the role of CDS might be braver if they don’t get, not what they want, but what the country clearly needs. And if nothing else, I am in little doubt that to pay for increased defence capability in these very worrying times when the threats against us have risen exponentially, that taxpayers would be more than prepared to pay more, be that because of Russia, or gaps in land, air and maritime capability that we urgently need to fill such as ISTAR, rebuilding run down weapons stocks, beefing up electronic warfare requirements, increasing the number of surface ships and training people to man them, protecting networks, beefing up CBRN capability, improving communication cyber and space, investing in new technology and R&D or longer term requirement in the form of warfare technology ambitions such as autonomy, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), Big Defence and so on – in other words, funding what defence needs.
CHW (London – 26th June 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785