With the Chancellor of the Exchequer due to make his Spring Statement in the House of Commons later today, one that is not expected to contain any formal additional financial support for defence or indeed, for the NHS either, I thought that, as I know and respect him well, I would repeat relevant parts of the interview that Rear Admiral Alex Burton who had left the Royal Navy last year following a decision to voice serious concerns in relation to capability cuts being discussed and that might well have signalled the end for the Royal Navy’s two amphibious assault ships, HMS Albion and Bulwark.
Rear Admiral Alex Burton told the BBC in his interview that years of budget cuts and rising military threats meant the defence budget needed to be increased urgently. He believed that the ability to “fight and win on the front line” was being affected and that if fresh spending wasn’t announced, Britain would be morally poorer on the world stage.
Rear Admiral Burton said that “If you do not spend more on defence than we currently are as a percentage of GDP, then we put at risk the fact that we are currently a credible military power, and from that we put at risk our position on the global stage” and that military threats were increasing from countries like Russia, from cyber warfare and from terrorist organisations.
A former NATO commander charged with responsibility for “high readiness” of Royal Naval forces, he argued in the interview that with Britain preparing to leave the European Union it was “vital that defence spending was raised to at least 2.5% of GDP to support global trade”, a figure that would require an additional £7.7 billion to be spent on defence according to the BBC.
Rear Admiral Burton emphasised that what worried him when he was working in Headquarters was that “some of the decisions we were making and [would potentially make] over the next 12 months will affect the ability to fight and win on the front line.” In doing so he was presumably referring then to the additional Cabinet Office work which was reviewing national security and defence capabilities and which subsequently, following the decision to pull defence into a separate category and move forward through a process that is now under the heading of ‘Modernising Defence Programme’ (MDP) and which is looking at possible defence budget shortfalls over the next decade of £20bn.
He said that “the challenge is ensuring that we’re still able to do that [fight and win] not just over the next 12 to 18 months, but [also] that we’re able to do that over the next 10 to 20 years.”
Rear Admiral Burton’s remarks come two weeks after similarly important remarks concerning the need to increase the defence budget were made by General Sir Gordon Messenger, the current Vice Chief of the Defence Staff and which I wrote a separate piece last week. His interview remarks had followed a similarly well expressed speech delivered to RUSI last month when the Current Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, had expressed similar doubts over capability and direction.
Rightly, Rear Admiral Burton said that he understood the needs of the NHS and the police and that [defence spending] had to be balanced [in the context of other needs] by the government. Point to the lessons learned from the financial crisis he said that the Ministry of Defence had to become more efficient and shown that it could spend money wisely and had [already] done and that he understood the need for the military to show that it could spend money sensibly and that it was now, in his view “much more efficient than it had been in the past”.
He rightly said that “military threats had to be taken seriously and that those threats are threats to our investments that we’ve got abroad”. He said that “It would be easy for people to look at retired military people, of which I am one, and be critical, seeing us [perhaps] as defenders of totemic capabilities which have their lineage going back to the Second World War”.
“Whether” he said “that’s the Royal Marines, our amphibious capability, aircraft, tanks or regiments” but “I believe that if we are to retain an edge for the military that we need, we need the sword upon which that edge can be had and that includes some of those capabilities that we’ve used since the Viking era and will continue to use many years ahead.”
Without stronger military capabilities, he said “Britain would be less able to stand toe-to-toe alongside our trading allies” and that “Without them [the military] we will be unable to deter, we’ll be unable to reassure and deliver retribution” adding that “as a sovereign nation – an increasingly sovereign nation – I think that’s critically important and that “Our insurance policy “will be compromised and our ability to stand up for our beliefs and protect our interests will be weakened and I think that that will make the UK of the late 2010s and early 2020s poorer, both morally and financially.”
I will not add to this other than to say that it is pleasing to hear that another former senior member of the UK armed forces and this time, someone who has only recently left the Royal Navy as opposed to those whose period of command ended rather a long time ago, speaking out. Thank you Sir for expressing so well what so many of us also believe.
(*My apologies for the Microsoft Outlook related technical problems that I suffered yesterday and the further complications caused through my needing to use my back up private email to send ‘commentary’ out. Anyone who did not receive the piece on GKN yesterday and would like to see it is requested to email me and I will send it. May I also remind all members of the military to let me know when they change over to MODNET addresses.)
CHW (London – 13th March 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785