The folly of UK Defence policy

04 Feb 2014. In the latest of what appears to be the opening of a wider debate on UK defence, Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond is reported to have said that Britain will need to promise quick conflicts in the future with stringent constraints if ministers are to receive the full backing of a ‘war weary’ public. Hammond’s remarks are a direct follow-on from those he made back in November to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee when he said that:

“The 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”.

On that occasion Mr. Hammond 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 accepted that unexpected events can and do act to very quickly transform public opinion. In the most recent addition to this particular debate, as reported in the Daily Telegraph, Mr. Hammond said that;

There was a ‘climate of scepticism’ around interventions in dysfunctional countries after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the public no longer convinced the threat of terrorism bred by such states justifies intervention”.

It is true that following the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan there has indeed been a greater degree of public concern expressed that military intervention has not necessarily achieved desirable results. But to suggest that terrorism bred in such states does not merit consideration of intervention is tantamount to suggesting that we should close our eyes and walk away from acts of terrorism on foreign shores. Of course the public hates war, thus was always the case and there can, as we know to our considerable cost over the centuries, be no guarantee that we always get conflict right. We all want conflict resolution when it is available but we do have a duty of care – as a member of the Security Council of the United Nation and of NATO – to take a formative lead in how we react to acts of terrorism and aggression.

In an ideal world we would not of course need to fight in someone else’s war but we do have to secure the freedoms that we enjoy. In part we do this to secure what we believe in and to prevent conflict conflagration. Should we really turn a blind eye to the acts of piracy in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere? No we should not. Should we turn a blind eye when a large nation attempts to inflict its will on a smaller one? No we should not. We may believe that conflict avoidance and conflict resolution is best practice but that does not mean that we should fail to ensure that we have an adequate defence capability to assist a friendly nation or an ally in need. What is NATO for if not to ensure that we serve with our allies to protect ourselves and each other against the various threats that we might face. Was the ‘cold war’ really that long ago that we have forgotten the threat of fear?

Whilst I can understand in part the message in what the Secretary of State is saying, I do not believe that we live in a world that is safe enough for us to say this. Some things are best not said. It is true that there is a degree of public ‘war weariness’ but that does not mean we should send a message to potential aggressors that we wish to have no part in another war. Yes, we have made past conflict mistakes but I doubt that any have been consciously made. We have made many mistakes in the past in regard of maintaining adequate defence capability too – think merely of the 1930’s and again in the 1950’s when a hapless Minister of Defence thought that the future of air power required ballistic missiles as opposed to military aircraft. But the real point is that in the world that we ourselves have attempted to create and in which globalisation has become pre-eminent we cannot turn a blind eye to those that are merely seeking to copy some of the freedoms that we ourselves enjoy. Of course we are limited in what we can do. We are no longer a global power but because of our vast international trading requirements and because we believe in freedom we do have a duty to offer support where we can. As to affordability, of course this is an issue that we must recognise too but we must take great care to ensure that we do not use minority public perception as a reason and excuse to further cut defence.

Whilst I accept to a degree that Britain has yet to decide where it is and what it is that it wants to be in the world, I do believe that we cannot in future carry the burdens of European NATO defence capability on our shoulders alone. The real point for us I suspect is that while we are content to help play our part where required in international policing and disaster relief, we no longer seek to be involved in what might be perceived as potential long term conflicts. The French are playing their part in NATO too and so are the brilliant Danes. But where is Germany, where is the most powerful of all European nations and economies when it comes to sharing the NATO burden of responsibility? NATO, despite its various fault lines, has and continues to serve us well. We should never forget that along with the European Union, NATO has helped to provide peace and stability in Europe for the past seventy years. It was NATO that stood up to the Warsaw Pact alliance until it was formally disbanded in 1989. Europe is at peace but look east and you find it is hardly stable. To our American allies, who have provided the main plank of alliance support in Europe, we are eternally grateful. But at the same time we must recognise that Europe needs to do far more than it currently is doing to take on the mantle of defending itself and others. Today the message is conflict avoidance but who knows what the message will need to be five, ten or twenty years time? There are, and can be, no guarantees to peace but; a robust defence policy offers insurance. We must also recognise that whilst America will continue to fully support its European allies no-matter-what, it no longer seeks to maintain the principle burden of NATO responsibility in Europe.

Afghanistan and the ‘Arab Spring’ have changed our thinking in terms of future defence. We have learned many things in the process to the point that we stopped short of supporting those in Syria seeking broader help to establish some kind of freedom against tyranny. I supported the Cameron stance on Syria but in the end the House of Commons decided it was not to be. America followed suit and today we see a conflict that has little chance of resolution and yet far more chance of turning into something much greater than a civil war. We supported the ideals of those in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere but there were those here that were naïve to believe that the ‘Arab Spring would lead to democracy. Democracy is not a given and neither is it a right, nor can it be established in the blink of an eye . Our long history and that of many nations in Europe tell us that even if democracy can be proven to be the best solution it can and most often does take generations to establish.


Separately I note that the Royal United Services Institute has apparently claimed that Britain could end round-the-clock Trident submarine patrols and still maintain a credible nuclear deterrent. RUSI believes that the UK does not need to have at least one nuclear missile submarine always at sea to be sure of deterring attack. This is an opinion that will no doubt compound the growing divide on Trident replacement. Certainly it is an opinion that is at odds with Conservative policy. My own view is that scaling back on the nuclear deterrent capability in any form would be the wrong policy to pursue, although I accept that it should at the very least be debated. Labour and Conservative have so far been of one mind on Trident replacement. The Government has rightly authorised required design and development of Trident replacement submarines and a final decision on Vanguard nuclear submarine replacement will be made in 2016.

I have meanwhile long opposed the notion that Trident replacement cost should come from the MOD budget. Defence is one thing – pure deterrence is quite another. Those who might also believe that Trident’s collapse would lead to greater levels of defence spending for conventional forces should be in for a nasty shock as I doubt a penny saved on our nuclear deterrent capability would find its way into conventional defence capability. Wither too the notion of Britain remaining a member of the Security Council and with it many of our presupposed foreign policy ideals. More defence cuts will be the order of the day in SDSR 15 (as I said last week I suspect that this will in the event become SDSR 16) and I suspect that not until the enemy is again at the gate will we realise the error of our ways.

Defence capability and strength has been severely damaged but the end game is that the newer capability that we have bought is more suited to contemporary threats. One only has to look at the amount of new equipment going into service with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force to see that Britain does have excellent and very modern defence capability – the trouble is that to conduct the domestic defence requirement, to protect our dependent territories and to do a huge international job within NATO more kit is needed as our critical mass is currently too low. Thus it is right to say that, just as HCDC, former US Secretary of State Gates plus our own CDS who talked of the dangers of a ‘Hollow Force’, we do lack scale in both manpower and equipment defence capability.


In yet another interesting move reported in the Financial Times this week, I note that the Secretary of State for Defence has said that increased levels of military projects and procurement will fall into the new Joint Forces Command (JFC). Whether or not this contradicts the SDSR 2010 plan (that the service chiefs would have total budget responsibility) or not I am unclear. The JFC was set up by the Ministry of Defence in April 2012 as part of military reforms. It was undoubtedly an excellent plan and has already proved successful in terms of capability delivery.


Catching up on events last week I note that I was unable to make comment on the meeting between French President Hollande and David Cameron regarding Remotely Powered Air Systems. Progress and cooperation here makes absolute sense and companies such as BAE Systems, Thales, Rolls-Royce and Dassault should all be beneficiaries of such a policy. I believe also that a memorandum of understanding was signed to develop an anti-ship missile for attack helicopters which would involve MBDA, EADS and Finmeccanica.

By Howard Wheeldon,
FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
Tel: +44 7710 779785

Comments are closed.