UK Defence – the need for credible deterrence

1 April 2014. The latest report from the House of Commons Defence Select Committee (HCDC) ‘Deterrence in the 21st Century’ supports those expressing the view that once Britain’s forces are cut back, they will be difficult to rebuild. James Arbuthnot, who will shortly stand down as the chair of the Defence Select Committee, is right to emphasise that “deterrence must be credible to be effective” and also to say that that “Britain has to show [both] the capacity and will to respond proportionately and effectively to threats of every level”.

HCDC isn’t alone in expressing concern that cuts in UK defence have gone too far. Various senior military chiefs have expressed genuine concern recently including the outgoing NATO Deputy Supreme Commander, General Sir Richard Shirreff. Unsurprisingly, Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond dismissed the latest claims about defence cuts as “nonsense”.

Adding weight to the ‘Hollow Force’ argument that was initially expressed by the Chief of the Defence Staff General, Sir Nicholas Houghton during a speech to RUSI back in December 2013, General Shirreff added that Russia’s annexation of the Crimea had changed Europe’s defence paradigm; requiring a reorganisation of Britain’s defence priorities. Few engaged in the military or who are active commentators on defence would disagree with the latter statement. Defence is currently well down the list of priorities and never in my long career have I known the position to be as bad.

Those who have recently spoken out against the cuts should be heeded. They have issued a credible warning to the Coalition Government; correctly characterising  the aggressive range of ill thought out defence cuts as a threat to our national security. What makes this situation potentially cataclysmic is that there is still worse to come; despite overstretched resources, huge holes exist in Britain’s defence strategy. It is increasingly hard to know where to start in addressing these flaws.

With initial planning work of SDSR 2015 already well under way – and my earlier call for the review process to be pushed back by one year to 2016 ignored – one is left to conclude that rather than constructing a long term defence strategy, the military is being asked to base future capability delivery on short term tactical policy (within the constraints of perceived affordability). I doubt this policy will change until the enemy is at the gate.

Increasingly UK defence strategy is failing to win the hearts and minds of the wider defence community – those to whom the MOD is accountable, the wider defence industry and of course the taxpayer – note that another £200m was shaved off defence in the budget. Over the past two years I would comfortably estimate that the budget underspend (reclaimed by the Treasury) to be in excess of £4bn. Meanwhile promised capability has not been delivered.

Today the message of deterrence is all about capability as opposed to ‘boots on the ground’. Such thoughts are not just reserved for the Army; the same is also true for the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. Multirole fast jet capability might look the part but in terms of how this can act as a form of deterrent capability it is what the aircraft can carry in respect of precision weapons and the number of aircraft available to deliver this payload that is of significance. Fast jet capability is nothing without the ISTAR assets, refuelling capability and engineeres necessary to support it.

A similar analysis should be conducted of the RN. Given the domestic, international and NATO tasks that the Royal Navy has, I believe that nineteen capital ships is too small a fleet for a nation reliant on international trade.

Conversely as I look at the Army I still see far too much waste. Top heavy regimental headquarters, not to mention too many regiments, are still taking up an enormous amount of money and manpower. Whilst I accept that this all adds to the moral component of the Army, the point is that it adds very little operationally. I am not actually sure what percentage of the army’s existing 82,00 roster are currently available for operations but I do know is that it is a small fraction of the total employed.

With SDSR 2015 looming ever closer, and while we still await a comprehensive National Security Strategy, I am afraid that further significant defence cuts should be anticipated.

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


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