Future UK defence needs a wider debate

28 Apr – With little more than a year to go before the next general election it seems as if defence policy might actually play a part in the outcome if the Shadow Defence Secretary, Vernon Coaker, gets his way. For decades there have been ‘no votes in defence’; traditionally the electorate has shown little interest and defence issues have generally received cross party support in the House of Commons. However recent debates around intervention and the partisan nature of cuts to defence capability and personnel may change this historical trend.

Occasionally (e.g the government’s recent defeat in the House over Syrian intervention) the Government does not win the political argument on defence matters. The Financial Times today reported that Labour is attempting to lift the ‘shroud of secrecy’ which ministers have placed over the next strategic defence review. Mr Coaker has demanded publication of the sixty questions which he believes are being asked by officials on the future threats to Britain. These questions will in theory determine the basis of the next National Security Review (NSR) next year and that of SDSR 2015.

Vernon Coaker who is the MP for Geddling, Nottinghamshire and who replaced Jim Murphy as shadow defence secretary in October last year has also called for an open and inclusive debate on Britain’s future role in the world. This seems a logical call to arms; the best way to learn the lessons from SDSR 2010 is to open the debate to a wider audience. I fear that as usual the idea will fall on deaf ears and, with the Government readying itself to rush out various announcements before the doors are shut ahead of the election, doubtless the strict MOD policy which prevents external discussion and debate will persist.

Those charged with responsibility for national defence – the fifth floor occupants of MOD Main Building, members of the Cabinet Office, Treasury officials, senior members of the armed services, and a select group of academic defence specialists – are already discussing relevant issues that will emerge within SDSR 2015. We should all hope that there efforts provide a more credible result than those of their counterparts a few years ago.

In November 2010 when the last SDSR was published, and when Future Force 2020 emerged in all its glory as the landscape for future defence, it did not take long to see that strategy had been replaced by affordability. Commentators like myself had hoped for a well-defined strategy (based on a realistic appraisal of geopolitical threats and Foreign Office policy guidelines) demarcating Britain’s future role in the world. Needless to say we were all disappointed by the money-pinching ‘strategy’ which was served up by the denizens of Whitehall.

In the aftermath of SDSR 2010 we have witnessed the wholesale destruction of the UK’s armed forces; by the time the existing policy decisions have been fully executed, SDSR 2010 will have delivered reductions of between one quarter and one third of military personnel. Meanwhile a streamlined equipment programme, heralded for delivering some serious capability gains for the Royal Navy and for the Royal Air Force, has ultimately delivered a one third reduction in capability across the entire spectrum of operations.

As yet I have seen little evidence that appropriate lessons have been drawn from this unmitigated folly, with the possible exception that some on Whitehall now admit that the decision to gap Maritime Air Patrol capability in SDSR 2010 was a mistake. With the chiefs of all three armed forces placed in the invidious situation of managing serious capacity shortfall, it is hardly surprising that morale remains extremely low. However with more cuts expected in SDSR 2015 I am concerned that worse is to come for the brave men and women who protect us.

A long-standing concern is that discussions relating to the SDSR 2015 process are confined to small number of individuals who are intentionally isolated from the rest of the defence community. To that end Vernon Coaker is absolutely right to suggest a more open dialogue.

The world remains troubled, in many ways Russian fears of further NATO expansion have turned back the clock in terms of its relations with the west. While America remains content to support its NATO allies in Europe its eyes in terms of defence strategy are firmly focused upon the Far East Asia and Asia Pacific regions. NATO is moving into a new era of responsibility that demands more from its European contingent.

Future UK defence policy and strategy must be shaped on decisions relating to a wider Foreign Office policy ….. ‘which is what?‘ I hear you all ask! Touché. The tired rhetoric we hear from successive governments (we want Britain to be strong in the world, to bat above its weight and keep its – mythical -seat at the high table of geopolitics) can no longer masquerade as policy, it has done so for too long already. This country needs a serious national debate on defence in order to determine some form of national consensus from which future strategy can be devised.

Consequently we face a decisive stage in UK defence policy. In the latest publication from the House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) published this morning (Intervention: Why, When, How?) the Committee concludes very similar themes to my own; suggesting that “intervention policy decisions have the potential to be controversial and to polarise opinion”. The aim of the report is to assist articulation of rationale for an interventionist strategy within the next National Security Strategy document together with the next SDSR. The paper recommends that the government must articulate a realistic vision of the UK’s place in the world, its level of strategic influence and the identification/prioritisation of threats. SDSR 15 should translate and articulate this vision into realistic planning assumptions and the development of an appropriate force structure – failing to achieve this would merely relegate it to the growing scrapheap of missed strategic opportunities which our military planners seem so adept at growing.

One additional and equally controversial aspect that needs to be thrown into this debate is the manner in which the Government has a duty to support UK industry. The manner in which industry was treated in SDSR 2010 was the worst that I have ever seen in forty years of professional involvement in defence. Industry was not engaged with until close to the end of the SDSR 2010 process and even then its opinion was not sought. This despite the fact that British defence exports have averaged somewhere between £6bn and £7bn per annum over the past decade.

The UK defence industry has an annual turnover of £35bn and indirectly sustains 55,000 UK jobs in addition to the 300,000 people directly employed by the industry overall. Defence accounts for 10% of UK manufacturing and while this is smaller than the 14% attributed to the automotive sector it is far higher in terms of real economic value added to the UK economy. Surely it is time government worked with this asset.

There are signs that this lesson is being learned. The Defence Growth Partnership, which was established last year, is slowly but surely working up to its designed strategy and you will hear more from me on this separately. But I remain far from convinced that the present Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt. Hon Philip Hammond, is on the same wavelength and that he understands the importance of doing whatever he can to support the UK defence industry and the ability to export. The veiled criticism of industry by government must end and R&D investment must increase but most importantly a strategic handrail which determines policy objectives must be put in place – for without it we will be lost.

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS, Analysts and Defence Commentator.
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd
Email: hwheeldon@wheeldonstrategic.com
Tel: 07710 779785


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