Pragmatism as a word is defined to mean an approach that evaluates theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application. More simply, although strangely somewhat at odds with the above description, might also define the word to mean dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a manner that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.
Is pragmatism what we have now achieved in UK defence? Are we in danger of being accused of ignoring the dangers of realism that our military is now limited in what it can potentially achieve and also in ignoring public opinion on defence? In little over a year from now whichever Government is in power in Whitehall will attempt to decide what defence equipment and manpower capability it believes will be required to ensure that the UK has sufficient levels of capability to meet its domestic and international requirements and NATO commitments. It may possibly do so prior to having decided what it wants Britain to be in the world but not I hope before understanding our security needs and those of our dependent territories abroad.
While our overall level of capability remains strong, actual defence capacity in the UK has rarely been lower than it is today. I believe that SDSR 2015 will address some of the equipment and manpower capacity limitations brought about as a result of SDSR 2010 and maybe undo some of the missing capability issues as well. But what SDSR 2015 cannot do is to address all aspects of concern that we may have in defence. I refer to how the public sees defence.
Public awareness and acceptance of the need for defence has become an essential problem and sadly one that is getting worse rather than better. Notwithstanding what might occur at the NATO summit or indeed, within SDSR 2015 whenever that appears, I would be remiss if I was to ignore the fact that a growing element of the public no longer believes that we should be spending as much as we have done on defence.
Last weekend, as an example, at a private function I found myself on two separate occasions during the evening discussing defence related matters in a relaxed environment with two individuals that I had never met before and that did not know me prior to this or of what I engage in professionally. To say that I was surprised, shocked and disappointed with what I was to hear would be an understatement. Like myself the two individuals in question would be considered to be in later middle-age and in this case, both are now retired having enjoyed successful careers in the legal profession. Individually they took the view that we should no longer be required to hold levels of defence capability that we currently possess. It appears that neither held any particular respect for NATO nor did they believe that Britain should have any responsibility for the defence of our European allies. To finish the story, both implied a view that the notion of Britain operating and maintaining one aircraft carrier was unnecessary and that the potential cost of running two was unacceptable.
Further analysis within those conversations showed what I can only describe as a total lack of understanding of what deterrence and deterrent capability provides for all of us in the UK. Neither man believed that maintaining large capital ships and significant air power capability provided any form of benefit to the UK or that our standing in the world and trade was assisted as a result. Both felt that we should no longer push above our weight. Last but by no means least, neither considered that Britain faced any particular level of threat or that, provided that we stayed out of the affairs of others, we would do in the future. Of course, I beg to differ on all these various points.
While such views may easily be described as naïve, the point here is that if these are the views now being held by intelligent individuals of an age well enough able to remember the long ‘cold-war’ period we have to be concerned that we are not getting the message out. I have said many times before that we only have ourselves to blame in allowing defence to fall so far down the political agenda. We have failed to sell the concept of defence to the public and when rather than see Government leading from the front we see it sometimes forced onto the back foot attempting to meet with public opinion, it is not hard to see why we have failed.
Of course affordability must out of necessity have a place in whatever concept of defence capability and requirement we decide, but first and foremost defence should always be decided on the basis of national security need and potential threat. Defence capability can and does have a very important place in helping us to decide what and where it is that we want Britain to be in a future world but first and foremost it is how this acts as a deterrent to potential adversaries that matters most.
We must somehow get our act better together and do more to get the importance of the defence message across to a wide audience. Somehow we must find a better way of arguing or debating why we must maintain sufficient levels of defence capability so that we are always able to meet our NATO commitment and assist our allies when and if they are threatened. We must also find ways of better informing the running public debate as to why we have played out our role in Afghanistan along with our allies and why it is that we have in my view rightly decided to play out a role part assisting new NATO allies in the Baltic States to bolster and support their own defences.
I know that I am preaching to the converted when I say that facing any form of threat isn’t a game – it is real. We do face constant threats in the UK and without strong military forces and levels of deterrent capability we should be aware that those that would willingly seek to threaten us if they could, would sense our weakness.
Whether we like it or not public opinion is in this day and age important and not something that can be ignored. I suppose that when you have always had freedom it is difficult to imagine what the opposite is like. No one of course seeks to engage in war but there are ample past lessons to remind us that we must always be fully prepared to meet with the potential of war from an adversary. As a member of the UN Security Council and NATO and as the sixth largest economy in the world, and one that is dependent on trade, we need and must always maintain strong defence capability. At a time when we are readying ourselves to remember the anniversary of the ‘Great War’ and the huge role that we played in the attempt to maintain the freedom and sovereignty of others, we should reflect on how fortunate we are today and the part that maintaining strong defence capability plays in that.
If we believe in defence then it really is up to each and every one of us, no matter in what profession or calling we are engaged, to work much harder than we have to better sell the message of why to the public.
CHW (London 30th July 2014)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785