The still worsening situation in Iraq and Syria combined with US Secretary of State, John Kerry’s announcement overnight that a coalition of no fewer than 40 countries including several Arab states have agreed to support the US plan for air strikes providing bases, training or taking part in direct air attack against Isil compounds is a hugely positive step in a conflict that western nations could never afford to ignore. The Obama plan to use air power as opposed to sending in troops on the ground makes sense and that it has now received the support from so many Arab states demonstrates its credibility. It is also timely reminder, if it were needed, of why Prime Minister, David Cameron worked hard at the NATO Summit to push forward the need for all member states to commit to spending at least 2% of their GDP on defence. That of course includes Britain itself.
I will briefly return to the Obama plan toward the end of this piece but first I think it worth repeating what the 28 members of NATO committed to work toward in respect of future defence spending earlier this month. Item 14 of the NATO Wales Summit Declaration accord states:
“We agree to reverse the trend of declining defence budgets, to make the most effective use of our funds and to further a more balanced sharing of costs and responsibilities. Our overall security and defence depend both on how much we spend and how we spend it. Increased investments should be directed towards meeting our capability priorities, and Allies also need to display the political will to provide required capabilities and deploy forces when they are needed. A strong defence industry across the Alliance, including a stronger defence industry in Europe and greater defence industrial cooperation within Europe and across the Atlantic, remains essential for delivering the required capabilities. NATO and EU efforts to strengthen defence capabilities are complementary. Taking current commitments into account, we are guided by the following considerations:
Allies currently meeting the NATO guideline to spend a minimum of 2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence will aim to continue to do so. Likewise, Allies spending more than 20% of their defence budgets on major equipment, including related Research & Development, will continue to do so. Allies who currently spend less than 20% of their annual defence spending on major new equipment, including related Research & Development, will aim, within a decade, to increase their annual investments to 20% or more of total defence expenditures. All Allies will ensure that their land, air and maritime forces meet NATO agreed guidelines for deployability and sustainability and other agreed output metrics and ensure that their armed forces can operate together effectively, including through the implementation of agreed NATO standards and doctrines. Allies whose current proportion of GDP spent on defence is below this level will halt any decline in defence expenditure; aim to increase defence expenditure in real terms as GDP grows; aim to move towards the 2% guideline within a decade with a view to meeting their NATO Capability Targets and filling NATO’s capability shortfalls”.
It would of course be easy to gloss over the importance of what was agreed in Wales but that so many important countries such as Germany and Canada have been persuaded of the merits of spending more as opposed to less on defence should not be lost. Britain is of course amongst them and while it is also one of the five NATO members that already claims to be already spending 2% or more on defence there can be no fudging of actuality in what this commitment means by anyone. True, the UK is one of a small handful of NATO members to have a nuclear capability and that in terms of cost is included as part of the annual defence budget spend. Long may this continue, and I am a full supporter of Trident replacement. But in budget spend terms, taking spending on Trident and particularly its planned replacement out of the ten year budget plan would show that the amount that we spend on conventional forces falls well short of 2% of GDP. We should not attempt to hide from this, nor should we hide from the fact that in SDSR 2010 we cut back on our defence forces far too far.
While Britain has been absolutely right to attempt to make what it spends on defence more accountable, transparent and indeed, affordable I am far from being alone believing that we need to urgently reverse the culture and attitude toward the amount that we spend on defence, and also the manner in which we have allowed defence to be pushed far too far down the agenda.
Such views are heightened when we see how from virtually nowhere and maybe because the House of Commons and US Congress chose to ignore the visible threat that was emerging in Syria what is going on in Northern Iraq and Syria today. We must also accept that even when Isil is defeated there will potentially be other as yet unknown enemies to emerge, and that could propose unimaginable demands and consequences on our weakened armed forces. We may not be alone in terms of how we have allowed our own guard to be reduced over the past twenty years, and particularly in more recent times, but at least I can be pleased at how the NATO accord on the defence spend commitment has been received by all member states.
But the view that we in the UK might already be spending 2% of our GDP on defence should not allow us to kid ourselves into believing that we are perfect in this respect because quite frankly we are not. SDSR 2015 is only a year away and when it comes I may hope that this time the mistakes and unfinished business of SDSR 2010 are fully reversed. I may hope that Security policy related to what we need to spend on defence will not only be better related to foreign policy, threats to the UK and overall security need, but also to the importance that Royal Air Force and Royal Navy conventional equipment plays in the role of natural deterrence. In short, I would like to hope and believe that much of what Sir Peter Ricketts, the former UK National Security Advisor, incorporated into SDSR 2010 is now rethought and unwound. I would like to believe that SDSR 2015 is produced on the basis of ensuring we have the correct level of armed forces capability to meet the domestic and international requirements that we are committed to. Moreover, if our armed forces are be deployed that they can achieve this in more than one conflict if required. I would like to hope that our armed forces can once again be motivated and incentivised to believe that not only are the nation proud of what they do but that the state recognises that they and their families need better looking after too. The bottom line is that we must not kid ourselves that we are in a position of virtue in terms of how much and of what level of our GDP we spend on defence because quite simply it is not enough. We must also in my view not only seriously rethink our whole attitude and approach to what we need to spend on our conventional force structure with a view to increasing it but we must find ways to better sell the concept and need of defence to the public.
Of course I fully recognise the need to have a balanced defence budget and I applaud the work of the MOD to achieve this. I hope and believe that the planned £160 billion of spending on defence equipment over the current ten year period (2012 -2022) can and will be met. To remind, the current programme as outlined in the 2012 White Paper includes a plan to spend £18.5bn on military aircraft including Typhoon and F-35 JSF combat jets and remotely powered air vehicles, £17.4bn on surface ships for the Royal Navy including completion of Type 45 Destroyer programme and the start-up of the important Type 26 Global Combat ship and for two new aircraft carriers, one of which is now nearing completion whilst the other is still very actively under construction, plus £35.8 billion for both conventional submarine and Trident nuclear submarine replacement. £12.3bn was reserved to be spend on armoured fighting vehicles such as Scout and the Warrior upgrade programme, £11.4bn on short and long range missiles, torpedoes and bombs, £13.9bn on Voyager air-to-air tanking and A400M heavy lift capability. This sounds like a lot of money and equipment which it is, but two years on and with military capacity strained, the message is that it is probably not enough.
Having myself attended a Battle of Britain dinner at RAF Valley over the weekend I was once again reminded of the dangers of a nation that is unprepared. There are in my view now far too many gaps in military service capability, and while I commend the increased ‘jointery’ that is now very evident across the UK military component structure, and also the far greater level of interoperability that is achievable with our NATO allies, I am bound to be concerned when I am reminded that today the Royal Air Force has only seven combat capable front line fighter squadrons, and the Royal Navy just nineteen surface ship combatants. There are other issues too – a shortage of trained pilot capability and shortage of qualified trainers. Why? The reason is not just because we have not funded the approach to our current and future requirements it is partly because we have sometimes failed to motivate and incentivise sufficient of those that are involved to stay.
The problem and attitude to defence spending is not confined to the UK it is a European problem too. Similarly some of our fellow European NATO members must be persuaded to take a greater burden of responsibility. France does its bit as does Denmark, the Netherlands and even Belgium. I am pleased now to see the beginnings of a change of attitude and approach by Germany. All of us in Europe must recognize and understand that while America continues to stand firmly by its European allies, as much as it has ever done, it is no longer prepared to accept responsibility for spending 75% of the combined NATO budget when the combined GDP of the 26 NATO European members is greater than that of the USA.
Finally, back to the Obama plan to defeat Isil. Having endorsed the new Iraq government plan to mend relations between Sunnis and Kurds, it is right in my view that US Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the plan for increased air power intervention against Isil needs to be fully supported by new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi’s government before it can commence. Having scrutinised the plan the hope is that this will be quickly forthcoming.
The counter offensive against the brutal extremist Isil organisation will require not only strong resolve by all western governments, it will also require unity amongst all of them just as it will with Arab partners who will be involved. Defeat of Isil could never be achieved without air power and neither must we ignore that the success of air attack is crucially dependent on the excellence of intelligence and reconnaissance ability. That is where the Royal Air Force is already and will continue to play a very important role in this complex and very difficult conflict. This is a message that reminds also that air power is not just about attack it is about having the ability to know where the enemy is and exactly where to attack. It is about having logistical strength. It is about knowing that your equipment and force elements can be sufficiently protected when on the ground. Most of all it is about having the knowledge that in this type of conflict in difficult mountainous, well spread out and often desert based conditions control of the air is of paramount importance.
To degrade and defeat 50,000 or more Isil fighters spread across large sections of Iraq and Syria will require unity of purpose by all the various nations involved. Military involvement using the weapon that air power provides is certainly the right way to proceed in this conflict and at this time. Whether the Government decides that the UK engages in air strike support is for those that decide security policy rather than me. Whatever, they will have my full support. Whatever, Isil must also be starved of funds just as it must also be starved of the ability to acquire weapons and other material support. Appalling as the savage killings of western hostages by Isil has been and how this has been portrayed by them, this should not deter the resolve of those western nations that have for the right reasons committed not to pay ransom demands.
CHW (London 15th September 2014)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785