UK Defence (8) – Gaining Renewed Public Support for Defence Requires Effort and Engagement

The decision by the Canadian parliament to support recommendations of the Harper government to send military aircraft to join with US, French, Australian, Danish, Belgian and British air forces in making air strikes against IS targets in Iraq is welcomed, but it is worrying that the vote to back the move was won by a fairly narrow margin. In the face of public opinion weaned on continuing conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and an increasing level of reluctance to engage in what the public sees as the disputes of others, it is with regret that governments such as Canada and the UK are now required to tread a very cautious path in electing to support allies in a conflict that impacts on all of us.

For the record, Canada will provide six military fast jet attack aircraft plus other ISTAR and tanker refuelling air support but, as with other members of this vitally important ‘coalition of the willing’ it will send no ground troops in.

It is not my intention to discuss the rights and wrongs of whether to win this dangerous and worsening conflict against a militant force of unknown quantity that has spread its tentacles over large parts of Iraq and Syria. We all have our own specific views on that particular issue; and the decision of whether we should or should not send in troops is one that in my mind is one best left to our elected governments. But having said that, I do recognise that because governments have in the past often failed to provide adequate leadership and have provided poor means of communication to the public, we should not be quite so surprised that when public support for specific defence policy is needed it may not always be there. If and when our nation is directly threatened there can be no doubt that the public will be there to support. But when the threat is indirect involving other nations many thousands of miles away, it seems that our ability to sell to the public the notion that conflict elsewhere poses an equally dangerous threat to the fabric of our own nation, we too often fail.

Defence should be the most important priority of any government but today it has fallen down the agenda not just in the UK but in many other NATO countries too. It is a trend that must be reversed and one that I hope decisions made at the NATO summit last month will have secured. To think that while Russia has trebled spending on defence since the year 2000 we have done little else but cut spending over here. To cut out waste, to make defence more efficient, accountable and even more transparent is certainly right, but to allow defence in the minds of both public and government to fall as low as it has in terms of priority is unforgivable.

Today those that would threaten us know full well that many NATO member countries are spending far less on defence, a fact most often put down to what they term affordability. I might argue that defence should never be categorised as being either affordable or unaffordable, but I am far too wise to know that that is an argument the public of today are prepared to accept. Governments are led by public opinion and while it is equally true to say that public opinion in this day and age is drafted by press and media as opposed to the other way round, it is nonetheless not a matter that can be ignored by governments looking for another term in office.

The result is that defence is struggling not only in terms of shortage of funding, but also in terms of public perception and value. While we do still have viable defence capability in the United Kingdom the fear over lack of resilience and of sustainability is real. Conflict resolution rightly remains a priority of most governments, and the strength of individual NATO member strength plays a huge part in defence diplomacy. But in a fast changing world in which war is played out in a very different way, where the keys to success are not just about possessing precision weapons, but equally about having strong intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance capability along with the ability to communicate that information to where it needs to be.

Like the majority of those reading this piece today I am proud that Britain is again playing a part attempting to defeat combinations of terrorist and militant activity in various parts of the world and wherever these should raise their ugly head. I share the government view of the IS threat and I also agree with those that say responsibility to rid the world of the threat to peace and stability that IS poses cannot be done by the ‘coalition of the willing’ alone. The ensuing fight against IS could well last very many years as opposed to months, and we must recognise that the map of the Middle East will not stay the same for ever. We have respect for the culture and religions of others, and while we may sometimes differ in our interpretations of freedom, we also respect that democracy may not be deemed to be the perfect system for all.

So far Saudi Arabia, Jordon, Bahrain, UAE and Qatar have all pledged to provide additional combat air support although, as yet, Turkey remains one of the most important nations particularly because it borders Syria, to remain outside of the fight. It is to these countries that the battle against IS will require not only the realisation and understanding of the consequences of failure to rid the world of IS, but also that they should provide any ground troops required. I suspect that while constant air attacks will weaken IS if we are to defeat this menace and stop the spread of its tentacles through Syria and Iraq perhaps into Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and even Jordan an army of troops will also be needed.

On the wider Foreign and Security policy front Defence Diplomacy has and will continue to play a role ensuring world peace and stability is maintained. It is a term that also has different interpretations and its use is often dependent on whether it may be in pursuit of foreign policy objectives or in the maintenance of peace and stability. Perhaps the most normal interpretation is the peaceful pursuit and application [by government] of defence resources and capabilities. What is certain is that neither defence diplomacy nor defence multilateralism will win the conflict against IS alone. Indeed, having chosen to close our eyes to the Syrian conflict and seen the dreadful result there seems little chance that any form of diplomacy could succeed. An apathetic view maybe but one that is probably true.

My immediate concern lies far outside the issue of whether policy that has determined air attack on IS targets by the US in Syria and by the remainder of the ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq will be sufficient to win this conflict, or not but on how western governments are and will in future approach international based threats and whether or not they should be involved. In saying this it was pleasing to see the level of commitment at the recent NATO summit in Wales and how issues such as force readiness and future spending on defence were agreed.

The real concern for us now is that politicians and public are confused in respect of military involvement and engagement. What used to be a cross party affair is now cast in considerable doubt when the issue is military engagement in non NATO countries in support of our allies. While politicians are generally well informed and able to contribute to the debate based on the combinations of policy and constituency views the public is left in the hands of press and media.

In conflicts such as Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and most recently Iraq this is unsatisfactory. As we witnessed last year in the House of Commons vote on potential involvement in Syria, it is no longer automatic that the recommendation of the Cabinet is sufficient to ensure that UK forces will be allowed to move into a conflict zone. That bed is of course now made and governments have little choice but to lie on it.

Accepting that there have been past failures that led to a substantial change in attitude and approach on defence as a whole and on conflict involvement, it is worrying that while defence diplomacy will continue to act as a catalyst to minimise chances of hostility and hopefully continue to be used to build and maintain trust wherever possible, it does seem to me that in the aspect of defence we have lost the art of building trust between the people and government.

I need not tell any of you that our military do a fantastic job under very difficult circumstances or that resilience and sustainability are serious issues. For the most part our armed forces also receive considerable support from the public. But it is equally correct to say that popular support for the concept of UK defence capability in the eyes of the public has, since the end of WW2, never been lower than it is today.

True, press and media were seemingly united in their support of Prime Minister, David Cameron’s approved House of Commons plan to support air attacks against IS in Iraq. That was a right decision and it received cross party support. But, as I noted with disdain last week, the press has been quick to start looking at the cost of British involvement whilst at the same time reminding that an ever hungry NHS submerged in over expectation of what it can and should be there to provide requires ever more funds. This tells me something is very badly wrong.

We have, as I have said many times before, failed to sell the importance of the defence concept and construct to the public for too many years and this situation must be addressed. Arguably it is this that reasons pre-supposed war weariness on the part of the public and thus, as we remember Mr Hammond saying six months ago, with government too. In fact the then Secretary of State was referring to what he perceived to be the public view albeit that he probably really did believe the 21st conflict that UK armed forces would be involved in and that just days before we had no conception of such a possibility did not exist.

Defence has I suppose, because of the way it has been portrayed, in recent years been perceived as an expense that can, like a winter coat, either be put into the wardrobe until it is needed or even done without. My view and I guess most of yours as well is that strong defence capability is important to all of us and without it there can be no defence diplomacy.

I would also view Foreign and Security policy objectives along with threats as being an area that we must all learn to sell to the public. Cynics amongst you will be wondering what our foreign policy and security objectives are just as they will also be hoping this time that SDSR 2015 will be decided by whatever these may be as opposed to the other way round.

Whilst there may well have been the need for greater transparency on what we spend on defence there remains too little understanding of concept, construct or requirement. The blame is not on the public alone and neither can it all be placed at the hands of press and media.

As said, it is true that past governments failed to properly inform the public about conflict involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and that there was a lack of both accountability and transparency in defence. Today though, whether we like it or not, the public does have the right to be seen as stakeholders in all that government does and that means they must also be better engaged in the security and defence agenda if we want them to be on-side. To achieve this requires that we all better understand ‘consent’ and also that we learn to both communicate and engage with the public on matters defence. The MOD must get its communication act better together and so too must the individual armed force components.

A constant stream of procurement failures, equipment shortages, poor relations between the MOD customer and defence manufacturers over the past twenty years has damaged the way that the public sees defence. Add to this massive cuts and the manner in which the armed forces themselves have been treated by government and the lack of financial incentive and ask yourself is it any wonder the public is confused about defence?

Pressures by the Treasury and the Cabinet Office on defence and which they see as a cost that can be reduced have further damaged the importance of how defence is perceived. Given the necessity of Levene and of the radical and much belated shake up now going on in defence procurement is it any wonder why the public are so cynical of the whole defence construct.

The press has been all too willing and able to play these problems out and while we have come a very long way forward now and significant progress has been made to all intents and purposes the public believes little has changed. We need to right this situation and present the huge changes that have gone on in defence in recent years to the public with a very different perspective. We also need to better sell the here and now and of why defence is so important. At the same time we must constantly remind the audience that while conflict resolution through diplomacy must always be the first priority of government the prerequisite is that we should always maintain strong defence capability against the ever increasing levels of threat.

In conclusion, we must somehow move away from creating the impression that in terms of defence public relations and public diplomacy are the same thing. Defence Ministers have an important role to play and they must learn to engage more honestly and openly with the public. They must also ensure that their most senior people in the armed forces are also allowed to do the same without being hampered by what they are allowed to say. The military have a big role to pay in better engaging with the public and so too do those who believe in defence like you and I.

The bottom line is that if we believe in defence and if we believe that defence must be moved a lot further up the agenda to better match the level of increased threat then we must understand that in the quest to sell the whole concept of defence to the public that they too will require to be better engaged.


CHW (London – 8th October 2014)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710 779785

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