Having listened to defence questions in the House of Commons yesterday afternoon I was left with more than a degree of foreboding. This had a little to do with the Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee insisting that the upcoming review must reflect increased Russian aggression or that “Russia has radically changed the situation firstly, by creating a war within Europe and secondly, because this undermined NATO. True enough though these statements are I am not so sure about the virtue of Mr. Stewart’s third remark, a belief that Russia is planning for a major war in 2018/19.
My real foreboding in regard of yesterday surrounds Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon’s suggestion that while evidence gathering has begun, real work on SDSR 2015 had not. The remark is to my mind an unwelcome example of the Secretary of State being rather too uneconomical with the truth as just everyone inside MOD Main Building and DE&S at Abbey Wood plus also, a large number of academics would tell you if asked, is clearly not the case as activity on SDSR 2015 is already very well advanced.
Rubbing salt into the wounds of Opposition Spokesman on Defence, Vernon Coaker when asked why the Secretary of State and his predecessor, the now Foreign Secretary, the Rt. Hon Philip Hammond, had refused to publish the sixty questions that are the basis of proposed direction of SDSR 2015 Mr. Fallon once again refused to be drawn. All that he was prepared to say to fellow MP’s yesterday was merely that “until then, our priority remains the delivery of the 2010 review, which gave us a balanced and affordable budget, maintaining our forces’ reputation whilst modernising force structure and capability”.
While it is in part true enough, that is not a view that I share. Yes, in SDSR 2010 we did start planning for what has been called Future Force 2020. We slashed air and maritime capability and few even inside MOD Main Building would disagree now that grave errors of judgement were made. SDSR 2010 decimated UK defence capability to the point that with capacity already so stretched defence lacks any form of resilience. We cannot afford to make yet another serious error of judgement in SDSR 2015. The Government has to listen this time and take in the views of all those that have a right to be heard. In setting out the future shape and size of UK armed forces SDSR 2010 set out on a plan to reduce the size of the regular Army from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2018, together with a ridiculous and unworkable plan to double the number of Reserves to 30,000 whilst at the same time slashing the number of frigates and destroyers in the Royal Navy to just 19 and the number of front line fast jet squadrons in the Royal Air Force to just seven. Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, rising geo political tensions elsewhere plus the increased number of other requirements placed on our armed forces show that SDSR 2010 policy must now be reversed and that Britain cannot afford not to spend more on defence. It is time for the Government to listen.
With the benefit of hindsight we can now look back on the 1997 Defence Review and say that it failed to consider sufficiently the potential of our involvement in future conflict sufficiently well enough just as it had also failed to predict the potential of events such as nine-eleven. All this would be true to say but then, in terms of forecasting events and the potential for conflict, it is impossible to get everything right in a review process. But when it comes to defence and because the future of the nation is dependent on it, the margin for error must be far more extremely limited.
Of course, one might say that part of the blame for the failings of the 1997 Defence Review may lie on the shoulders of those of us who were at some point called to provide evidence. I will let others decide that but what we do know is that any damage done to defence capability on the back of the 1997 Defence Review pales into insignificance when compared to that of what followed in SDSR 2010.
Listening to views and taking a wide variety of evidence prior to deciding future policy should be a crucial aspect of any review process. The 1997 Defence Review was in my view correctly evidence based but it is clear now that the process that led to SDSR 2010 was certainly not. Defence policy is supposed to be based on a collective Security need plus Foreign Office and Home Office requirements, ensuring that we have the ability to meet our NATO and other defence and foreign policy objectives and so on. We should first have decided what it is and where it is we want our nation to be. First and foremost, amongst required evidence that must be fully heard and understood by government, is that from the military aspect. The requirement to both hear and listen to the views of the most senior members of our armed forces is imperative.
It is important that prior to this occurring that the voices of the military are not separate but that having considered the options they speak as one. It is important that the views of specialists in defence and security issues and in capability and strategy requirement are involved along with those who produce the equipment capability that our armed forces need. Yes, academics do need to be involved but they should not be allowed to lead the issue of what we need in defence.
I do hope that after the failings of SDSR 2010 which had been based entirely on attempts to balance the defence books as opposed to providing properly thought out evidence based policy that properly related to future defence requirement will have been learned ahead of SDSR2015. I have to say that on listening to Mr. Fallon yesterday I am not optimistic.
In suggesting that work on the SDSR 2015 process had, apart from preliminary evidence, Mr. Fallon is being very uneconomical with the truth. There are plenty inside Main Building and at DE&S who are fully engaged working out what they believe is required based on affordability as opposed to true defence requirement and need. Personally I find it extremely worrying, given that it is now less than a year before the end review is due to be published, that Mr. Fallon is not prepared to publish the suggested sixty principle questions that are being used as a blueprint for the SDSR 2016 process. Mr. Coaker is in this case absolutely right when he says that in the lead-up process and to ensure that what we end up with in SDSR2015 is a document that has been well considered on the back of a formal evidence process that the sixty points should be published in order to ensure that we all know what these are, and that this time the review process will have properly covered all aspects of defence requirement on the basis of being well informed. We also need to ensure this, unlike SDSR 2010, that the SDSR2015 process includes full scrutiny and transparency and that this time those involved are fully accountable for their actions.
CHW (London 21 October 2014)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785