Note how in an otherwise excellent Autumn Statement yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne was at pains to praise the efforts of UK military personnel that have engaged in Afghanistan and those that are currently engaged in supporting the people of Sierra Leone. He might well have mentioned those engaged over Iraq and those currently supporting fellow NATO members in Eastern Europe or in other foreign parts as well but I will forgive him for the fact that he did not. The point though is that apart from this plus also confirmation that the Government intends to pay down any outstanding ‘war loans’ that date from the Great War one hundred years ago there was no actual mention about defence.
While the former Chief of the General Staff (CGS) General Sir Richard Dannatt may not have endeared himself to me since his retirement in 2009 I am mindful that the damning verdict of politicians that emerged in his book ‘Leading from the Front’ published in 2010 still ring in the ear. In the book Dannatt accused former Prime Minister Gordon Brown of being a “malign” influence by failing to honour guarantees on defence spending during his time at the Treasury. He also charged Tony Blair with “lacking moral courage” for failing to overrule his chancellor. Today I would accuse the present administration of playing an equally dangerous and in this case, obtuse game in regard of UK defence policy and one that we as a nation will live to regret. In part this boils down to what the Prime Minister promises today the Treasury and the Cabinet Office will likely remove tomorrow.
Whilst accepting that the former CGS along with others such as Lord West of Spithead, a former First Sea Lord, had made what in my opinion was the classic mistake of nailing their respective political colours to the defence mast it would be both difficult and churlish of me to challenge that accusations made by Dannatt in his book were anything other than absolutely fair and correct. Dannatt aimed his fire on chronic underfunding of the 1997/8 Strategic Defence Review suggesting that while the SDR was an attempt to set out a good framework for future defence policy it was quickly found to fail because it could not cope with troops being committed to Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time.
Today I would do the same of this Coalition Government in respect of its whole attitude and approach to defence, for the large scale weakness that have over the past five years emerged in the overall defence construct and that visibly demonstrate a structural weakness in our capability to the point that we must question our ability to potentially engage in a future large scale international conflict that requires airpower and maritime capability combined with troops on the ground.
In saying this I would remind of the words used by former Secretary of State, Philip Hammond to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee last year when he said that “public appetite for expeditionary warfare is pretty low and that based on the experience of ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan it would be realistic to say that I would not expect, except in the most extreme circumstances, a manifestation of great appetite for plunging (our military) into a prolonged period of expeditionary warfare anytime soon”. As we today support our allies in Iraq and in Eastern Europe and elsewhere history remind us that politicians should eat their own words.
Hammond went on to say that “it would take several years before politicians and military leaders could start to rebuild public support for military operations abroad” although he did at least have the grace to accept that unexpected events can and do act to very quickly transform public opinion. Mr. Hammond may have been ‘war weary’ and there may well be an element of public opinion that disliked our involvement in the wars that are essentially those of others. Of course, these are not the wars of others, they are our wars because unless we involve ourselves the freedoms that we so highly value and cherish will eventually be seriously threatened.
Today we may choose to note, as I reminded two weeks ago, that Prime Minister David Cameron promised at the time of the ruthless cuts to defence that have occurred out of SDSR 2010 that from 2016 to 2021 the defence equipment budget will see a real time one percent rise in each of those years. Today, behind the scenes as the foundations of what will become SDSR 2015 are laid we already know that the Treasury is pushing for a 7% cut in UK defence expenditure over the period 2016 to 2021. Mr. Cameron has promised that the second aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales and that is currently under construction in BAE Systems Scottish yards and at Babcock International’s Rosyth yard will be commissioned into the Royal Navy alongside sister ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth. Quite right too but given the overall requirement that the Royal Navy has in terms of requiring other new equipment such as planning for the eventual replacement of the existing Type 23 frigates over a thirteen year period and that the current Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon has effectively confirmed that these will be built on the Clyde one is bound to wonder how, given the clear pressures on the defence budget, all the challenges that face the Royal Navy can be met.
While the Army are likely to be hit hardest by SDSR 2015 we must recognise that the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have been very seriously weakened in terms of capability by what occurred in SDSR 2010. Our defence model is in a parlous state in my view and unsustainable in its present form. For now I see little if any acknowledgement by the Coalition Government that recent events have taught them that in world of rising geo-political tensions, something acknowledged by the chancellor himself yesterday, that defence spending should not only be ring fenced but enhanced. I am however not stupid enough to imagine for one moment that anyone is listening. The remit of the Treasury and one that in terms of defence the Cabinet Office is hugely supportive is that defence is no different from any of the other none ring fenced government departments.
Defence is used to be betrayed by governments or all colours and creeds but in looking at what we have in terms of capability and of what we have available to support our NATO and other allies we have never been in such a weak position as we are today. Hammond was right of course about public attitude to defence in terms of engagement in future conflict. But he was wrong in the innuendo that suggested the public does not support the military. It (the public) certainly does that and it always will. We do of course have a job to do in persuading the public what defence is and why it is imperative that we move this aspect of our daily lives further up the agenda. We may not have an enemy knocking on the door today but we sure will the day after tomorrow.
As I look at what is going on in the MOD today and as I fear the treachery that is beholden in that attitude of this government, just as it was in past governments, to defence I view the future with great alarm. Our service chiefs are silent because they are not allowed to speak and yet it is they who carry the individual budget responsibility and of being the duty holders for their people. Before academics whose role in designing SDSR 2015 and in deciding what they believe the future role of the UK will be are allowed to finalise a view on future defence capability requirement we must ensure that we have a wider debate.
In my view SDSR 2015 should be delayed by at least a year. I accept that there are no votes in defence of course but until and if we have a far better understanding of where it is and what it is that Britain wants to be in the world, what are our security risks and how do we wish to play them out in terms of defence capability we must ensure that at the very least the status quo remains. We cannot in my view afford to further cut spending on defence although I readily accept that there remains ample scope to make defence more efficient. We must ensure that we retain sufficient levels of air and maritime capability and the trained manpower to operate it and to maintain it. We must look more closely at what should be outsourced and what should not and we should make far greater effort to recognise and reward those who devote their whole being to the military and to serving all of us.
There is much wrong and amongst all of this there is the MOD PR machine that, press and media apart, dominates or should I say, is supposed to dominate the presupposed public attitude on defence. Defence cannot allowed to be shrouded in mystery no more than can the politicians who determine policy can be allowed to be less than transparent or economical with the truth. We must take a long hard look at our understanding of the differences between what in defence is called strategy and what is also called policy. We must put our approach to defence in the public domain and we must better debate it.
There are many examples of where strategy works but policy fails. Take the example of delayed ordering of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft for example and the drip feed of inviting US Marines to operate on our new carriers? Take the artificial play on numbers be this in terms of proposed new combat equipment for the Army or indeed, in terms of air power and maritime capability proposed as part of Future Force 2020 for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. Of course, I have absolutely nothing against the idea or the notion of US marines working with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force on our carriers but let us be clear about what is potentially being suggested here and maybe why? And yes, I too listened to the excellent interview that the First Sea Lord, Admiral George Zambellas gave to Vago Moradian of ‘Defense News’ early last month and picked up on the innuendo of what was being suggested.
Yes, there is much wrong in terms of our approach to defence and the manner and approach taken to Army reserves and particularly the high numbers pencilled in have been extremely worrying just as they have been demoralising for Army personnel themselves. The same is true for the Royal Air Force and the clear lack of resilience that prevails today. Obsolescence rules. There seems little understanding by politicians and those charged with responsibility for defence in regard of sustaining capability or that managing small fleets is very different and more costly than managing larger? Sentry, Sentinel and Air Seeker capability spring to mind here.
Take also the example of the why it has taken the government so long to push ahead with Typhoon precision weapon delivery and radar enhancement? Take the issue of attempting to prematurely stand down Tornado GR4 capability without having sufficient level of mature multi-role capability to replace it? Take the latest attempt to ‘bury’ for now the absolute and very clear requirement for multi-role maritime patrol aircraft into SDSR 2015? As mentioned above, take the serious threat that we face in allowing our C4ISR capability to be weakened by our failure to invest? Take the manner in which we are losing so many of the wrong people in military, particularly those with skills and experience that we need to train the next generation and also our diffident attitude to training armed forces of our defence export customers? Take the way that we have treated those who serve in all three of our armed forces in regard to the pensions that they had thought they would receive having given themselves to their country?
I will leave it at that today but in calling for a wide and open debate on defence and one that is steered by hopefully obtaining a better understanding and comprehension of defence and of NATO by the public we must seek to ensure that defence embraces the requirements not only of our national security objectives and those of the Home Office but also the ambitions of the Foreign Office as well. If we have ambition in this country then it can and only be realised to good effect if we also have strong defence capability that can be ready at a moments’ notice and that can also be seen as a more than sufficient level of deterrent capability.
CHW (London 4th December 2014)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785