UK defence – war weary Hammond hints at more structural cuts

My apologies for writing a third defence commentary piece in less than a week but this one has been necessitated by events. It concerns evidence given yesterday by Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond to a House of Commons Defence Select Committee hearing in which he suggested that Britain is ‘war-weary’ and that only in extreme circumstances could the public be persuaded to back a British troops being deployed abroad.

During his evidence Mr. Hammond 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 any time soon”. Mr. 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 accepted that unexpected events can and do act to very quickly transform public opinion.

So, from this we may believe that the political view from the 5th floor of MOD ‘Main Building’ is that there will be no [further] significant military operations [involving British forces] any time soon and that Mr. Hammond believes once Britain’s mission in Afghanistan ends next year that our armed forces are unlikely to be involved in foreign deployments for many years to come.

The sceptic could be easily tempted to argue that with early work now being done to formulate proposals that will eventually constitute SDSR 2015 and that will appear before publication of the UK Security Strategy suggests that Mr. Hammond is being rather fleet of foot by choosing to use the ‘get out of jail free card’ that might just allow him to support further cuts in our armed forces and get away with it. Not so and more likely on this occasion combined with remarks I have listed toward the end of this document he is in fact being rather more open and honest suggesting if whoever is in charge of the next government fails to fund the defence based on at least existing amount big structural cuts lie ahead. .

As with many people what you see in Mr. Hammond isn’t always what you get and his additional remarks yesterday suggesting that the rise in powers such as China means that Britain’s economic future depends on a willingness to defend western values of democracy and the rule of law meant that we are a nation far more dependent than others on an open global trading system, the survival of which is not a given is a side of the Secretary of State that is all too rarely heard or seen.

It would be churlish of me to argue against the notion that voters are, following a long period of involvement in the wars of others anything other than ‘war weary’. Nobody wants war and it would be ridiculous to believe otherwise. History shows that while there have been long periods when the world has seemingly been at peace with itself a war is almost always being fought out somewhere. Europe has thankfully been at peace with itself for the best part of seventy years and NATO has provided us not only with knowledge that those within its membership will act together against the threat of aggression but it has since the end of the second world war provided the very foundation of peace and reconciliation.

I can also observe with experience that Britain went into campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan because the Government that we had elected at the time believed it was right and proper that we should. No matter what has transpired since in terms of perceived knowledge or evidence of whether our involvement in Iraq was right or wrong we did so because we genuinely believed it was right to do so at the time. In the process of so doing we stood alongside our allies and we were not alone amongst those that believed we did so for the right reasons.

We had done the same almost one hundred years ago during the Great War not because we ourselves were immediately threatened but because those that we regarded as our allies and friends such as Belgium and France were themselves threatened. We did so again in 1939 when Poland was invaded and when once again our close allies such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway were equally threatened. Would we do so again or are we now saying to the rest of the world that we are war weary and that we no longer have the courage of our convictions to support freedom? What message does this send to Argentina I wonder or to other countries that might see us through statements such as these as preparing to take ourselves further away from centre stage? I hope though that we would always be prepared to support what we believe in and to protect the freedoms of others just as we clearly will our own hard earned freedoms and culture.

Whether you choose to believe war is inevitable is probably not the issue here but even if true I do not like to see statements of perceived war weariness. This last point would have been just as true had it been made in

1918 and again in 1945 not to mention after the twenty or so other conflicts that British forces have been involved since the end of the second-world-war. A good government does not prepare for war of course but it does prepare for the threat of war. By maintaining a strong military with excellent all round capability a good government is able to demonstrate strong conventional deterrent capabilities and in doing so sound a message of warning to a potential aggressor.

Who knows what and where the next conflict that we might be involved in will be? I certainly don’t and it is perfectly true and responsible to say that our ability to analyse potential geo-political events remains as difficult today as it was a hundred years ago. But that does not mean that we cannot be prepared. That does not mean that we should not learn from past mistakes when we found ourselves inadequately equipped when the aggressor arrived at the back door. There are a great many still alive today that can remember just how ill equipped we had been back in 1939 although I venture to suggest none today would remember how ill equipped our Army and particularly our Navy was to face the same aggressor in 1914. There are many around still that can and do remember the very huge mistake that the then Secretary of State for Defence, Duncan Sandys made back in 1955 when he decided that the future of air power would not be determined by fast jets but by missiles. Might that same mistake be about to be made again by the present incumbent as he pushes a view that the future may be about a greater ability to use unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver some of the capability requirement that we have somewhat cheaper?

Before moving on to comment on what else was said in front of the Defence Select Committee yesterday let me conclude this section by saying that it is absolutely wrong in my view for a Secretary of State to say or imply that there will be no military operations any time soon and or that our armed forces will not be involved in foreign deployment for many years. The point is that we just don’t know but being spoon fed with such beliefs will the public be guaranteed to support a call to arms from government then? I may also be entitled to ask what sort of message does that send to our own armed forces, what sort of message does it send to our allies and worse, what sort of message do comments such as these send to our adversaries?

Just a month ago the British Prime Minister was asking Parliament to back the prospect of our military being involved in Syria. That he failed to receive that support is not the issue. The issue is that a month earlier Mr. Cameron had no conception that he would have need to do that. To say categorically that our military will not be involved in potential conflict resolution and support sends the wrong message to the public just as it does to the military.

The following are comments also made by the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Philip Hammond at a preliminary SDSR 2015 Defence Select Committee hearing held in the House of Commons and that apply to the future funding of defence. With the goal of achieving ‘Future Force 2020’ his remarks may be seen as early shots in the battle that the military will have through the next eighteen months to prove that its ambitions are both required and affordable. Building on the earlier part of the Secretary of State’s observations in front of the committee to some the following cleverly constructed observations could be interpreted as what may be to come:

“We have reached the end of the process where we can salami-slice [capabilities]; we would have to ask some serious structural question about the type of forces we are able to maintain”.
“We are close to the point where continuing to shave amounts off budgets without fundamentally restructuring what we do is probably getting into diminishing returns territory and where for every pound saved you lose more and more effective capability and that if we were to be confronted at a point in the future by a significant budget reduction it might be more sensible to stand back and rethink the structure of our forces.”
“If you keep reducing the budget you get to a point where, rather than slipping below the critical mass in a number of areas, it might be more sensible to ask the question whether you need to maintain the breadth of spectrum or better focus capability,”
“Growing evidence suggests that UAVs could deliver some of the requirement at costs considerably lower than they were even five years ago”. There is some good sense to be found in some of these words. It would also be quite fair to point out that they appear to have been made on the basis of ‘if the MOD was to be faced with the further challenge to cut the defence budget as opposed to the current belief that most likely it will be left to wallow unchanged. So just what are we to make of them – is there perhaps a clue to suggest that despite a very hefty 8% cut seen in the defence budget since SDSR 2010 and the supposed filling of what was well termed by the Coalition Government as a £38bn ‘black hole’ in defence that was inherited from Labour that the defence budget could be up for cutting yet again? I believe that whether we find ourselves with a Tory, Labour or another Coalition Government in April 2015 we should best anticipate the prospect of a further cut in the defence budget in real terms and that will probably lead to some of the above comments being realised. The current perception or should I say received wisdom is that in real terms between 2015 and 2020 the UK defence budget will remain unchanged at roughly £33.4bn but that within this the allocation of equipment spend will rise in real terms by 1% in each of those years. We will see but I suspect a great deal of trouble ahead.

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd, M: +44 7710 779785
hwheeldon@wheeldonstrategic.com

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