A Wise Head

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Howard Wheeldon Writes in Support of DefenceSynergia Over SDSR 2015   

I had not intended to write another defence paper until after September 1st but I am afraid that events and actions of others prevent me being silent. My comments today are in regard of the value and importance of not only listening but reading the views of others. In this case I refer to the importance of this in respect of the ability to form soundly based judgement that allows a proper forward defence strategy to be created as opposed to one that is merely a policy to save money and ignore the relevance of strong defence. To listen is to learn. But to fail to read is, as Confucius said, “to surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance”.

The relevance here is to do with Her Majesty’s Government inane decision to restrict and limit public contributions ahead of the upcoming Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR 2015) process to just 1,500 characters and which, I am reliably told, works out to around 300 words. How stupid is this! HMG may treat defence with contempt but the public certainly doesn’t.

Since I became aware of this fact a week ago I had decided to wait and see what if any reaction to this web-site statement was. I did not have to wait long and it is clear that HMG’s attempts to stifle both public and specialist views on the future of defence has badly backfired. My thanks to several people who brought this matter to my attention when I was away on military related business last week and particularly to defence research organisations like DefenceSynergia for the responses that they have provided in public.

Having promised to encourage inputs to the SDSR 2015 process from external and specialist sources, specialist opinion formers together with academics and industry it seems that apart from restricting comment to a handful of words HMG is only prepared to accept inputs to a controlled website. Has HMG lost all sense of reasoning and purpose in terms of how it perceives the need for defence today I wonder? I am in total agreement with comments made agreeing that this is a blatantly shocking indictment of intention. In my view all restrictions imposed in respect of public and uninvited responses should be removed. I would add that all comments made should be guaranteed to be read by someone who is knowledgeable within the overall SDSR process and who carries a level of reasonable authority.

SDSR 2015 is without doubt a vital component of future UK defence intention. It is the final leg that takes us up to Future Force 2020 and it is supposed to balance adjusted defence requirement against the combination of increased threats and affordability. Importantly, in the eyes of many of us it is, as a forward strategy, supposed to right some of the wrongs of the previous SDSR 2010 review and which, as we all know to our cost, had a devastating adverse impact of overall UK defence capability.

One had hoped that those in the present Conservative led government might have learned since the dangerous and unacceptable manner in which the Cabinet Office, Treasury, MOD, a handful of academics together with the now UK Ambassador to France, all of whom had been charged with creating SDSR 2010, that consultation is the essence of good strategy making. It is a sad fact that far from being a strategy at all SDSR 2010 was in effect merely a policy hell bent on slashing defence capability, cost and risk. The result is that Britain is no longer able to play the full role that is expected of it as the sixth largest economy in the world. We are a trading nation but one that while still able to defend itself, struggles in respect of the wider NATO role.

Is this merely history repeating itself one wonders? It probably is, and quite definitely past lessons have not been learned. As I remember it back in 2010 there was very little in the way of a consultation process involved in SDSR 2010 and indeed, it was only during the final weeks ahead of publication that industry was invited to provide its views about forward defence and of how this impacted on them. How things have changed over the past twenty years. For instance, I well remember that during George (now Lord) Robertson’s ‘Strategic Defence Review 1997’ being called to provide evidence and in being interviewed for a full half day inside the confines of Main Building. Not so in the SDSR 2010 process and so far, not in the SDSR 2015 process either.

Having by its own admission made ‘very serious errors of judgement in SDSR 2010’ and also having left substantial ‘unfinished business’ in UK defence equipment procurement such as having no plans extant for Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability build-up following the decision to axe Nimrod MRA4; for failing to put forward required investment in UK ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capability following the decision to scrap remaining Nimrod MRA2 capability; and retire Nimrod R1 capability in 2012, it is clear that the level of unfinished business is enormous. I would add that the ridiculous SDSR 2010 process decided, although it thankfully later revised and delayed the original plan, to scrap RAF Sentinel capability and laid out no proposal whatsoever to invest in Sentry E3-D capability which was long overdue. Yes, we did get a plan to acquire three Rivet Joint (Airseeker) aircraft, A400M and Voyager. But in terms of air power by far the greater concern was that SDSR 2010 drew down the number of Royal Air Force fast jet squadrons to just six. That was a crass misjudgement on the part of HM Government and one that is a cause of very serious concern to this day. Lacking mass and seriously lacking resilience is how we find the front line force of UK defence in the form of the Royal Air Force today. That position alone must be reversed in SDSR 2015.

I could go on about individual losses suffered by the failure to conduct SDSR 2010 as a proper strategic review process taking wide area evidence as opposed to what we got – a policy requirement that was built solely on the intention of government to reduce the cost of defence no matter what the level of existing or future dangers we needed to face. Sadly SDSR 2010 was a policy document that lacked understanding of both defence requirement, foreign policy objectives, threats to national security and the importance of defence diplomacy and reach.

The Royal Navy suffered badly too and we were forced to watch the premature scrapping of four excellent Type 22 frigates, the surprising premature decommissioning of HMS Ark Royal and the Royal Air Force Harrier VSTOL force, the decommissioning of helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious and in doing so taking a dangerous and unacceptable gap in aircraft and helicopter carrier capability ahead of Queen Elizabeth Class carrier replacements and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter capability maturity being established by 2023. I think that you get the picture that while SDSR 2010 may have been a success in HMG’s eyes for the rest of us, the military and those that realise the crucial importance of defence, SDSR 2010 was little more than a signal that the UK, as the sixth largest economy in the world, no longer sought to play an active part supporting its allies and playing a part in global affairs.

Lest I am accused of ignoring the British Army I should also mention here the vexing SDSR 2010 intention of creating 30,000 reserves and which, as most of us surely believed at the time, was a step far too far that would unlikely be achievable. That 30,000 figure will I hope be reduced in SDSR 2015 to nearer 20,000 with perhaps, I might like to believe, a corresponding partial uplift in the number of full-time soldiers. Whilst on the subject of the British Army I would not be surprised to see a change of heart appear in SDSR 2015 in terms of the previous decision to bring all troops back from Germany. Sadly and if true, I suspect this might be done to save cost on building additional living quarters as opposed to strategic and tactical reasoning of retaining a reduced number of troops in Germany.

Back to the point of lack of consultation and which I had been personally assured would not be the case in the SDSR 2015 process. As the Labour Defence spokesman, The Honourable Vernon Coaker MP, is quoted as saying, “they had promised an open process” but what they have provided is an insult to the intelligence not only of defence specialists but also for many in the military who would like to express their views in more than 300 words. I am bound to fear that once again the views of those whose vested interest is in cutting defence, as opposed to realising the need for strong defence and boosting it, are the only ones being sought. What a shambles this is. The Government must listen to the views of those whose job it is to defend us, those whose job it is to manufacture and provide state-of-the-art defence equipment and also those of us who are deemed to be defence specialists. The public must also be allowed a say, and each and every comment made, however ridiculous some of them may be, recorded and analysed. This time we must have proper scrutiny and transparency and we must ensure that the final outcome is not decided by a bargaining meeting in Main Building the weekend before SDSR 2015 is published. This time we must get it right and ensure that what we do and what we plan will be sufficient to provide our military with sufficient tools for the job. Yes, this is my message to HM Government – ‘you do the listening and planning so that we can do the building and fighting’.

Worthy learned organisation such as the Royal United Services Institute, Chatham House, Royal Aeronautical Society, industry groups such as ADS plus a number of well-respected lobby organisations have all in-putted substantial papers to HMG ahead of the current SDSR 2015 process. I have seen some of these papers and they all make a very sound and legitimate case for what Britain needs to do in respect of defence against the increased level of threats that we face. Industry, seriously battered and bruised through the last SDSR 2010 process, has, despite the huge financial impacts suffered because of severe defence cuts over the past five years, worked very hard to bring down costs so that the taxpayer benefits.

The Military themselves will of course make their own case to those that sit in judgement ahead of final publication of the SDSR 2015 report but we need to remember that this time they are even more hampered than before through restrictions that have been placed on them in the SDSR 2010 process meaning that they are now responsible for their own budgets. The point here is that rather than portray a view of what through their wide and detailed experience of defence they believe that the UK requires they are immediately forced onto the defensive to become little more than jugglers. Worse still is that for most of the last five years senior Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force officers have been prevented from providing any form of external view that has not been signed off by the MOD/Ministerial censorship process.

If the military are stifled and the rest of us prevented from supplying more than 300 words it is clear that once again the current defence and security review process is going to be determined principally by Cabinet Office, Treasury, MOD and no doubt a small number of trusted on-side academics. This time we are led to believe that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Home Office and Department of International Development are all involved as well. SDSR 2015 is after all supposed to be a defence and security review based on perceived defence requirements in relation to perceived threats and built on the back of what is termed a National Security Strategy. All this sounds good and while I suspect that the resulting SDSR 2015 will be a ‘light-touch’ event when compared to SDSR 2010 I remain very suspicious in regard of HMG intent. With no real foreign policy to speak of and no sign yet of a much needed strategic political narrative for UK foreign policy objectives and defence I fear that although the government has committed to increase spending on defence equipment by 1% in each of the next five years defence will be no better place after SDSR 2015 is published during the last week of November than it is now.

I fear too that the importance of defence diplomacy will remain lost on this government. So I argue for strong sovereign capability and the need for HMG to do far more than it is currently prepared to do in terms of encouraging UK defence exports by being prepared to engage in government to government arrangements with potential customers. However, I see little desire on the part of government to embrace international defence training and carve out for Britain a potentially huge market opportunity for that could occur if only we were prepared to believe in ourselves and invest. I fear that the defence budget will be plagued with additional burdens such as international development and, in terms of the Home Office national security, cyber and intelligence costs.

Defence, as most of you all know, is the first and main priority of government. Of course affordability must play a part but it should never be allowed to be the main prerequisite. Therefore, I sincerely hope that those charged with producing SDSR 2015 will realise the value of listening and reading the views of others. I live in hope that the call for 300 words might soon be changed to 3,000 words and more.

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

(London – 17th August 2015)