United Kingdom Defence Politics and the Analyst

Following the end of the 2016 Party Conference season DefenceSynergia (DS) decided to take stock of the political position vis-a-vis United Kingdom Security and Defence in the wake of the 2015 party manifestos and changing political leadership across many major UK parties. In doing so DS takes an apolitical stance but is not shy in making critical observations where the direction of travel and subsequent rhetoric are, in our opinion, at odds with cohesive policy or stated positions.

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National and Defence Strategies Research Group

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United Kingdom Defence Politics and the Analyst

Following the end of the 2016 Party Conference season DefenceSynergia (DS) decided to take stock of the political position vis-a-vis United Kingdom Security and Defence in the wake of the 2015 party manifestos and changing political leadership across many major UK parties. In doing so DS takes an apolitical stance but is not shy in making critical observations where the direction of travel and subsequent rhetoric are, in our opinion, at odds with cohesive policy or stated positions.

Party conferences are, by their very nature, controlled environments and not terribly informative for the serious analyst to extract clear or detailed policy. Therefore, what DS has done, always does, is to listen to the various speeches and, where appropriate, compare the message with manifesto commitments, past policy statements, interviews with various party defence teams and, in the case of Her Majesty’s Government (HMG), considered policy delivery.

For the Defence analyst there is an odd dynamic to be negotiated. Parties in opposition have defence teams or spokesmen with whom it is possible to meet, debate and, in some cases influence. Albeit some are easier to reach than others and some are reluctant to meet at all. Many in these appointments are people who, at the outset, know very little about the Armed Forces and the necessary components of fighting at sea on land or in the air.

The dynamic for HMG is quite different because on taking office there is a plethora of departmental professional advice on offer. Once elected to office former shadow defence spokesmen and other Members of Parliament (MPs) either migrate to the back benches or are appointed to governmental responsibility. In the case of the ‘backbencher’ dialogue with former contacts can and does continue provided that party loyalty does not intrude or an official HMG role is offered, then the ground rules change completely. For the latter, ‘collective and departmental responsibility’ clicks-in and old allegiances, causes and personal contacts are, by necessity, sidelined. In the case of the Ministry of Defence, Cabinet Office and Number 10, Civil Service ‘gatekeepers’ must be negotiated before any communication is read or responded to. Then only within strict ‘confidentiality’ guidelines. Which of course is why analysts like DS make use of the Freedom of Information (FOI) system so extensively and cultivate private contacts that are assured of anonymity as well as delving into professional open source material worldwide.

So, given all this, what is DS’s assessment of the Political state of UK Defence and Security Strategy post the 2016 party conference season? Well, it is not good, indeed, it is confused and, to a degree, based upon a propensity of all political parties to obfuscate and hide behind disingenuous generalities.

All the parties rightly laud the courage, professionalism and dedication of our armed forces personnel. Yet the three main parties – Conservative, Labour and Liberal democrats – held office at the same time that many service personnel were being legally hounded by official bodies conducting investigations they set up. All three main parties, whilst in power, have presided over a steady reduction in funding, manpower, declining standards of accommodation and morale sapping changes to terms of service. From the standpoint of those that continue to serve, those that have been made redundant or those that left prematurely because of dissatisfaction, laudatory words are cheap.

Where all the main parties fail most significantly is in not recognising that Her Majesty’s Armed Forces (HMAF) have been significantly and continually undermined through the lack of a clear National Strategic vision for the UK. The resultant and inexorable reductions in manpower and capability being a direct reflection of the internecine political arguments that have relegated HMAF to a mere political football. This has engendered a situation where the strategic purpose for having armed forces is so woolly that any argument as to size, shape and capability can be justified by any Party, and often is.

To take one example, that of ‘Successor’ – the continuation of a submarine launched UK Independent Nuclear Deterrent. The UK nationalist parties are all opposed on moral grounds but persist in challenging the cost and technical capability when they would not have a nuclear deterrent at any price or proven capability; the Liberal Democrats are opposed on cost, system and strategic threat grounds, yet disregard the findings of the study they initiated when in Coalition; the position of the Labour Party seems to be in favour but their leader, if elected, would not use it, in any circumstances; and the Conservative party are fully in favour of a 4 boat ‘Successor’ to Vanguard but are in denial about the cost implications to wider defence funding.

More widely, all UK political parties seem to be so intent on scoring political points that they have lost sight of the larger picture. Some argue that the European Union (EU), not the United States of America, should be the focus of UK defence and security policy, totally ignoring the fact that EU defence is predicated upon a USA led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and has done so for the past 55 years. The Labour Party has a leader that flirts with the notion that NATO is not relevant to the UK and that the British Army is too large; the Liberal Democrat Party is so pro-EU that the advantages of the UK/USA alliance is underplayed; and the Scottish Nationalist Party, which has only recently embraced NATO membership, is left attempting to reconcile its ‘unilateralist’ nuclear position with this political position. The Conservative Party is pro NATO and anti the EU Common Defence and Security Policy (CDSP) but is in denial as to what this means for the British Order of Battle (ORBAT) in an expeditionary age.

If HMG is insistent on UK forces being primarily based in the UK, yet serious about its NATO commitments and having an expeditionary world wide role, then the enablers to do so must be put in place. However, this was not fully reflected in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015. To put it bluntly, there is little point in the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) predicating his ‘punchy’ front line fighting ORBAT on 16 Air Assault Brigade and new Ajax equipped ‘Strike’ Brigades [and a deployable division of up to 50,000 troops] if they are unable to get from their UK barracks into theatre without months of preparation and logistics planning. The indigenous logistic enablers currently funded by HMG can only lift ‘battle group’ formations in short order.

None of the political parties is offering a strategically coherent message when it comes to UK defence procurement. Successive British governments have tinkered with UK defence and aerospace manufacturing (and some still wish to do so) which has left the UK with too few, and in some cases, single source suppliers of complex military hardware. There is little to be gained in pointing the finger at BAE Systems over say, shipbuilding, because it was government driven policy that largely created the problem – the amalgamation of former shipyards, Terms of Business Agreement (TOBA), the closure of indigenous Royal Navy (RN) shipbuilding capability etc – are all the result of past government policy. So it is encouraging that the subject of a UK Industrial Strategy is back on the Political Agenda, if only to learn from and correct the mistakes of the past. However, unless a Defence Industrial Strategy emerges as part of a cohesive and flexible UK Industrial Strategy then the effort, in defence terms, will be largely wasted.

Too often the political strategy behind defence procurement has been to see it as a job creation scheme with the operational imperatives relegated to a poor second place. Sadly, in 2016, with the exception of the Conservative plan for an Industrial Strategy, on which the jury is still out, no major UK party seems to be addressing the issue. Like it or not, ’employment’ complicates the political business of setting defence procurement contracts to achieve the twin virtues of value for money and appropriate operational capability. Thus the political process can lead to false choices and decisions, none more so than in warship design and construction when artificial distinctions arise and officials parrot opaque mantra such as ‘complex warships for the RN can only be built in UK’. DS asks why? What defines a complex warship? Are NATO/EU yards that offer competition on quality and price not worth even considering? Is a warship designed abroad but built under licence in a UK yard not worth considering?

In summary, Defence is a low priority for politicians. The cuts to the Defence budgets over 20 years have resulted in ‘hollowed out’ Armed Forces that have severe limitations to their utility. Public knowledge about Defence issues is very limited and a gag on Service people ‘whistle blowing’ indicates that all is not well – remedial action, if taken, will likely be too late. The anomaly is that the public can talk to all other public services – Police, teachers, health workers, firemen etc but not MOD. Until recently there was a gag on the NHS and it was only when a whistle blower raised ‘Mid Staffs’ that the problems were, rightly, revealed. Could there be national debate leading to transparency in Defence?

DS is not naïve and realises that all parties have a tendency towards weighing political advantage against the national interest. But we are apolitical analysts and must point out that national defence and security – the defence of the realm – is the stated number one priority of all incumbent and aspiring governments. If that means sacrificing some political gain now to save the ‘butchers bill’ later, then it is surely a price worth paying.