UK Defence – Damaging Confusion and Uncertainty

DefenceSynergia (DS) is pleased to publish a recent piece by Howard Wheeldon commenting upon the current parlous state of UK defence, its funding and the confusion being engendered by Ministry of Defence and Government interference. DS shares many of Howard’s concerns, not least the obviously destabilising environment caused by constant Government/Treasury tinkering disguised as ‘reviews’ – a euphemism for budget cuts – when it is clear to all that what HM Armed Forces require is a period of stability underpinned by an appropriate funding formula. The negative effect upon morale within the services being a major cause for concern. Below are Howard’s views:

UK Defence – Damaging Confusion and Uncertainty

Mini Defence and Security Review, National Security Capability Review, Defence Capability Review, Defence Refresh, Final Chapter of SDSR 2015 – each or any single one of these review titles by whatever name you prefer to use is apparently going on inside either the MOD or Cabinet Office in conjunction, one assumes, with other government departments.

The Times reported that that the Ministry of Defence is now said to be ‘preparing to request a full defence review and a request for £4 billion of emergency cash over the next two years in order to avert severe cuts to the armed forces’. Whilst the notion of going back to the beginning and starting a new Defence and Security review sounds feasible enough, particularly given that we have a new Secretary of State for Defence in Main Building in the form of Gavin Williamson, I am bound to worry over what this might achieve and whether we have the necessary level of skills left in Government to achieve what we might be looking for. I have no idea whether there is any truth in the above story but my instinct is to suggest that it is more than likely correct.

What a mess defence is in, what unnecessary, damaging and costly confusion the various review processes that have been going on over the past nine months have caused and how demotivating and demoralising all this is for those that work in our armed forces and those who work so hard to equip them to do the vital job that they perform. The uncertainty of knowing exactly where we are in defence, where we are going and indeed, what the future course will be beggars’ belief!

Is it any wonder we have retention problems in the military and so much difficulty in finding enough new people to train in the specialist trades? Moreover, as I move around and see those in the military charged with planning for our future defence needs and that now also have responsibility for their respective budgets I see nothing but worried faces. The damage caused by uncertainty is rather like an epidemic meaning that it spreads. In the meantime, outside of those deployed on operations, as if the majority of senior military personnel across all three of our armed forces are almost being forced to do their jobs with their hands tied behind their backs. I am left to wonder, where on earth is the leadership in Government that UK defence cries out for?

The Times article, adding a source who suggested that ‘The [defence review] proposal needs selling to Downing Street, because a [new] full defence review would need to be commissioned to have any meaning’. However, the article went on to suggest that interest levels [in Downing Street] are apparently low and that ‘distractions’ are ‘not welcome’. To that and if true all that I can say is, come on Mrs May, get your act together, you have got the first stage of Brexit negotiations through and you are seemingly well on the way to getting the Brexit Bill through Parliament. Time now to stand up for what really should be the UK’s number one priority – Defence and Security.

Whilst I would normally avoid making comment on title-tattle, various newspaper comment in relation to Mrs. May needing to supposedly ‘break-up a blazing public row’ between Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond and Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, there is no smoke without fire. Despite being a former Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Hammond is clearly no lover of defence and it appears that Mr. Williamson, whilst recognising that defence will need to make itself even more efficient, appears determined to fight for what defence needs.

Mr. Williamson will have his work cut out and snide remarks apparently made last week by the Chancellor of Exchequer to a Commons select Committee suggesting that Mr. Williamson is only just getting to grips with his brief are hardly helpful. The background to all this, failure to properly fund defence, unaffordable over-ambition contained in SDSR 2015, failure to make the necessary level of £11 billion of savings demanded by SDSR 2015 and the additional cost of Brexit so far and which, in currency terms alone has probably added £12 billion to planned defence procurement costs has been well documented by me in previous defence papers and by others too.[Editors Note: DS very much in the vanguard and supportive of this approach]

We are where we are and I wish Mr. Williamson well in his fight to get more for defence. He deserves to win for no other reason than that defence has been short changed by Government for too long. One answer, suggested by several of us over the years, is to remove Trident replacement costs and the through life cost of operation away from the defence budget.

I would be the last to suggest that we could maintain all that we have now in defence and I fully recognise that some of the plans, choices and options published in SDSR 2015 will either have to be dropped, pushed back or altered in respect of numbers. That is the way of things but at the same time we need to properly fund defence and resist the long standing temptation to do defence on a shoestring.

As to another formal review process taking place next year? I fret about the continued uncertainty this will cause and of how many more within the military will vote with their feet. I fret too about the damage this does not only to the need to maintain strong sovereign capability and the main primes within the UK defence industrial base but also the impact of more uncertainty on jobs and investment within the thousands of small and medium sized enterprises that are also involved in defence. Add to this the damage that change does to the relationships that we have established on the basis of trust with our international partners and the foreign defence companies that we also rely on to supply us with defence capability that we can no longer afford to build ourselves.

To those who would wish to see a full review of defence taking place I do not hold with the one side argument that this needs to be an honest account of where Defence has failed and those responsible held to account and one former member of the Royal Air Force suggested yesterday. What good is served by looking back? I guess, particularly as this individual is hardly noted as being in favour of jointery, he is looking to blame someone for the resurgence of Carrier Strike which he clearly doesn’t believe in. Either that or placing the blame for all that ails defence on industry?

The same argument applies to his suggestion that if a new defence review is to take place we need a compelling presentation of the increased threat. Whilst I agree that we must take full cognisance of the threats that we perceive we must also plan as best we can for what we cannot directly see yet imagine could be a threat in years to come.

As I have suggested before, while future defence must be planned for tomorrow and the day after we should not imagine the next war will be entirely different to the last. Neither should we ever ignore to need to see and know where the enemy is, the need to control the air and also the seas. Finally, leaving our hugely important commitment to NATO apart, in respect of defence diplomacy, foreign policy and trade, we need to show both presence and deterrence.

CHW (London – 12th December 2017

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS