The Modernising Defence Programme was due to be published before MPs left Westminster for their summer recess so it was something of an anti-climax when an initial Parliamentary Statement appeared just a few days before that deadline. It has not been received with any enthusiasm by the military community as shown in this article:
I think it is safe to say that we are extremely “underwhelmed” by what we have heard so far, and I hope that the Defence Select Committee will express their lack of enthusiasm too.
The content of the final document is, of course, going to be vital to the defence of our nation, but the attitude to defence displayed is also crucial for our future safety. That “defence of the realm is the first duty of government” has been accepted for centuries. If this government’s attitude indicates that this is no longer the case we shall be entering a dangerous time at the moment when the world is becoming a more unstable environment.
There is no point in speculating what might, or might not, be in the final version, but we have to be ready to respond vigorously to anything which suggests that our security is going to be diminished.
Modernising Defence Programme
It cannot be stated too highly that the results of this exercise will determine the future of the defence of the UK for many years to come. The Government has the opportunity to put right some of the, potentially disastrous, decisions of recent years, particularly those emanating from SDSR 2010.
I was interested to read some of the evidence given to the Defence Select Committee by some leading defence journalists recently. Here are a few quotes from that session:
“Quite simply, we have completely hollowed out our ability to fight a conventional war.” (Deborah Haynes - The Times)
“I think that people who are not engaged in defence, and who do not work for the Ministry of Defence or as defence journalists have no real concept of the threat we face from Russia. In the past, the older generations knew what it was like to fight in World War Two and live through the cold war, whereas younger generations have no idea.” (Larisa Brown - Daily Mail)
There was some discussion about the ability of Service Chiefs to give interviews and to speak out on their concerns. This led to the next quoted comment.
“First, I second what Larisa and Deborah have said on access to senior chiefs, although I have been fortunate enough to interview some of the senior chiefs, including the CDS. However, last year I was particularly frustrated that in the Year of the Royal Navy, to the best of my knowledge—I have never been countered on this—the First Sea Lord did not do a single interview with any media outlet. I think it would help if they did speak publicly more, because I think the military’s best advert is their people, and that has to be led from the top.” (Alistair Bunkall - Sky News)
It is really depressing in these defence debates that it is the same amazing MPs who love defence and understand it. What about all the other MPs who have military bases and veterans in their constituencies and the defence industry providing a huge economic lifeline to their constituencies? Where are they? Why are they not interested? (Deborah Haynes)
I wonder what the press will have to say after this review.
Apparently the top civil servant at the MOD has said that the armed forces must be ready to slay some “sacred cows” to free up cash for new and more deployable technologies. He did not indicate which equipment he had in mind but suggested that some capabilities were not deployed very often or were perhaps no longer able to keep the military personnel using them safe from modern threats.
These comments raise several issues. If there is military equipment which does not keep personnel safe, the first reaction should be to consider how it can be modified or replaced. The very existence of it indicates that it is still considered valuable.
The fact that certain capabilities are not deployed very often does not even begin to suggest that they are not needed. It may well indicate that they are doing their jobs as deterrents. The need may not have arisen recently but it might occur tomorrow.
This looks like another piece of evidence supporting the view that defence is still seen as rather less than the “first duty of government”.
“If you want peace, prepare for war” is a well worn, but true, adage. We should not be looking for cuts but making sure that we are ready for any eventuality. It is quite clear in this world of ever increasing tensions that the fall in defence sending should be reversed, and quickly.
I don’t suppose that reading pages of Hansard is anybody’s favourite pastime, but now might be a good time to give it a try.
On Tuesday 26th February the House of Commons held a debate on Defence Spending. You can find it in Hansard here:
I will do no more than tempt you with parts of three contributions from MPs. Whether or not you consider this debate to be a positive one for our Armed Forces, there are some encouraging signs. When it comes to the point when the House has to make a decision it might make a difference if our membership has made it clear to their MPs where their priorities should be.
Quotes from the debate:
Mrs Madeleine Moon
One of the problems with being in a NATO alliance—I know this as a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly—is that there is nowhere to hide from our allies, and allies are noticing that Britain is withdrawing from exercises. They are concerned because they have seen Britain as an ally on which they could rely and depend. Does the Hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most worrying things is the lack of credibility of our armed forces—valiant though they may be—because of the cuts we face in expenditure?
Dr Julian Lewis
I am rather worried if our top security professionals do not feel even a twinge of doubt about the level of priority that we are giving to defence. When sometimes people stress the point, which is not without merit, that when we talk about spending 2% or 3% of GDP we are talking about inputs, not outputs in terms of capability, I say to them that of course it is true that we could spend a huge amount of money on defence, but if we spent it on all the wrong things, it would not do us a lot of good. Conversely, though, if we are simply not spending enough on defence, nothing that we can do will give us the outputs we need.
We have to ask what we mean when we say that Defence is the first duty of Government. If it is the first duty of Government, it is a duty that is more important than any other duty, because if we fail to discharge it everything else is put in jeopardy.
Sir Edward Leigh
Everybody has spoken with one voice. This has not been a party-political debate in that sense. Whether from New Forest East, Gedling, Moray, Aberdeenshire, Glasgow, Aldershot or Rayleigh, everyone has made the point— and the Minister has just echoed it, one of the first times that I have heard it from the Front Bench—that spending 2% on defence is simply not enough.
In the spirit of consensus, I echo what the Opposition spokesman said—that we cannot get security on the cheap. I also echo what the Hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said, and I tell the Secretary of State to go back to the Treasury and No. 10 Downing Street and say that every single Member has made this point. He can go back and say, “This is not like the 1930s. This is not like the Fulham by-election when we were worried about public opinion on disarmament. We have the support of the whole House.” He should go back, get the money and make sure that we defend our country.
The Defence Review is breeding rumour upon rumour. Is this really the way forward when considering the Defence of the Realm?
Of course we cannot afford to have everything we might like in terms of defence equipment, but we must be able to afford what we need. A defence review should not be considering cost in the first instance, but what is needed properly to defend our country and our interests abroad.
The situation in which we find ourselves at the moment is that the defence budget has to find the money to fill a, so called, black hole. This is nothing short of a ludicrous way to organise the First Priority of Government. This deficit has to be written off and an investigation carried out to avoid such overspending again. Nobody seems to want to tell us where this money went and why. Is there something wrong with the procurement process? Have we been paying too much for equipment? Are we buying the right things?
One thing is certain, we cannot reduce, or scrap, vital defence capability to pay for mistakes of the past. How good it is to see the Defence Select Committee doing its job and expressing its concern to government. Their comments must be heeded. It is also encouraging to witness local concern being expressed, as recently in Plymouth.
So, let this review be a genuine defence review, not yet another cost saving exercise. Let us see the Government take the parlous state of our defences seriously, write off the deficit, drop any ideas they have about reducing the number of Royal Marines and amphibious ships, and pledge to uphold their “first duty” and provide the armed forces with the equipment they need and deserve.
A report by a BBC Defence Correspondent recently suggested that defence may be moving down the list of government priorities. This would be alarming if true. Defence and Security have always been the first responsibilities of government, and must remain so.
Perhaps it is this prospect that has led to a spate of speeches by service experts warning against further damaging cuts to the defence budget and, therefore, capability. It was particularly refreshing to hear General Sir Nick Carter feel able to warn that we are falling behind potential enemies in capability.
Dare we hope that the voices of reason and expertise are beginning to prevail over the “bean counters”?
UKNDA is in favour of allowing serving personnel to speak out on defence matters in a way that has not been acceptable in the past. For the safety of our nation it must make sense for those with the expertise to be allowed to express their views. After all, they are the people tasked with fulfilling that all important “first responsibility of government”.
Is Defence the first duty of Government? We are told regularly that it is, so why should we need to ask? We shouldn’t have to, but recent events cast doubt on whether the Government really believe it.
There is an interim defence review underway at present, somewhat delayed to allow the new Defence Secretary to get on top of his brief. There are all sorts of rumours doing the rounds about where cuts may have to be made to fill a black hole in the defence budget. None of these cuts can be made without seriously affecting the ability of the Armed Forces to carry out its duties. Worse still, some of the suggestions, such as scrapping HM Ships Albion and Bulwark, would deprive the nation of some of the most useful capabilities for which we are world famous. Experience has shown that, once such a capability has been lost and we realise we need it, it is far more expensive to resurrect it than it would have been to keep it, and that doesn’t take the loss of key personnel into account.
We should take this opportunity to investigate where the deficit in the budget came from and how such a situation could be avoided in the future. We could also rearrange the finances to remove the cost of the deterrent from the defence budget. It is fundamentally a political cost and should not use resources taken from whichever service happens to operate it.
If the Government wishes to prove that we do not need to ask the original question, it will build on the Armed Forces not reduce them further.
It should be obvious, but the question must be asked.
UKNDA has been worried about this issue for some time. The government has been heard to say that they don’t want to hear from retired senior officers. This view doesn’t seem to be shared by the Defence Select Committee who have recently interviewed several of them. Recent retirees, such as Admiral Zambellas and General Barrons have expressed considerable concern about the state of the Armed Forces and potential further cuts in capability. Surely the government cannot ignore their warnings?
The Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), in an interview last Sunday, said that the Armed Forces are sufficient for “what they are asked to do”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of present capabilities. He also said that he was not involved in politics and that his boss was the Defence Secretary and talk of his inexperience was irrelevant.
We cannot blame the CDS, or other service chiefs, for not speaking out publicly about their concerns because they are not allowed to. Herein lies the problem: the views of those with good, recent senior experience are not wanted, and the views of those still serving are not heard. Meanwhile the Armed Forces, the maintenance of which falls into the “First Duty of Government”, are caught in the middle with spurious financial arguments being put forward to support the view that sufficient resources are being provided.
I’m not sure about the value of petitions, but I have signed the one urging the government not to get rid of the Royal Navy’s amphibious capability, nor 1000 Royal Marines. After it passed 10,000 signatures the government was obliged to respond by email. It is these responses which can be fascinating and revealing. One sentence particularly caught my eye: “This Review is to ensure that the United Kingdom’s investment in capabilities is as joined-up, effective and efficient as possible, and will cover areas including Defence, counter terrorism, national resilience and cyber.”
Am I being too cynical to suggest that the government is going to justify defence cuts in order to support “counter terrorism, national resilience and cyber.”? After all, spending in those areas can be controlled quite easily within quite small limits.
Of course there are new threats, but we must not forget the wise words of Dr Andrew Roberts, the leading military historian, which I paraphrase as follows: “The next conflict is never the one you expect”.
We need to be prepared for anything and cutting capability is not the way forward.
I wonder what kind of Defence Policy leads to speculation that the Royal Navy may have to help fund the new carriers by dispensing with its two front line amphibious vessels and 1000 of the world’s best troops.
We cannot afford for any of the three services to loose yet more vital capability. It would leave us with a heightened sense of not being properly defended in an increasingly dangerous world. In recent years we have seen how difficult and expensive it is to recover lost capability. We simply cannot go on playing Russian Roulette with our security.
In any case, HM Ships Bulwark and Albion have an important peacetime role to fulfil. The world seems to suffer an increasing number of natural disasters and they are the ideal vessels to support the people and lands affected. Whether it be refugees in the Mediterranean, earthquakes in South America or hurricanes in the West Indies, they can be invaluable, as can the Royal Marines they carry. They can land personnel by either helicopter or straight on to the beach in conditions where airstrips ashore are damaged, and where harbours are either blocked or too shallow.
There has been a lot of debate recently about the use of funds from the “Overseas Aid” budget. Surely the cost of using the Armed Forces for disaster relief should come from this budget and not fall on the Defence Budget?
There must be an answer here somewhere which would enable us to keep these ships and troops as part of our national defence.
In my newspaper last week my eyes fell on a picture of the White Helmet riders from the Royal Signals performing at Chatsworth House. My pleasure at this stirring sight was immediately tempered by the headline beside it. “White Helmets motorcycling team reach the end of the road”.
More cuts, not only to defence but to morale as well, I thought. Apparently not. One paragraph stated that: “Army Chiefs have decided that daring two-wheeled displays no longer reflect the reality of the hi-tech on-screen communications of today’s conflicts.” Further down the article this was supported by comments from the White Helmets’ team captain who ended by commenting that they don’t use motorbikes to move messages around the battlefield any more.
Does it matter that this fine display team doesn’t represent anything that actually happens on the ground today? What about field gun competitions? What about the Battle of Britain flight?
You cannot put a price on service morale, so let’s see no more decisions of this sort. In fact, we could start by reversing this one.