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.
I do not wish to denigrate the arrival on the scene of our new carrier, with another due soon, but it does raise some important issues.
Firstly, do we really have enough escorts? The picture on the Home Page shows two of them in attendance, presumably the minimum required. Using the "Rule of Three" which requires three ships to cover one operational requirement: one on duty, one training, giving leave and transiting and the last in maintenance, this means that six escorts are needed to cover the protection of the carrier. When both are at sea, it will require 12 escorts to cover the duty, out of a total of 19.
Secondly, what about personnel? Have we enough for both carriers and their escorts?
What this probably means is that the two carriers will not be able to be fully manned, therefore not be able to be at sea at the same time. Perhaps this is not seen as a requirement anyway, but is it wise to have the standby ship unable to go to sea?
We have been going through a dangerous period in our history without sufficient defence capability, and we are not out of it yet.
There is still an important job to do to persuade the government that we must not take risks with our defence.
I hope that you have read the article by the CEO of the UK Chamber of Shipping.
Is it too much to hope that the Defence Secretary will take note of his warning? Sadly I think it is. The government has taken to hiding behind the advice given by those unable to express their real feelings due to the jobs they hold. UKNDA has consistently called for Service Chiefs to be given the freedom to speak openly about the state of the nation’s defences, as they can in the United States.
Until that happens UKNDA must continue to draw the attention of politicians and the general public to the dangerous state of the Armed Forces of this country.
All services are now undermanned and lacking vital equipment, but it is the Royal Navy where this is most obvious at the moment following the entry into service of HMS Queen Elizabeth. The denied lack of the required number of escort ships will become very clear very soon. The government’s answer is to build ships at a snail’s pace and assume in the meantime that we can live with the risk.
This attitude applies throughout all defence procurement. It is a dangerous attitude which hardly equates to the mantra that “Defence and Security are the first duties of Government”.
The General Election result wasn’t what was expected when it was called, but can’t really be considered a surprise following the lacklustre campaign waged by the Conservatives.
We are where we are and what does it mean for defence?
I cannot bring myself to be anything other than gloomy about the prospects. The subject was barely mentioned during the campaign apart from the, now perennial, issue about the Labour Leader’s attitude to Trident. The Defence Secretary was interviewed quite frequently, but spoke very little about defence as he was considered to be one of the few ministers trusted to talk about anything.
At least HMS Queen Elizabeth is now at sea, but initial reports that money will have to be saved elsewhere to keep her there are not exactly encouraging, especially as the second carrier is not far behind.
Once again, it highlights the total nonsense of the 2% figure. I have spoken of this before, but it makes no sense whatsoever to restrict defence spending to a fixed figure. Money might be short but the Defence of the Kingdom has to be paramount and not based on the smallest figure NATO could get away with as a target for its members.
There are severe gaps in the capability of all our Armed Forces. These are glaring to those who know about defence and should have the government worried, but nothing seems to get through to those in power who quietly hope that nobody will notice that promising equipment in a few years time is hardly going to provide solid defence in the meantime.
So the answer to my question is: “no, it doesn’t”.
UKNDA has got to play a leading role in bringing the dire defence situation to the attention of both the General Public and the politicians who represent them.
For those with a strong interest in the defence of the realm, which should include us all, the defence sections of the various party manifestos make depressing reading. An interesting exercise, if it were possible, would be to read the relevant sections after removing all references to the party which wrote them and them sort them into order of preference. I suspect that UKIP would top the list in many cases. It could be argued that documents produced by parties with no chance of forming a government are not so much manifestos as statements of desire, but somebody in UKIP has the right idea on defence.
The main concern we should have about the documents produced by the main parties is the constant reference to the ubiquitous 2%. It should have been established by now that this arbitrary figure accepted by NATO cannot possibly be used as a benchmark for sufficient expenditure for our defence needs. Part of the reason for the severe gaps in equipment, manpower and capability is this blind faith that 2% is sufficient. It isn’t, and never will be. To adhere to any fixed percentage must be a nonsense.
In General Elections most people vote for the party which will be the best for their standard of living. Cynical possibly, but I believe it to be true. Very few, if anybody, votes for the party which has what they consider to be the best defence policy.
So, what use are manifestos? They contain commitments which the government must deliver but, essentially, they provide a foundation upon which bodies like UKNDA must continue to insist the politicians build until we have brought our armed forces back to the kind of levels we need.
Whoever wins the election there will be much work to do.
So another election is upon us. The main issue is Brexit and, no doubt, we are going to have more heat than light on the topic.
We cannot allow the parties to neglect defence and this is our chance to ask the candidates in our constituencies what their views are and ensure the subject is properly debated. As in previous elections, I shall be posting the defence sections of the Party Manifestos on the website when they become available.
Did you see the piece on Daily Politics on 24th April? If not go to the iPlayer and find it. The relevant part starts after 52 minutes. In the “Soap Box” slot the writer Andrew Sabisky makes the case for spending 6% of GDP on defence for at least the next five years. He has a good grasp of the issues and clearly explains some of the present deficiencies which, he argues, need fixing quickly.
The government continues to give the impression that, by spending 2% of GDP on defence, everything is fine and we have the defences we need. One look at the shortcomings in our capability and equipment should be enough for anybody with the slightest knowledge of the subject to see that is nonsense.
The Defence Secretary was not only defending the 2% in a radio interview the other day but also admitting that cuts were needed. When pressed on whether the rumours about cuts in the Royal Marines were true, all he could say was that the First Sea Lord had to decide on the Royal Navy’s priorities on spending. That was an extreme case of “passing the buck”.
The Armed Forces are under funded and under equipped. For the government to be even considering cutting the strength of one of the world’s finest fighting elites is nothing less than disgraceful and puts a lie to the notion that defence and security come first in the government’s priorities. If they allowed the Service Chiefs to say what they really think, as they do in America, they might begin to understand the real situation.
We, in UKNDA, need to highlight the weaknesses in our defence, so I would encourage everyone to write to their local press and MP to express their concern. It might also serve to bring this matter better into the public domain.
Finally, let me remind you about the Richard Holmes Memorial Lecture on 24th May. Members should have received notification recently about it, so please let us know as soon as possible if you are coming. It promises to be a good evening with the added advantage of the venue in the House of Commons. More details are on the Home Page.
All NATO members have agreed to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Does this mean that the defence of our country will be assured if we spend that amount? Of course not and, if you want proof, you need look no further to the present state of the armed services now that we have worked our way down to that figure. The government is treating the figure as a target, but it was designed by NATO as a minimum contribution to the safety of all. More worryingly, the government seems set on the idea that spending 2% automatically means that we have sufficient defences.
In an ideal world, we would assess our defence priorities and needs and spend the money to achieve them. Cloud cuckoo land probably, but isn’t that the reason the SDSR system was established? It most definitely was not designed to be used as a cost cutting exercise as in 2010. What happened then was a complete disgrace and has led to many years of a dangerous lack of capability.
The 2015 review was a step in the right direction, but has done very little to repair the damage of 2010.
What can we do?
We must rid ourselves of the 2% syndrome, it is too low. We should not have a specific target; it makes a nonsense of the, not so often quoted as before, adage that Defence and Security are the first priorities of government. What we need to spend will automatically be larger than the NATO commitment.
Whatever we spend must be spent wisely. This has been stressed in our various publications recently and we shall be pursuing the subject further. We need to concern ourselves about who is making the spending decisions. There have been far too many cases of waste and overspending in recent years, but no one seems to be held responsible. Are the service chiefs happy with what has been happening recently? Unfortunately, they are not in a position to say. The Americans can, so why not us?
There is real frustration about our defences and the general public should be concerned. The government do a good job in convincing us that they neither know, or care, much about defence. Surely if they did, we would not be in the position we are in now?