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.
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.