Defence of the Realm
First published: 24th February 2014 | Capt. Alan Hensher MBE RN
This somewhat sonorous phrase – Defence of the Realm – belongs largely to history. Yet it still strikes a note of gravity, reminding us of the primary duty of the Government. Now, some three years since the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was completed under intense financial pressure and when many of its principal and severe cuts have been implemented the commitment of Government to this responsibility is no longer clear. With the full effect of the reductions and their impact on core military capability yet to come, the reality of the Government’s ability to meet its primary duty must be open to question.
The Review was conducted in the main by the National Security Council (NSC), a body created for this purpose. The NSC’s constitution sounds imposing enough with chairmanship by the Prime Minister and includes the Foreign Secretary and the S of S for Defence. However the all- important advisory support elements were dominated by ministerial officials with a paucity of military people. Its role was to establish a UK Defence Strategy and to recommend a Defence structure resulting from the Review that would fulfil that strategy.
The Services looked forward to a Strategy that would give an authoritative lead in unifying purpose and clarity of roles to meet the perceived range of threats to British interests, world -wide. The fact that no such strategic leadership has emerged is beyond dispute. It is disappointing that the strategic policy document is pedestrian in concept and lacks innovation. Of greater concern is that the Strategy’s call for a global reach and intervention capability, even alone, without allies if necessary, was rendered virtually impossible to achieve by the savage cuts to maritime, air and amphibious assets recommended by the NSC – in effect a denial of their own strategy. An important additional benefit that could have flowed from an over-arching and strong strategy policy statement would have been to overcome damaging inter Service friction. Such friction is still very much at play and is further evidence of the inadequacy, at least of the NSC strategy statement.
The root problem lies in the Government’s unwillingness to accord sufficient priority to Defence spending to allow its oft repeated commitment to Defence as a primary duty to be fulfilled. Whereas the budgets for Benefits, the NHS and even Overseas Development are protected, Defence appears to have no status. Inevitably such a negative culture has led to the major decisions of the Review to have been almost wholly governed by financial rather than military factors. There seems to be little recognition that spending on Defence is seldom without significant commercial, employment and scientific benefit. Even so, as compared to almost any other Government spending budget Defence always comes second or worse.
Of course Defence is not popular with the electorate except for those actively engaged and earning a living. This lends credence to the widely held view that the Defence Review decisions were dictated mainly by financial considerations, not military necessity – decisions accepted by a public conditioned by many years of successive Governments’ neglect of the Armed Services.
British Foreign Policy has acquired a universal reputation for excellence. What is often overlooked or even dismissed by appointed senior military advisors, is the vital component of military and especially maritime power or presence that is the foundation of such effective diplomacy.
The fact that Britain no longer leads a globe-spanning empire is often taken as the premise for scaling down our military strength. Yet this dismisses centuries of historical lessons to the contrary: Any significant reduction of Britain’s military capability will diminish our international standing; our diplomatic influence, and betray our global commitments – to our Overseas Territories and defence partners alike.
The link between military power and effective diplomacy existed in the days of Xerxes; of Augustus, and in every era since, including our own – despite fashionable, post-9/11 opinion.
In short, Defence cannot ever be viewed or managed in isolation.
Nevertheless, the prospects for the 2015 Defence Review do not look rosy.
So – what should we do?
A first vital step is for the ‘Defence Strategy’ to be re-written as an integral part of National Policy and Purpose. It must give a simple, clear direction to the three Armed Services and the Foreign Office – indeed, to all Government departments.
We must avoid myopic obsession on terrorist challenges, and dedicate proper resources for projecting critical conventional war-fighting abilities overseas, with a special eye to defending Britain’s Overseas Colonial or Dependent Territories. Far from an imperial hangover, these entities often rely on us like any other part of Britain – yet now, we could not mount another Falklands campaign.
Above all, in delivering these, Britain’s military personnel must overcome inter-Service friction and anomalies. From resolving differences in the services’ outlooks, to clear guidance on command and control involving joint operations, Britain’s military must present a united front, ready for future threats.
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