Defence – The most important duty of government but sadly, not a vote winner

First published: 11th September 2011 | Admiral Alan West GCB DSC PC

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In 1998 the Labour Government produced a Strategic Defence Review to almost universal acclaim. It had taken the best part of two years to complete and, for the first time since World War II, was conducted in conjunction with the Foreign Office and its policy objectives. Some twelve years later the Coalition Government produced its Strategic Defence and Security Review to almost universal condemnation after some five months in power. In theory it was driven by the requirements of the National Security Strategy but that link was somewhat tenuous. Indeed the lack of coherence of some of the decisions – paying off the newly refitted HMS ARK ROYAL and scrapping our best, indeed only real close support aircraft, the Harrier – has left military experts, academics and allies dumfounded and our rivals and possible enemies, contemptuous. Bizarrely, there were other options that would have achieved greater savings with less strategic risk.

There is no doubt that the UK’s situation in 1998 was very different from that in 2010. Unlike today, the country was not grappling with the aftermath of a global financial crisis and severe recession. However, some myths do need to be put to bed. If one looked at the Ministry of Defence’s long-term programmes/commitments in 1998 and used the same methodology as Liam Fox for his £36Bn ‘black hole’, there would have been a black hole of some £28Bn.

When Labour took over power from the Conservatives in 1997 the ill-judged and badly-run Typhoon programme was out of control. At the same time, despite constant warnings from the naval staff, the delay (until 1996) in ordering the Astute class submarines had almost destroyed our in-house capability to design and construct such complex platforms and meant there would inevitably be an uncontrollable growth in cost. Having cancelled the disastrous Nimrod AEW programme in the late ‘80s, the Conservatives embarked on the equally ill-fated Nimrod MRA4 programme in December 1996. The Complex alliance politics and disagreements over requirements had for twelve years be-devilled the multi-national programme (NFR90/CNGF) for a warship with which we hoped to replace the Type 42 destroyers. This was inevitably leading to a delayed and more expensive replacement, which became the Type 45 programme. The disgraceful purchase of 8 SF Chinooks without appropriate software support had been made in 1995 and the illogical ownership of the support helicopter force by the RAF rather than the Army was already impacting on sensible decisions regarding its procurement needs.

So having conducted a good Defence Review how was Labour’s stewardship of Defence? Problems arose almost immediately as it became apparent that the clearly articulated and welcomed programme was not being fully funded. Indeed from year one there was an £800 million annual shortfall. It was extremely unfortunate that Defence could not get its voice heard above that of other departments but military power was not considered a vote winner. Indeed whether intended or not, Labour gave the impression as the administration ran on that the post of Secretary of Defence was not one of the most important cabinet positions. Perceptions, however erroneous, are hard to dislodge. For instance, there is a general view that the Conservatives are more willing to invest in Defence than Labour, which since 1930 is far from the case. The gap in funding from 1998 was particularly unfortunate as national wealth burgeoned and money could have been found with little pain by siphoning off a small proportion of the National Health Service’s massive increase in resources or those devoted to giving DFID too much money before it was able to use it wisely or well..

The other factor was that the Prime Minister was using the military more and more: Operation Desert Fox against Iraq in 1998, the Kosovo conflict in early 1999, East Timor in late 1999, Sierra Leone in early 2000, the invasion of Afghanistan late 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in early 2003. It is regrettable that the Prime Minister as First Secretary of the Treasury failed to ensure that the Chancellor fully funded Defence. Although the costs of those operations were meant to be found from the reserve, they never quite were. Consequently, the impact of a steady underfunding and greater military involvement was having a pernicious effect.

The Conservatives had left procurement in a mess and although Lord Drayson made huge strides in that area, not least in the early work on the Defence Industrial Strategy, there remained considerable unfinished business. The worst programmes were primarily those initiated in the early and mid 90s.

Several factors had a huge impact on the Labour Government’s popularity and its defence credentials: the controversial invasion of Iraq and the mishandling of its aftermath; the flawed decision to remain in Afghanistan after the initial invasion post 9/11 and the equally flawed decision to move into the Helmand region with its consequent toll on our servicemen’s lives.

In addition the impression, albeit incorrect, that our military were going into harm’s way without adequate funding became a recurrent theme on the floor of the House. There is no doubt that the underfunding of the core defence budget from 1998 onwards was the reason for that perception even though total defence spending was growing. The reality is that by 2008/9 our people had never before been so well equipped for an operation in which they were involved. And in Harrier GR9 we deployed what our people in harm’s way knew and said was the best close support aeroplane in the alliance in Afghanistan, apart from possibly the A-10 Warthog of the USAF

The 1998 review clearly identified the need for UK to be a global player capable of expeditionary operations and one key difference from the preceding years was the realization that to conduct such operations required two large aircraft carriers. The two new large strike carriers were the centerpiece of the 1998 Defence Review and all policy work throughout the first decade of the millennium showed that they were needed. That requirement was supported by the latest Coalition NSS and SDSR 2010 but the carrier programme illustrated some of the inherent problems within defence procurement. First, the initial cost estimate was quite clearly too low (the triumph of optimism) and there was a steady struggle over the first years of the millennium to provide a realistic funding line. As First Sea Lord, I was effectively forced to give up excellent frigates that we sorely needed as I was made to find the money for the Carriers from within the “maritime programme”. It was a mistake and I should have fought harder and asked to see the Prime Minister to obtain extra funding from the Treasury or from other less significant programmes within the MOD. In addition there was entrenched opposition from areas of the civil service and military to their procurement. Some in Whitehall were opposed to the UK having the capability to intervene elsewhere in the world; without carriers, amphibious shipping and supporting naval assets our global reach would be curtailed – whether in the national interest or not.

Even though it was government policy to build the carriers, hurdles were constantly put in the programme’s way and led, for example, to the ridiculous slippage of the programme in 2008. Those same opponents hoped it would spell the end for the carriers in any 2010 defence review but, as it turned out, just added £1.6Bn to their cost.

The 1998 review articulated the need to maintain our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent but it was not until the early part of the new millennium that decisions had to be made about renewing the warheads and replacing the submarines. A funding line for the former was provided and the initial work to replace the submarine was embarked on. It was agreed in principle that the capital costs of the replacement submarines would come from the reserve.

So what should Labour learn from its thirteen years in power and what is required for the future? The flawed SDSR 2010 and significant reductions to our military show that Defence is not safe in Coalition hands. The United States is worried about our ability to stand beside them and we are no longer the pre-eminent military power in Europe. It is interesting that Liam Fox in the 2007 Commons Defence debate described the existing defence force structure as woefully inadequate. It was of course significantly larger than that resulting from the SDSR over which Dr Fox has presided. David Cameron has been forced by his Coalition colleagues to kick the final decision on replacing our aging deterrent submarines outside of this parliament, making it a political football. At the same time he has forced the MOD to find the money from its already dramatically reduced budget rather than from the reserve.

The SDSR decision to go for the F35C aircraft for the carriers was correct but there is no clarity on whether or not both carriers will be fitted with catapults and arrester wires. If not, one can predict a scenario that when the nation needs to deploy a fully armed carrier, which it will, there will not be one in commission.

Post SDSR 2010, 2% of UK GDP is spent on Defence – if money for current operations from the reserve is included – and it is set to fall below this figure over the next four years to as low as 1.7%. As the reductions bite we will become a different nation. Can we really expect to remain a permanent member of the UN Security Council? How can we look after our dependencies? Perhaps we should ask France to take that responsibility? How can we justify running the majority of the world’s shipping from London, with the International Maritime Organisation based there, when we are unable even to protect our own merchant fleet? Who will look after our five and a half million nationals and our vast investments overseas?

Our people and their commitment and courage are fundamental to the excellence of our military forces. They were seriously overstretched according to Liam Fox when in opposition and yet we are now running numbers down further. The Coalition has embarked on a new war whilst at the same time looking to reduce some of the personal allowances of our military personnel.

I am concerned that successive governments have been in some kind of denial. We are continuing to pretend that we can be a major international player and deploy military force without taking the trouble to invest in it now or in its future. Since we want something for which we are not prepared to pay the price, we should be prepared to make the strategic and policy choices which follow from this refusal. We are guilty of not giving the serious intellectual effort necessary to our position and strategic goals in the world, nor analysing the threats, risks and vulnerabilities that face us.

Labour must not make the same mistake in the future. Although to many it will not be a popular strategy Labour should, I believe, make a clear commitment to increasing the percentage of GDP spent on Defence to 2.5%. It is important to do what successive governments have not done which is face financial realities and align military ambitions and operations with budgets. However, the MOD does need fixing. For about £40 billion a year we are getting a pretty poor deal: post SDSR 2010, we shall by 2015 have a Royal Navy which will be the smallest since Pepys’ day, a Royal Air Force with less combat aircraft than Sweden, and an Army which is one of the smallest amongst the top twenty or thirty nations and smaller than most major NATO countries’ armies. We should ensure a root and branch change to MOD structures and how business is done.

Nothing should be off the agenda even such controversial moves as rationalizing down to two services – one responsible for continental warfare and one for maritime warfare. There should be more use made of a larger territorial army whilst reducing the number of regulars. The procurement process within the MOD, indeed more broadly across government, must be sorted out. The Bernard Gray report documented that chopping and changing by politicians wasted up to a third of the procurement budget. Let us tell the people frankly that we have learned our lesson for next time. We should show a clear commitment to supporting our high-tech defence industries in producing the best defence equipment in the world. We should be clear in our intention to build and run two carriers capable of operating the requisite maritime strike air group and continue to maintain our expeditionary capability.

Let us lead in re-building a cross-party consensus on the proper defence of the Realm following the example of the collaboration between Bob Ainsworth MP and Bernard Jenkin MP in their hard-hitting and important effort to force a public debate on just the issues I am raising here as well as a proper debate on the nature of our national interests.

Diplomacy, aid, the BBC world service, training of other nations’ military, education of their youngsters, maximum leverage from the universality of English, use of bilateral and alliance relationships – these are many if not an exhaustive list of the things that can further the interests of our nation, enhance our wealth and, by fostering stability, help ensure our security. But this ‘soft power’ is weakened if not powerless if the aura of power that the possession of ‘hard power’ and the will to use it, confers.

There are real dangers of an extremely chaotic and highly dangerous world developing over the next decades, not least within the context of possibly irreversible climate change and ever increasing competition for resources of all kinds among a rapidly expanding world population. In the final analysis our national survival will depend as it always has on our military and, as an island nation, particularly on our maritime forces. Labour must show the lead where the Coalition has failed and keep our nation’s sword and armour bright.


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