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The two most recent official reports on UK defence – the National Audit Office (NAO) on the procurement budget and the Commons Defence Committee’s contribution on the Royal Marines – both point to appalling lapses in accounting, planning and policy at the MoD. Above all, they signal an alarming lack of strategic direction and imagination, a sense of malaise that comes right from the very top from ministers, the department itself, the cabinet and the Prime Minister.
Defence and security, strategy and policy are now at the forefront of the political agenda, whether the public like it or not. They form a vital component to the next round of the Brexit negotiations, for example.
More importantly, the UK’s approach to defence is minimalist, although it remains a country with vast strategic and organizational responsibilities: a P5 member of the UN Security Council, and one of the two European NATO nuclear powers.
“You can almost physically sense the draining away of British influence with the Americans,” a recent chief of the naval staff told me.
The NAO’s report, ‘Ministry of Defence: The Equipment 2017 to 2027’ was a brutal indictment of the UK’s defence planning – the government simply cannot pay for all the programmes currently on order. At a minimum the current shortfall is £4.9 billion, with a potential affordability gap of £20.8 billion over ten years. Most of this has been reported repeatedly over the past year, despite Philip Hammond’s boast that he had balanced the equipment budget when he was defence secretary six years ago.
The NAO’s findings range from the merely incompetent and ill-thought out to plain bizarre – some £9.6 billion of forecast costs just disappeared from the published ‘Equipment Plan’. Too much faith is being placed on efficiency savings of £15 billion made over a ten year period: savings have so far been well below that target. The MoD civil service is also due to be cut to 40,000 or below. The numbers are still substantially higher than that.
Last year Sir Michael Fallon, as defence secretary, announced plans to buy the Type31e ‘cheap and cheerful’ frigate, that would not cost more than £250 million each. The £1.3billion to buy the first five frigates was left out of the equipment plan. This is quite apart from the fact that few in the Navy believe the cut price frigate would be of much operational value beyond offshore, drug and fishery patrols. “For that kind of money you won’t get anything of meaningful defence value,” a former naval chief remarked. With its lack of protective measures, and light armament, the new frigate looks too vulnerable to operate in the eastern Mediterranean, let alone in the Red Sea and the Gulf.
The biggest distortion in the ten year plan is the rising cost of the Trident nuclear deterrent replacement programme, and the submarine force as a whole. In one year an additional £941 million was needed to fund the building of the seventh Astute Class hunter killer and the programme for the Dreadnought ballistic missile SSBN Class – whose actual construction has barely begun. Defence inflation is nearly always higher than in most other industrial sectors. There are also the additional pressures of the slide of the pound against major currencies, especially the dollar.
But this cannot explain why the MoD, and defence chiefs went ahead with ordering what it could not afford. The year before last, Sir Michael Fallon announced the RAF was to acquire nine Boeing P8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft. Full costings weren’t revealed at the time – but the figure was given at around £3 billion. The final sum will be much higher once maintenance, training, upgrading are taken into account – and the major parts of this activity will be run by the United States. Cheaper alternatives were, and are, available.
To fix things, and put off the impending train crash in defence finances, two reviews have been ordered. ‘The National Security Capability Review’, run by the National Security Adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill at the Cabinet Office is supposed to be looking at security, defence, foreign policy and strategy across the piece – and this includes policing, intelligence services, counter-terrorism, cyber threats, border security, and more beside.
Due at the end of last year, it is now expected by Easter. But after pressure from Gavin Wiliamson, defence was taken out of the initial Sedwill review. There will now be a separate ‘Defence Modernisation’ review to report some time in the autumn. According to Mr Williamson’s office, the review is to be ‘fiscally neutral’ – whatever that means in the topsy-turvy world of MoD book-keeping .
It is almost as if the two reviews are designed to weaken, even nullify each other. It’s an elegant paradox. The Security Capability Review will be hard put to assess national strategy requirements and capability if it cannot pronounce on national defence, given the paralysis in decision-making on finance and policy.
And the ‘Defence Modernisation’ review has been given less than five months to be signed off and sent to the printers – which means there will be scant consideration of long-term strategic goals and requirements.
The opening shots in the lobbying campaign for the ‘Defence Modernisation’ review are already being fired. The head of the Army, General Sir Nick Carter, has warned of the dire military threat from a resurgent Russia. He is after more money to upgrade equipment from tanks to ISTAR surveillance and communications. We are likely to hear similar pitches from the other services. There seems to be some notion that the services and defence can get another £4 billion out of the Treasury, or roughly the sum that the NAO calculates is the current shortfall in funding to pay for the equipment programmes as they now stand at 2018. It is a prime example of what General Sir Sam Cowan, the first and most astute Chief of Defence, used to call ‘the Micawber tendency’ that pervades MoD procurement culture – the misplaced belief that something will always turn up.
The immediate result of all this is an orgy of short-termism, policy wheezes and cuts to keep the dogs of Downing Street at bay. The latest example of this process is revealed in the House of Commons Defence Committee report on the Navy’s Amphibious Capability – and the likely ‘sunset of the Royal Marines’. Based on informed conjecture, the Committee examines the likelihood of drastic cuts to the Corps of Royal Marines by between one and two thousand from a present trained strength of 6,450. It also looks at the rumour that the Navy plans to scrap the two dedicated landing support ships (LPDs) HMS Albion and Bulwark, not scheduled for decommission until 2033.
The Naval Staff want the cuts in order to preserve the core budget and personnel. I also wants to keep operational the Trident missile force and the two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales. The Committee reports that it still cannot establish a final cost for the carriers, as the price and affordability of the F-35 Lightning II aircraft is as yet unclear.
The Marines are now the victims of what one of their most distinguished veterans, Lt General Sir Rob Fry, calls ‘the playground politics’ of the naval service, the MoD and its ministers. One of the three commandos, the Marine version of a battalion, has been stripped out so that two hundred Marines can be sent to man the second carrier, the Prince of Wales. On the back of this, Sir Michael Fallon urged the closure of the Chivenor base in order to realise the real estate value. At the same time he proposed moving the HQ of the Marines out of Plymouth to Torpoint – a long overdue and sensible move. In addition, he proposed cramming what was left of the commando units onto the same site, around the HMS Raleigh training base. When he was told there was simply not enough room to accommodate the units and their logistical support, Sir Michael restorted to “f-ing and blinding”, according to one present, at senior officers during one tour of the bases.
The proposed cuts to the Marines and the amphibious fleet are short-sighted. “Why get rid of two very good ships that work, for carriers which may not work out in the way intended at all,” comments Major General Julian Thompson, who led the amphibious operation in the Falklands.
A former chief of the naval staff, sees a process at work of “advisers and commanders getting away with what they can to satisfy the leadership in Downing Street – not least the Cabinet Secretary – without getting themselves into trouble.”
Absent from the entire scene is any sense of strategy – understanding where Britain is, where it needs to go, and the necessary policies to ensure security and future prosperity. In the aftermath of the Cold War, and the (ongoing) debacles in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the implications of huge ruptures in the human, physical, and virtual landscape, the UK, as much as any first world power and economy, is at ‘a strategic flexion point’. The geopolitical page is turning in a big way, whether we like it or not, with or without Brexit.
This has been met by a dearth of deep thinking about strategy and policy by the services and government. In the past at similar turning points some bold analysis has been made by bold spirits. After the near defeat of British forces in the Boer War in 1904, Lord Esher drew up his report to reorganize the War Office and more or less invented the General Staff that would see the British and Dominion forces through the Great War.
During that war, and for a long while after, Sir Maurice Hankey, as secretary to the Overseas and Defence Committee, managed the strategy of balancing Britain’s continental commitment with the global reach required for managing the British Empire at its greatest territorial extent. Effectively he was the first of the modern cabinet secretaries and national security advisers.
Another great project, this time a kind of strategic reassessment by stealth, was carried out by Harold Macmillan in the aftermath of the Suez crisis of 1956. Through a series of committees, and the Duncan Sandys Defence Review of 1957, Macmillan carried out a complete appraisal of where Britain stood, what it needed and what it could afford to do. Macmillan took no prisoners. Britain’s military and nuclear posturing, its overextended empire and its nascent relationship to Europe were looked at with cold, clear eyes.
That is the kind of thing that Sir Mark Sedwill and the Cabinet Office should be preparing in their Capability Review – but there is little sign from their offices at 70 Whitehall that they believe in emulating the insights and courage of Esher, Hankey and Macmillan.
Strategy goes hand in hand with policy, and the two are the ultimate responsibility of the person at the helm: the Prime Minister. It requires a process of stepping back and then stepping two stages forward, to an appreciation of what will unfold in the next decade.
May seems to have passed the buck on strategy and defence policy. She has let the military chiefs fight it out among themselves. This is how we get half-baked ideas like closing down the Royal Marines from the Navy in order to keep unnecessary carriers afloat. This is how we get absurd notions from the Army’s command structure, like the need for ‘information manoeuvre’ (whatever that means, when it is at home) and new tanks to patrol the marches of Eastern Europe.
May seems to got her attitude towards the marshals and the admirals straight from the Frankie Howard playbook: in short, ‘just please yourselves.’
A real exercise in radical strategic thinking and planning might make a name for any architect bold enough. If radical, bold and innovative decisions are taken on matters such as carrier strike, Trident, cyber crime, organized crime, and migration, it could save money as well as ensure a more stable future.