James Sunderland: The Integrated Review. To project power in the world, we musn’t skimp on support arms and force protection

15 Mar

James Sunderland is MP for Bracknell.

You’ve got to take your hat off to the Secretary of State for Defence. With speculation rising to fever pitch ahead of the imminent publication of the Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, hardly a day goes by without yet another story appearing in the national press about what is being cut from the Royal Navy, Army or Royal Air Force.

As a man who has nobly carried on his shoulders this most ambitious and far-reaching of all defence reviews for years, you can hardly blame Ben Wallace for keeping tight-lipped. Having an extra £16.5 billion to spend on shiny new toys is perhaps the stuff of dreams, but predicting the future is a tricky business, and our enemies are unlikely to fight as we might expect. The element of surprise is everything.

In addition, not only must the Ministry of Defence fulfil its clear imperative to keep our national secrets safe, but it is surely the most susceptible of all Government departments to the friendly persuasion of so many armchair experts.

With our retired admirals, generals and air marshals, in particular, refusing to bow out gracefully, journalists poised to deploy their pens and Opposition MPs lining up to fire their opening salvo, is it any wonder that copious quantities of body armour are being issued to officials along the corridors of Whitehall?

Sadly, the excellent Defence Secretary may himself need to be first in the queue – for no other reason than he is the fall guy who will ultimately have to take responsibility for what he must now glean from his crystal ball. And to be frank, it is a near-impossible task.

At the heart of the review is the need for the UK to properly define its future role in the world. In true ‘chicken and egg’ fashion, my view is that policy follows strategy, so it stands to reason that our global strategy will pave the way for the next generation of foreign and defence policy aims that will see us to 2030 and beyond.

But, as always, the reality is somewhat more complex. For as long as the UK continues to see itself as a global player, which of course we must, our ongoing and rightful commitment to a seat on the altar of the United Nations Security Council comes with responsibilities that cannot be sacrificed, not least our independent nuclear deterrent. So the review must not just tackle how we allocate the recent increase in defence spending to beyond 2.2 per cent of GDP, but where, when, and why.

For those in any doubt, defence spending is a necessary evil to keep us safe. Today, we face a multitude of threats in multiple domains, some are known to us and some are not, and we are living in an era of constant competition and persistent engagement with our foes. Sub-threshold conflict pervades all around us and it’s a dichotomy perhaps that, in this era of relative peace and prosperity, our future has also rarely been less certain or predictable, not least in the new battlegrounds of space and cyber.

So the UK needs an insurance policy and, thanks to the financial commitment of this Government, the Ministry of Defence finds itself in the rare position of being able to think long-term with its capability planning. This provides certainty, security, clarity, and the confidence to meet our ambition through longer term strategy.

But, as the perceived requirement for precision, stealth, remote and indirect weapons at distance becomes more acute, the bills that come with this are also increasing. Whilst we do still need to put boots on the ground, sailors in our ships and pilots in the air, it may just be that there are better ways of prosecuting military force in a way that does not decisively commit our forces to unacceptable physical risks.

My suspicion is that buying out this danger is one of the core challenges of the digital age, and there may not be a better time to bury bad news. And as Wallace knows, not least as a former Army officer, honouring every single sacred cow is the stuff of fantasy, and there may be blood on the carpet.

It is not for me to wax lyrical about what should be in the Integrated Review, but it seems obvious that the proverbial golf bag of military capability will need to carry a greater range of more expensive clubs. For a start, the golden thread that links hard power with soft power through global free trade, freedom of movement, cooperation and diplomacy, all under-pinned by military force, is persuasive.

Indeed, protecting our trade routes, oil reserves, sovereignty, exports and national interests will continue to require the availability of hard power at unlimited liability and at immediate readiness. If post-EU Britain is to maintain its global presence alongside increasingly ambitious competitors, perhaps even East of Suez, it is inevitable that truly expeditionary capabilities will be needed.

We must therefore enhance our ability to project force by being able to call upon the additional lift needed. So, our naval support vessels, ferries and long-range transport aircraft such as C17 and A400M will need to be augmented alongside our fighting platforms. And if our core assumption is still to put a divisional sized force anywhere in the world, with all of the support arms and force protection that comes with it, then going to the market for a commercial lift solution or contracted logistics cannot be the default setting. We skimp here at our peril.

Beyond this, the Navy will need more ships. As quantity does have a quantity of its own, I would like to see a larger surface fleet, perhaps with less capable platforms, to protect our carriers and enhance our global presence. And if we are to project power from land, sea and air, we will need to invest in our operating bases, not just at our traditional sites in Cyprus, Gibraltar and Ascension, but also at Diego Garcia, Bahrain, Singapore and beyond.

Coalitions will be a force-multiplier so existing defence relations with NATO, the UN, Five Eyes community, Five Powers Defence Agreement, EU and through bilateral deals with allies such as France should be reinforced. Greater integration between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, plus our intelligence services, GCHQ, cyber centres, Space Command and our diplomatic network will be essential too. Better aligning our foreign policy with defence policy in the light of the reduction from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of GDP will also be pivotal and we must not of course forget the need for a new industrial strategy to better support our nascent defence manufacturing industry. So, let’s again build British, buy British and sell British.

Irrespective of the conjecture that has recently appeared in the national press, I can state with certainty that two things will occur. The first is that our best brains have been working on the review for months, and that the final publication will be worth the wait. And the second is that it will be the most brilliant, comprehensive, and incisive analysis of modern defence and foreign policy requirements anywhere in the world for years.

As any armchair enthusiast knows, the first rule of politics is that there is no right and wrong, only degrees of judgement. So irrespective of how unpalatable the review may be to some, there is no doubt that the Secretary of State will be earning his money by standing up to be counted at the Despatch Box. And it may even be that body-armour will not be required.

James Sunderland: The Armed Forces have risen to the challenges of Covid. Parliament must not waste this opportunity to repay them.

9 Mar

James Sunderland is MP for Bracknell.

As the Armed Forces Bill weaves its way through Parliament, MPs must make the most of this vital opportunity to reflect on the strengths and needs of our Armed Forces by ensuring that this new legislation is fit for purpose. As Chair of the newly formed Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, I look forward to supporting my colleagues in Westminster as a critical friend, spearheading scrutiny and advocating for our military personnel and service families wherever they may be.

The Armed Forces Bill is a procedural anomaly harking back to the 1689 Bill of Rights. Every five years, the Bill must pass through Parliament, thereby renewing the Armed Forces Act in statute and enabling the maintenance of standing forces in peacetime. Since 1961, the Bill has led to the creation of a unique hybrid committee, technically a select committee, with the power to summon witnesses and hear evidence, but also acting as a public bill committee by scrutinising the legislation line-by-line. Not only is the Bill essential to retaining and resourcing our Armed Forces, but it has come to serve as a ‘checkpoint’ for what works, what doesn’t and for what is needed in statute.

At the heart of the Bill is the highly successful Armed Forces Covenant, which has already been signed by countless councils, businesses, and public stakeholders right across the UK. This is the Government’s commitment to honouring the Armed Forces and the countless sacrifices made by service personnel in the line of duty. This pledge, conceived over a decade ago to provide for and protect the Armed Forces, compels the Government to tackle the most pressing issues facing service personnel, such as their physical and mental health, employment, accommodation, and their legal representation.

The Covenant consists of two foundational principles; namely that there should be no disadvantages as a result of military service, and that special consideration should be afforded when appropriate, particularly for those who are injured or bereaved. Since its inception, there have been calls to strengthen this pledge in law, with some even criticising the extant legislation.

In its accepted form, the Covenant includes a range of ever-changing policy areas, including health, housing, employment, pensions, compensation, social care, education, criminal justice, and immigration. Recent debate amongst policy makers, local authorities, military charities and other stakeholders has centred upon what is deliverable in statute so the current Bill only covers certain aspects of health, housing, and education. Some argue that this approach risks creating a two-tier Covenant, one in which certain policy areas are considered lower priority in comparison to others.

But this isn’t the only potential for inconsistency. Members of the Armed Forces are spread across the UK, accessing public services through national, devolved, regional and local bodies. Opponents therefore say that the Bill largely applies to local government, and fails to hold national government and the devolved administrations to the same legal standard. As yet, there is no published detail on how the Government will guarantee equity for service personnel accessing public services and it runs the risk of creating a postcode lottery, depending on the individual commitment being made by local councils, health and education providers.

However, the Bill will set primary legislation for how this will be practically delivered and this long-standing promise to integrate the Covenant into law should be warmly embraced. It is the job of the Bill Committee to provide the necessary scrutiny so providing that the Ministry of Defence shows the necessary leg and goodwill, I am confident that this commitment will be honoured and that the faith of the Armed Forces in Government will be ably repaid.

We are also a year on from the Service Justice System Review. Otherwise known as the Lyons Review, this was a comprehensive, independent policy evaluation that recommended further reform of our approach to military justice and complaints. Reassuringly, the Armed Forces Bill will implement many of these endorsements, such as changing the constitution of court martial boards, allowing independent oversight of the Service Police, increasing the powers of commanding officers and permitting mistakes to be more easily rectified in law.

These policy recommendations have been broadly welcomed by the military community and it is right of course that the MOD should keep hold of this unique service justice system in a way that might not have been possible through continued membership of the EU. Through our inquiry, the Committee will also ask what the rationale is for implementing some of the recommendations, but not others. A notable exception is why the legislation does not answer calls to try the most serious crimes in a civilian court only but there will be good reasons why the Government seeks to maintain the autonomy of the armed forces.

This indeed is a pivotal moment for defence. The ongoing delay to the Integrated Review, the announcement last year of historic increases to defence spending and rumoured cuts to troop numbers, all paint a picture of an organisation in flux. But of course, this is exactly what the Ministry of Defence is – an organisation which is rightly and impressively on the move. The Armed Forces Bill therefore provides a timely opportunity for the Government to send a clear message of commitment to all service personnel, and to instigate the very reform requested by the Department itself.

Finally, the pandemic has again served to highlight the tremendous sacrifices that our Armed Forces make, and it is essential that Parliament is always fighting their corner. In terms of the committee’s vital contribution to this process, we are keen to amplify the voices of those with recent on-the-ground experience, as well as policy experts, so that we get the legislation right.

Given too that our service personnel always rise to the tough challenges set by the Government, it is even more important that politicians of all parties robustly step up to support them. Parliament must not therefore waste this opportunity to be a force for good, and to do the right thing.