Mark Francois is the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, a member of the Defence Select Committee and a former Armed Forces Minister.
As the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine only began five days ago, it may be too early to draw long-term conclusions, not least as we do not yet know how this war – for that is what is now palpably is – will play out. Nevertheless, there are at least four things which are already very clear.
First, this is a gigantic wake-up call for NATO, and indeed the free world more generally. I have written on this site before about how the reluctance of European NATO nations to meet the NATO target to spend at least 2 per cent of their GDP on defence was making the world a more dangerous place. Moreover, NATO’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer can only have encouraged adventurism in Russia.
We must also appreciate who we are dealing with. Vladimir Putin and most of his closest associates were senior officers in the Soviet KGB. These are utterly ruthless men, who are unlikely to be deterred by economic measures alone.
Their ultimate benchmark will be hard power, both nuclear and conventional, rather than sanctions, which they will have already priced in. The Russian psyche despises weakness, and so we need to react accordingly.
It is encouraging to note that NATO is beginning to close ranks and agree on sanctions and military aid to Ukraine. But we need to enhance our efforts and quickly, if we are to persuade Putin to abandon any idea, however fanciful, of attacking the Baltic States or Poland. Our response must includes not just deploying more troops on NATO’s borders. but also increasing our operational readiness to rapidly respond to any incursion.
Second, within the U.K itself, we need to “Review the Review.” The conventional war on the Central European landmass unfolding before us, is a massive international event – comparable in security terms to a 9/11.
It is likely to be a game-changer, which means that the much-vaunted Integrated Review of Foreign, Defence and Security Policy published only last year, has already been overtaken by events.
The Review, which was intellectually incoherent from the outset, self-evidently failed to anticipate the near-term likelihood of massive Russian aggression.
Its defence aspects were particularly flawed, since it envisaged further deep cuts in U.K. conventional forces, including reducing the British Army by a further 10,000 regular soldiers down to just over 73,000, its smallest size since the post-Napoleonic age.
Worse still, it purported to bolster our Armed Forces in five to ten years time by taking excessive risks in the next few years to finance the later improvements. Under the Review, critical capabilities – such as our already inadequate force of frigates, airborne early warning aircraft and armoured fighting vehicles – were to be retired or sold off, years before their replacements were due to come into service.
In particular, the British Army’s armoured and infantry forces were to be pared back, so that we could field a fully-fledged “war fighting division” – around a decade from now. What good is all that to us this spring?
The intellectual fig-leaf for this self-imposed disarmament, which mercifully has not yet been fully implemented, is called the “Integrated Operating Concept” (IOC). When you strip away all the Whitehall techno-babble, the essence of the IOC is that we can get away with fewer tanks, armoured vehicles etc, because the remainder will be better able to communicate and interact, thus producing a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
The fundamental problem with this approach, as Captain Blackadder famously said to Private Baldrick about a previous military plan in the last ever episode of Blackadder, “is that it’s Bollocks.”
To begin with, the IOC largely relies on equipment which either doesn’t work (such as “Ajax”, the £4 billion light-tank, which has been delayed for years because it injures its own crew) or kit that doesn’t even exist yet, like “LeTacsis/Morpheus” (an all-singing all-dancing communications system, which hasn’t even been designed yet, is years away from service and is presently bogged down in endless disputes with contractors).
Moreover, the emphasis on high-tech solutions to everything ignores the brutal truth that, for all it’s technology, NATO was eventually run out of Afghanistan by what some commentators have described as “a bunch of country boys”, with light weapons and not an aircraft, satellite or submarine between them.
For the Russians, such theorising is unlikely to deter the 8th St. Petersburg Girl Guide Troop (Motorised), let alone the First Guards Tank Army. As Stalin famously said: “quantity has a quality all of its own.” The whole IOC, which is at the heart of the Review, and which provides the rationale for reducing our Army even further, is fatally flawed. We will likely need to go back to the drawing board and think again.
Third, it seems likely that U.K. defence spending will have to increase from its current level of around 2.3 per cent of GDP. The House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC), on which I have now served for five years, has consistently called for U.K. defence spending to reach at least three per cent of GDP, even before Russia invaded the Crimea and deployed a chemical weapon on U.K. soil in Salisbury in 2014.
Indeed, during the Cold War, it stood at around five per cent but was then slashed, by Government’s of both colours, as they extracted a “peace dividend” after the Wall came down. Well, following a major break-in, it looks as if our “insurance premium” is about to go up again, lest we allow the highly aggressive burglar to run riot.
However, as Conservatives, we instinctively believe that public spending is not just about how much you spend but, crucially, how effectively you spend it. The all-party Public Accounts Committee declared just a few months ago that MoD’s defence procurement system is “broken.”
Of the Department’s 36 largest procurement programmes, which were independently audited by the Government’s Infrastructure Projects Authority, not a single one -was on track to enter service both on time and on cost.
The Blob (which in this case takes the form of Defence Equipment and Support, or DE&S) is hopelessly inefficient. The Russian invasion of Ukraine should have finally persuaded us that we need radical reform in this procurement area, which employs over 10,000 people to do what the Israelis do better with barely 2,500.
Fourth, we need to materially increase our operational readiness. During the Cold War, our Armed Forces were held at high states of readiness, ready to respond to any incursion across the then inner-German border within a matter of hours.
Today, with a few exceptions (such as the RAF’s Quick Reaction Alert aircraft to intercept Russian bombers) our forces are held at much longer notice, especially with regard to a general conflagration.
As just one example, of our six, £1 billion each, Type 45 destroyers, only one was operationally available last July, due to a persistent problem with their propulsion systems, which the MoD is not scheduled to fully rectify until 2028.
Given what has just happened in Ukraine, we should now look critically at our readiness states across the board, and encourage our allies to do likewise. We should fix the kit that doesn’t work as a matter of urgency. As such, we should be prepared to issue a number of Urgent Operational Requirements ( MoD speak for drop all the bureaucracy and get the job done as soon as possible) to bring our kit up to scratch, of which the Type 45s could be but the first example.
In summary, we are now living in a different world from a week ago. Russia has invaded a peaceful, democratic, sovereign state. All those yards of newsprint and tweets from commentators who said this could never happen have been shown to be utterly wrong.
If you believe, as I do, that the first job of our Armed Forces is actually to deter war, by showing any potential aggressor that we are both morally willing and technically ready to defend ourselves and defeat them, then we need to change our whole mindset in Whitehall and indeed in Parliament too – and we had best do it quickly. The Romans had a powerful saying: “Si vis pacem parra bellum” – he who desires peace should prepare for war.
So should we. Not next year – or in ten years time – but now.