Mark Francois: Now the Government must tear up the Integrated Review, start again – and boost the army

28 Feb

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.

Robert Halfon: America has abandoned the Afghans. But we must stick with the Kurds.

8 Sep

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has jangled nerves in allied nations. One such place is the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

The situation in Kurdistan and Iraq is quite different from Afghanistan. American armed forces
 in Iraq and Kurdistan will end combat operations by the end of the year. But Iraq and America 
have recently agreed that 2,500 American troops will stay to assist, advise, and train.

The Americans stress the continuing importance of their strategic relationship with Iraq and are
 building the single biggest consulate in the world in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan.

The UK
 supports a strong Kurdistan Region in Iraq and also has a sizeable diplomatic presence in Erbil.
The presence of American troops and bases in the Kurdistan Region is certainly desired by its
 people and government. American, British, and German soldiers are providing invaluable training to the Peshmerga, and
 are seeking to unify it under the authority of the government rather than the two main parties – a
 legacy of the past.

A strong Peshmerga is ever more necessary, as the fall of Kabul to the Taliban will embolden 
what Tony Blair calls Radical Islam elsewhere. The Peshmerga have proved a dedicated and capable ally in resisting such extremism. They held
 out almost alone for several years after ISIS took Mosul, and then attacked Kurdistan in 2014.
 Eventually, the Peshmerga and the revived Iraqi Army dislodged Daesh from its genocidal
 caliphate. RAF jets were essential to this achievement.

But it is not complete. Isis is smaller, but regrouping in the gaps between the Iraqi Army and the
 Peshmerga. Erbil and Baghdad are building better relationships, but judicious American and 
British engagement can help them to do so more quickly.

Of course, we should carefully examine the experience of Afghanistan, but my great fear is that 
isolationism on the left and right could take root.

Friends of the Kurds can say that there are times when there’s one thing worse than a Western 
intervention – and that’s no Western intervention.

Not all interventions have been disastrous, let alone about imposing our values. John Major’s
 no-fly zone and safe haven for the Kurds in 1991 averted certain genocide, and helped the Kurds
 create an autonomous region that increased health, education, living standards, stability, and
 opportunity. Our jets saved Kurds from ISIS in the last decade.

Such interventions are the baby that should not be thrown out with the bathwater amid any
 isolationist backlash. They go with the grain of change desired by our partners and enable their self-defence, with
urgent and direct aid in existential emergencies, and self-improvement.

The need to deploy military muscle in extremis is on the spectrum of liberal intervention, and
 provides the solid assurances without which other engagements are more difficult.

Our wider range of cultural, commercial, and political engagements clearly say that the fate of the
 Kurds remains important to the West. It also gives them the confidence and stability to further
reform their institutions.

The Kurds are an ancient people, but they have only had a coherent and recognised near-state in
 Iraq for a generation. They have come far in that time but have much further to go. From my visits over many years, I can testify that they welcome our involvement in ventures as
varied as training MPs and judges, measures to advance transparency and tackle corruption,
boosting agriculture, and film, for example. I suspect many films about Afghanistan could be 
produced in Kurdistan.

A major imperative close to my heart is their desire to modernise their education system and
 encourage new thinking in a more vibrant civil society as they reduce their reliance on oil and
 state employment while designing new futures in technology, tourism, and light industry.
One of our country’s great soft power offers in higher education. My predecessor as MP for 
Harlow, Bill Rammell has recently become Vice-Chancellor of one of their prestigious English 
language universities.

Another such university in Kurdistan has just taken in female students from Afghanistan. It
illustrates the deep generosity of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, so often exiles and refugees from 
injustice themselves.

Iraqi Kurdistan also continues to host nearly a million refugees and displaced people from Syria 
and from the areas once occupied by Isis to which they cannot yet return. That has been an
 enduring and willingly given duty for them.

Their respect for religious and national minorities as well as improved women’s rights powerfully 
defy Radical Islam. All countries act in their own national interests and not just for altruistic reasons. American and
 British engagement is both. The fall of Kabul highlights how much more we need Iraqi Kurds as 
allies and partners, and vice-versa.

Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 4) The Armed Forces Bill

20 Jun

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

2) The Armed Forces Bill

What it is

In a nutshell, this Bill ensures that the United Kingdom has armed forces.  Why is legislation required for that purpose?  Because of Parliament’s ancient fear of the Crown having a standing army. (So it is that we have a Royal Navy and Air Force but the British Army.)

As James Sunderland explained recently on this site, “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”.

Responsible department

The Ministry of Defence.  Second Reading debate took place in the Commons on February 8.   Secretaries of State usually take the Second Reading of Bills, but Johnny Mercer, then Minister for Defence People and Veterans, took this one.

He has since resigned (over the treatment of Northern Ireland veterans, which is unconnected to this Bill) so his replacement, Leo Doherty, is likely to step into the breach when amendments are considered.

Carried over or a new Bill?

A new Bill – but it has had pre-legislative scrutiny through a unique form of joint committtee, chaired by Sunderland.  Read its report.

Expected back when?

The committee stage of the Bill is timetabled for this coming Wednesday, June 23.

Arguments for

The case for the Bill is a slam dunk – assuming that you believe that the United Kingdom needs armed forces.  It also updates elements of the armed forces disciplinary system.

Furthermore, it “enshrines the Armed Forces Covenant in law and help prevent service personnel and veterans being disadvantaged when accessing services like healthcare, education and housing and improve the Service Justice System for our personnel wherever they are operating”.

Arguments against

No-one has emerged in the Commons to argue that we don’t need armed forces, but there are lots of questions about the detail of the Bill – especially the application of the Covenant.

For example, as the Joint Committee report puts it, “concerns were…raised that the Bill applies to local government and some public bodies, but not to central nor devolved governments, and that there is a lack of alternative routes of redress for veterans”.  The committee also has concerns about the proposed workings of the Service Justice System.

Politics

Labour’s unsurprising position has been to support the Bill in principle, arguing that it emerges from its own Armed Forces Act of 2006 – while backing the Joint Committee’s concerns and adding some of its own.  For example, Kevan Jones, the former Defence Minister, claimed during Second Reading that Labour suggested protections for a 2009 forerunner of the Covenant that are not contained in the Bill.

While the Joint Committee necessarily maintained some differences with the Government, Sunderland rowed in behind Ministers over Labour’s criticisms, arguing that “my view therefore is that, far from being overly prescriptive in primary legislation, it may be better to be less prescriptive”.

Controversy rating: 2/10

As John Healey, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, said at Second Reading, the Bill is bipartisan – and it is difficult to get controversy going about a measure necessary for the continuance of our Armed Forces.  But honouring the Covenant will be a challenge, given the range and complexity of issues affecting veterans, that may require further legislative changes before the Bill next comes up for renewal.

Nicolas Clark: The Government’s defence plans are based on a stark choice – ‘go large’ or ‘go smart’

26 Mar

Nicolas Clark works in the defence sector and is the co-founder of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces. 

As many start to decipher the Defence Command Paper (‘Defence in a Competitive Age’) it will likely leave them conflicted: with our proud military history do we not need numbers to be considered serious, and to support our allies? Are our elite forces really enough to achieve what we need?

At the heart of the matter is this question: why does our military exist?

For the modern day the primary answer must be to keep both our society and interests, as well as those of our allies, safe Safe from whom? Those who would do us harm of course.

But who are ‘they’, what are they looking to do to us, and how can we best prepare ourselves to address their threats?

Firstly, we have to accept a reality, unpopular for many; Britannia does not rule the waves. Yes, we are good at what we do, better than most, and we are an important ally, but gone are the days where we are likely to take on a peer enemy head to head, alone. It is not impossible that we could do this, but it is more probable that we would enter a conflict alongside any number of our allies.

Secondly, the nature of conflict has changed. A decade ago, talk of cyber hackers, hyper-sonic missiles, directed energy weapons, micro-drones and loyal wingmen (unmanned fighters linked to a manned fighter) were things of science fiction. To put this in context, about a decade ago the army still wore that green camouflage (DPM), Osama bin-Laden and Muammar Gaddafi had been killed, and David Cameron had become Prime Minister in the Coalition Government.

Today the science fiction is becoming science reality and the focus is on hybrid threats (propaganda, deception and sabotage) and actions being carried out within the ‘grey zone’ that exists between war and peace.

Finally, we have to accept the financial situation. We don’t’ have the financial means to maintain a large force, or the collective will to prioritise the military over education, welfare or healthcare. Continuing to spend two per cent of GDP on defence in line with NATO requirements is just about acceptable to many, but does not carry a public majority. As the British Empire grew, its finances could support a large military, and soldiers whether from home or abroad were cheap. I need not elaborate on how this has changed but we must recognise that it is now in Asia that the growth in military stature is taking place.

Faced with this, should we really be going down to an army smaller in size than that of the 1700s? Well size does matter, but it matters if you want to hold large areas of ground. If you accept that we do not want to do this in the future by conventional means, or alone, then you should also be able to recognise that if you cannot ‘go large’, you should ‘go smart’. I would argue that ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’ is a smart solution.

The threat of terrorism still exists of course, particularly where it is sponsored by foreign states; think not just Iran but also Russian activities in Salisbury and North Korean assassinations. Whilst we and our allies became embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan our adversaries were watching. They noted our mistakes, our conventional military solutions, and they planned.

Not necessarily in new ways – often they went back to basics; Russia to techniques of disinformation and propaganda associated with the World and Cold Wars, and China to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and the Peoples’ Liberation Army’s 1999 text ‘Unrestricted Warfare’. To see these strategies in practice one only need look at Russian activity in Eastern Ukraine and Chinese influence in Australia. It is not a coincidence that the Nordic and Baltic countries remained focused, throughout the ‘War on Terror’ years, on the threat that sits on their doorstep, Russia.

Consequently, the technologies and approaches of Sweden and Norway are particularly designed to counter Russian aggression and why they are now particularly strategic allies for the UK. We do need to learn from these examples, and fast.

Without descending into War Studies; Sun Tzu talked about choosing the right strategy for the right conditions but not fighting unless you had to, and, if you had to, fighting smart. Indeed, he said that the superior way of winning a war was by not fighting, i.e. defeating your opponent before it came to battle. Finally, of relevance, is how you should fight the fight that fits the weapons you have, and consequently make the weapons that fit the fight you intend to have.

So, a smaller, highly-trained and capable force, that can deliver a surgical physical strike, that is integrated with cyber, space and electronic warfare capabilities, is a logical direction to take. When married with a maritime force, long-range accurate strike capabilities, and advanced aviation and space asset, the expeditionary effect of your force becomes incredibly potent, arguably multiplied to be much greater than the sum of its parts.

What does this all mean? Well in scenarios where you quickly wanted to support your Norwegian or Australian allies you could get there quickly from air or sea and deploy your air (Paras), land (Rangers) or sea (Commandos), with a variety of physical and invisible technologies, that would deliver the swift Bruce Lee ‘chop’ that helps to stop an aggressor in its tracks. The slow, but powerful, Mike Tyson alternative (the British Army of old) might well turn up to the fight too late and have found its gloves stolen on route.

Upsetting the apple cart at this juncture is probably the right thing to be doing. Cap badges and traditions have formed part of a proud military heritage but we need to rethink the core purpose of our military for the future. It is right to play to our historic strengths but not to be weighed down by them, and to look instead to how we can repurpose for our future challenges.

Investing in technology is key, and has a symbiotic benefit between economy and capability. Supporting allies overseas through engagement projects influence, and working with our partners builds stronger allegiances that we know others seek to weaken.

Of course, we can’t enter a cold war with those that threaten our way of life, but with whom we also trade, on a whim. However, we can prepare to deal with them effectively if it is required of us, and we can insulate ourselves from their malign intentions. What remains to be seen is whether the Ministry of Defence, in the implementation of this paper, can overcome the hurdle of the historic “general ineptitude” with which it was branded by the Defence Select Committee and see this laudable ambition through to fruition.

Garvan Walshe: The Integrated Review’s tilt to Asia could leave us vulnerable closer to home – and Putin

18 Mar

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party

The Integrated Review has emerged as two documents in one. Much of it focuses on trying to bring together different types of threat to our security – from hostile states to terrorist groups, hybrid warfare and misinformation, as well as longer term problems like climate change.

It is full of sensible recommendations for “deeper integration across government”, better crisis management, more coherent policy development and so forth. This is as fine as it is not new (remember Tony Blair’s “joined-up government”?). It would be strange policy paper indeed that advocated the promotion of incoherence and the implementation of contradictory policies.

But government always has to do many different things at once, each making compelling (but often contradictory) demands on policy, reflecting different political constituencies and requirements, and promoted by people with the different personal agendas, as is to be expected in a democracy. Addressing this diversity takes time and thought that is always in short supply. The review is part of that process of thought, and worthwhile for that reason alone.

It is also the first serious attempt at developing a new foreign policy doctrine for the UK since Brexit, and the Government has been wise to wait until the end of the Trump Administration before releasing it.

An unstable, corrupt, semi-authoritarian United States would have made an uncomfortable partner indeed in a world otherwise dominated by a resentful European Union and an assertive China. It is Biden’s restoration of sane, boring US leadership that makes a realistic post-Brexit foreign and security policy feasible. The Review is right to worry about China’s rise, and right, too, to recognise that the post-cold war world moment of Atlantic triumph is passing.

This last half decade has seen the return of geopolitics in the assertion of power by an adventurous Russia and an increasingly hardfline China.

Yet if there is cause for concern in this Review it is that the politics has crowded out the geo. Take, for instance, increasing the cap of available nuclear warheads. Perhaps it is useful to have the freedom to have more available, but without more submarines to launch them it is hard to see what practical they could it could have. It’s not as if the new Dreadnought-class submarines would have time, during a nuclear exchange, to swim back up the Clyde to reload. The proposal did, however, managed to nicely provoke the left.

It’s the “geo” that should give more pause for thought. The Review grandly divides the world into “Euro-Atlantic” and “Indo-Pacific” regions, without really acknoweledging that we’re right in the middle of one of them, and 6,000 miles away from the other.

I’m all in favour of standing up to Chinese aggression (and was even involved in this effort to come up with some ideas about how it might be done), and the Government, again, is right to reverse the beggary of the Osborne-Mandelson erea, when Falun Gong flags were removed from protestors lest they offend the Chinese premier, and the unwise and expensive contract for Hinkley Point C was agreed. Yet strategy is the art of applying means to secure ends, and this is where the Review’s “Indo-Pacific tilt” falls short.

It is indeed the case that the most serious threats to democracy and freedom on this planet are likely to emerge from the Chinese Communist Party, but it doesn’t follow from that that Britain’s main role should involve the prepositioning of military equipment in Asia.

Rather, the greater risk of conflict in Asia means that the UK’s aviation and maritime capability would be required to maintain deterrence against Russia in the event of a major conflict in Asia on which US resources had to be concentrated.

That would clearly be much harder achieve if most of the Royal Navy is in the Pacific protecting the Queen Elizabeth from Chinese anti-ship missiles. Such back-filling may not be the most exciting task but, given the facts of geography tilting to Asia, we risk finding ourselves in the position of the 1990s Colombian goalkeeper Higuita, who would pay upfield while leaving his net undefended.

It is in Europe, after all where Russia tries to make inroads, to the alarm of Poland, the Baltic states and the Nordic countries. It is to Europe’s south where the main ungoverned spaces that host terrorist training camps survive, and it is to Europe’s south-east where a difficult Turkey-EU relationship poses problems in the Western Balkans and Aegean.

And as much as the natural impulse of Brexit is to prove Britain’s openness and optimism by striking out to Asia, the Indo-Pacific tilt increases Britain’s security dependence on Europe, and in particular on the EU’s own institutions that are growing in military and policy-coordination capability. The debate in Paris and Berlin as well as the more traditionally integrationalist Brussels Rome, and Madrid now centres around achieving “strategic autonomy” (code for being able to do more without the US) for a more integrated European policy bloc. One of the strongest arguments against it has been that doing so would unnecessarily alienate the UK, whose interests also require it to contribute to European security.

The creation of such a strategically autonomous bloc has not, to put it mildly, been a British foreign policy objective over the last few hundred years, but a British decision to concentrate on projecting power in Asia would leave gaps, in the event that the United States is unable or unwilling to come to Europe’s defence. If the Government is convinved that a tilt to the Indo-Pacific is in the national interest, it needs to give more thought to who will backfill for us, and in particular our Nordic allies, when the next Russian provocation comes.

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.

Daniel Hannan: Does the army really still need tanks? Or the navy aircraft carriers? Or the rest of us, the Trident system?

2 Sep

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

My late father commanded a tank in Italy in 1944. He rarely mentioned it (except, somewhat illogically, when reassuring my mother during car journeys that she could trust his navigation skills) but I always thought it must have been a wonderful thing to do. What a privilege to direct that mighty mass of metal, that extraordinary combination of armour, mobility and firepower.

So my immediate reaction on hearing that tanks might be phased out was one of grumpy and nostalgic scepticism. Tanks were declared obsolete after both world wars, yet they turned out to be vital to the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. They played a role in subduing Fallujah in 2004, and have been used more recently in the Russia-Ukraine war. Are we truly prepared to dispense with what, for a hundred years, has been the best way to hold (or seize) ground?

The question needs to be put. We are, as a species, irrationally change-averse, and never more so than when we work for a state bureaucracy. Some of the most inexcusable wastes of money in British history happened because generals, defence contractors and Ministry of Defence officials were unwilling to admit that a shiny new project was already passé.

Think, for example, of the Eurofighter, designed to dogfight Soviet MiGs over the skies of West Germany, and already redundant many years before the first wings were welded. Again and again, that white elephant came up for review – and, each time, the Defence Secretary of the day took the politically easier decision to throw good money after bad.

A Minister who suggests phasing out any part of our established capability will get a reputation for being too clever by half and ignoring the professionals. It is no use pointing out that Ministers are there precisely to resist producer-capture. In any argument between a politician and a craggy-faced retired general, the public will always back the general.

Still, it is the politician’s job to ensure that a necessarily limited defence budget translates into maximum force. So let’s ask the question directly. In an age of irregular warfare and increasingly powerful guided missiles, do we need manned armoured mobile guns?

Iraq and eastern Ukraine were exceptional in that their terrain happened to be ideal for tank warfare – respectively desert and steppe. Tanks are of less value in cluttered or inhabited lands. They may be (as both the exceptions again demonstrate) useful against other tanks. But how useful are they against advanced missile systems? Or, indeed, against low-tech guerrilla forces?

Israel’s offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 exposed the tank’s limitations. Expensive Israeli armour was hammered by cheap IEDs and low-tech missiles. Israeli generals have absorbed the lessons of that campaign. Have their British counterparts?

Actually, yes – at least, to a degree that many will find surprising. Overall, our Armed Forces are in the world’s top five; but, measured by number of battle tanks, we barely scrape into the top 50, well behind Greece, Jordan, Morocco, Romania and the UAE. It makes sense. We are an island nation which has traditionally relied on sea-and air-power. When we do engage on the ground, it is often out-of-area and asymmetric.

So what should we do with our tanks? We can’t put the question off. Whether or not tanks as a concept are outmoded, there is no question that our own main battle tank, the Challenger 2, is showing its age. Since it went into service in 1998, the Americans and the Germans have completed two major upgrades, the Russians five. Our chief armoured vehicle, the Warrior, is even rustier, essentially unaltered since the Cold War.

Given that big changes are overdue, now is the moment to ask whether tanks give us a decent bang for our buck. If we decide that they do – if there is felt to be no other credible way of holding territory – then we should think radically about what the new version might be.

Might we, for example, make a substantially lighter vehicle, easier to airlift and deploy at distance? Might we, in doing so, reduce the manning requirement – or even remove it altogether, relying instead on remote guidance?

I have picked tanks because leaks suggest that they are up for review, but the same logic applies across the board. The most expensive items in our conventional repertoire are our two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. They cost around £6 billion to build, with a similar price tag for their aircraft.

What else might we have done with such a colossal sum? Instead of floating runways which launch manned planes which in turn launch missiles, might it be more cost effective to cut out the aircraft, and simply launch the missiles (or the reconnaissance drones) directly from the ship? Obviously that would imply some diminution in capability, but did we properly consider what else we could have done with the savings, or were we, as with the Eurofighter, beguiled by the sheer vastness of the thing?

Again, simply to raise the issue is to invite an angry reaction from good and patriotic Service personnel whose job is to consider capacity rather than opportunity cost. So politicians rarely do it. Still, any defence review worth the name needs to put hard questions. Do we need a parachute regiment, for example? There are occasions when we need to drop special forces, but how likely are we to need to make a mass airborne deployment?

And, since I’m deliberately raising the most difficult and provocative issues, how about Enoch Powell’s objection to the nuclear deterrent – namely that, since we would never actually use it, it was money down the drain? Paradoxically, more limited nuclear weapons, capable of battlefield use, might be a more credible deterrent.

There may be good arguments, in all these cases, for sticking with something close to the status quo. But let’s hear those arguments without preconditions. Let’s have a no-holds-barred strategic review which sets out to ask how Britain can best defend its interests given the vertiginous acceleration of military technology.

Many of our postwar strategic assumptions are overturned by hypersonic missiles, weapons of extraordinary stealth and destructive power. At the moment of impact, a hypersonic missile is travelling at 1200 miles per hour, and its kinetic force is equivalent to three tons of TNT. Russia, China and the United States are engaged in a hypersonic arms race which makes a nonsense of much of what we used to think about air superiority, armour and the defence of naval vessels. A total overhaul, in short, is both necessary and urgent.

We should, in reassessing our defence needs, look at our allies’ capacity. It seems likely, for example, that in any major engagement, we would be on the same side as the United States and other Anglosphere nations. It makes sense to co-ordinate our procurement, while still ensuring that we can act independently in a Falklands-type situation. What we can’t afford is to cling to current practice for reasons of political convenience.

My father’s regiment, the North Irish Horse, was reduced, between the wars, to a single officer. It rapidly expanded after 1939 to deploy in Tunisia and later in Italy. It exists today only as a squadron in the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry. That is what I call flexibility. Our Armed Forces are extraordinarily good at preserving traditions, but they are also supremely adaptable. It is this second quality, in the end, that wins war

Tory MPs, Downing Street and the Treasury are ready to clash over plans to cut the army to 60,000. Who will win out?

21 Jul

In Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s White Flag, their books about Britain’s defence capability, there is a chapter on “Operation Tethered Goat”, which looks at the army’s presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.

Part of it describes the 800-strong NATO UK-led Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), as it is called, stationed in an encampment “at the end of a dusty road an hour’s drive from the Estonian capital of Tallinn”.  The authors go on to identify how it was originally intended to be provided with 18 Challenger tanks.  It got ten.

The RAND corporation reported that however they war-gamed a Russian invasion involving conventional armed forces, these reached Tallinn and Riga within 60 hours.  “This is why some in the armed forces privately call the EFP in Estonia ‘Operation Tethered Goat’ “, write Oakeshott and our proprietor.

If Downing Street puts its plans for defence spending into effect, expect the prospects of what the authors refer to as “a small but fierce battalion of UK troops”, from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, to be fiercely debated, along with those of an entire division of the British Army – and our defence strategy as a whole.

The background is well known.  Dominic Cummings has long had an interest in revisiting defence spending.  “He believes that the British state is wasteful; that the most wasteful part of the British state is the Ministry of Defence, and that the most wasteful part of the Ministry of Defence is its procurement function”, as one Tory MP puts it.

Not that this well-placed participant in defence debates believes that Cummings is necessarily wrong.  He has read Boris Johnson’s adviser’s profuse and splenetic blogs on defence, which also cover the Pentagon’s use of artificial intelligence, the history of modern weapons development, drone swarms, equipment safety and (topically) China.

A section on Government procurement is sub-headed, Apolalypse Now-style, “the horror, the horror”.  This would also be a fair description of the reaction when it was reported that Cummings has been given permission “to tour some of Britain’s most highly classified national security sites as part of his plan to radically shake up the military”.

There will be much more to his scheme, and to the defence, security and foreign policy review, than the future of Ministry of Defence procurement – or even of the army.  It must weigh the future of the navy, internal security, cyber and the air force, not to mention the security threats posed by China, radical Islam and Russia, plus others.

But the prospects for the EFP in Estonia, and indeed those of the Third (United Kingdom) Division are at stake.  It is, the Army declares, “the only division at continual operational readiness in the UK” – in other words, the only one of three prepared for action in Eastern Europe.

The word on the defence street is that Downing Street has a proposal to cut the army to 60,000 – not the first time that this figure has been deployed.  How can it possibly make sense?  “It depends what your objective is,” one backbench source told ConservativeHome.

“If your defence effort is concentrated against Islamist terror in Britain, you don’t need nearly that many.  If you want to fight in Estonia, it isn’t enough – you need as many as you can get.  For the Middle East, you’d want something in between”.

The review itself is already the subject of swirling internal spats and, as noted above, this isn’t the first time that a cut to 60,000 has been mooted.  Or that army numbers themselves have been reduced.  On paper, its “establishment strength” has come down to 82,500.  In practice, that means a real capacity of about 74,000 regulars.

“It’s been 15 per cent or so beneath strength for years,” another defence-minded MP said.  “The generals get their budget, complain about the army being downsized – and pocket savings for kit”.  So it has been since the Levene Review years, he said.  “We haven’t done badly on reserves; the real hole is in the regulars.”

The army has already reorganised itself in the wake of recent defence and security reviews – see the emergence of “Strike” – and optimists argue that more kit all round can substitute for boots on the ground.  That Apache attack helicopters, for example, can assail more tanks at once – or that robots will eventually replace men almost entirely.

Conservative MPs are unlikely to be among them.  Forty-five members of Parliament have served in the armed forces as regulars or reservists.  No fewer than 41 of them are Tories, most of whom are ex-army.  Off the top of our heads, we name two senior Select Committee chairs by way of example: Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood.

Boris Johnson cannot simply impose a cut to 60,000 on Parliament.  For a start, there is Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, to consider, if he survives any coming reshuffle.  Then there is the legislature itself.  There are questions, debates, bills that could be creatively amended – not to mention the defence estimates.

Today, Mark Francois will release the second part of his report into army recruitment (he wrote about the first part on this site three years ago) – a reminder that interest in the armed forces on the Tory benches blooms perenially.  There are three possible outcomes to the future of the army when the reviews make their recommendations.

The first is the most likely: namely that, in the manner of previous defence reviews, there is a decision to muddle through.  Cummings and others get the cyber investment they want; the army’s headline number settles down at roughly the real figure it is now.  No-one is exactly happy but no-one is very unhappy either.

The second is that the army is reduced to 60,000 people.  This is almost certain not to happen – because Conservative MPs would kill it.  If a band of perhaps 20 can force Minister to turn tail on Huawei, 40 or so can easily do so on such cuts to the army.

The third that Cummings and company get their cyber; that the army stays at 80,000; that the other services are also shielded from economies.  Given Boris Johnson’s inclination to spend spend spend as well as build build build, one would have thought this a runner.

Except that Rishi Sunak is already keeping the economy afloat on a tide of borrowed money, and this site is told that he and the Treasury team are getting very restive.  They will be well aware of the Ministry of Defence’s unreformed history over procurement.

It looks from here as though a political pile-up is coming, and it’s impossible to say who will emerged from it least damaged.  Meanwhile, in Estonia, our soldiers watch and wait for the Russian conventional assault that will, God willing, not come. Cummings and the strategic review, by contrast, are knocking at the door.