Budget cuts causing sharp reductions in the UK’s defence capabilities will have a significant long-term impact on UK defence posture and on the UK’s ability to deter aggression and to shape the global strategic environment to reflect UK national interests. There are some who are clinging to illusions, but the cuts are far bigger than the eight per cent headline reduction in spending suggests. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) must also claw back the £38 billion unfunded commitments in the procurement programme. That makes the real reduction more like 17 per cent, yet the UK still aspires to a global role. Nobody should underestimate our ability to sustain that role in a crisis, despite the difficulties.
The Government argues that it has established an ‘adaptable posture’ for UK defences, but the loss of whole capabilities such as carrier strike and maritime reconnaissance, and the paring back of virtually everything else will leave the UK only able to mount limited operations at limited scale. After Afghanistan, the British Army will be further cut to 87,000. Even the brigade-plus we currently deploy in Helmand (a fighting force of just 1,500) will be impossible to sustain except for short durations of up to six months.
Libya was a success, but that reflected luck and political daring on the part of Prime Minister Cameron and President Sarkozy. It also showed how we lack capacity and depend heavily on US support. In the first 24 hours, the Royal Navy used two submarine launched Tomahawk land attack missiles – against 112 by the United States. Just as the First Sea Lord had warned, there was not a single Royal Navy ship left to defend British home waters. One ship was sent to Libya with only four air defence missiles instead of the 38 it should have had. Tornado Airframes are running out of flying hours. Happily, Gaddafi’s resistance collapsed just before the RAF Tornados ran out of Storm Shadow missiles. The National Audit Office warns we do not have enough submarines to meet requirements. The Defence Select Committee warns that the Armed Forces are heading below ‘critical mass’ and increasingly suffers major ‘capability gaps’.
The question is: what should be done now? The UK is not about to become more like Spain or Italy, where armed forces become like a self-licking lollipop and play little role in an inevitably very limited foreign policy. The problem is that the global strategic environment is not inviting us to take more risks in our defence posture: quite the reverse. Our EU partners are for the most part supine in the face of global threats. The US has just announced a new ‘leaner’ defence policy, leaving us Europeans more exposed. The world is not becoming safer.
It remains far cheaper to be ready to deter wars than to have to fight them. But the worsening fiscal and economic crisis has closed down any prospect of UK defence spending increases, possibly even beyond 2015, and other EU nations are even less capable of coming to our aid. Efforts to consolidate European defence have tended to paralyse defence structures and doctrine rather than to improve projection and agility.
Clearly, without money, we must start thinking. The UK will lead defence thinking in Europe by example. The fundamental failure to date has been intellectual, not technical, and changing the intellectual dimension does not need to cost a lot or to require new institutions. The MoD needs to demonstrate new strategy and operational concepts. There has been no real attempt yet to change what the MoD does. Trying to do the same on half the budget will fail. ‘Less of the same’ will not work because we no longer deploy critical mass. Nor can we solve the problem by ‘doing things better’.
Philip Hammond is our new Secretary of State for Defence. The ‘Hammond Review’ should quietly start to build the capacity to think about how to do things differently and at low cost. This approach is alien to MoD culture and the defence industries. It requires new people and new prime contractors (ie new ‘lead’ contractors). The Secretary of State will have to create a new, competent, imaginative, trustworthy team with real technical expertise: not consultants, but dedicated people with collective responsibility and continuity, and with a real stake in seeing the problem solved. The Chief of the Defence Staff should build the new team for him, but he would still need to monitor it closely. It needs external sources of ideas and expertise.
They must explore how the MoD can be enabled to adapt and evolve on its own resources so that it can generate the forms of power the UK and Europe needs in this rapidly changing world. To determine the UK’s interests and strategy requires recreating the country’s ‘competitive stance’, just as the US competitive stance ensures US technological and industrial dominance. The Secretary of State should involve others in Whitehall and Parliament, from the City and commerce, and other like-minded defence ministries and industries across Europe. We cannot rely on analyses done by US organisations.
There are similar problems with our defence industry. How much industrial research and development capacity has been lost in the last 15 years, and what can we no longer do as a consequence? Does anyone know? With such a small budget it no longer makes sense to have Prime Contractors at all. The more we use them, the less adaptable we will be and the less able to reduce costs. Reliance on them has proved no substitute for the MoD as an intelligent customer. The UK has always been good at small. We should exploit this advantage by harnessing the networks of small businesses, which are truly innovative and inventive. They currently find it impossible to get their ideas into the MoD or the Armed Forces.
The new equipment programme must reflect what we need and can afford. This will depend more on the capacity to generate what we need when it is needed. The MoD faces huge challenges. Reconstitution and regeneration of the previously extant force is no longer an option; we have used up our force and cannot replace it. The only viable option is a new concept of ‘responsiveness’. It is time to think bravely and boldly. As Philip Hammond put it in his speech to the Atlantic Council: ‘Necessity drives innovation – and it breaks down barriers… With budgets so tight, Allies need to revisit approaches and ideas that might previously have seemed politically unacceptable.’ This must apply at home as well.
There are those who believe that the UK can no longer afford to maintain a global role and should simply cut back, but they neglect the fact that power is an essential guarantor of prosperity. Such thinking would be fatal. As the outgoing US Defence Secretary said earlier this year, European nations cannot continue to rely on the American security guarantee indefinitely, especially if we are not willing to contribute our share to that effort. Our Defence Secretary has also warned that ‘too many countries are failing to meet their financial responsibilities to NATO, and so failing to maintain appropriate and proportionate capabilities.’ Improving rather than downgrading the UK’s defence capabilities is a small price to pay to protect the freedom, security and prosperity that we too easily take for granted. For future defence reviews, it would be beneficial for strategic decisions and threat assessments to be made before financial considerations are taken into account. That way, there would be clarity about which future capabilities were being given up, reduced or changed as a result of budgetary decisions. But for the time being, we need to think differently and reform boldly if we are to deliver the defence capabilities we need within the budget we have.
At a time of relative peace and stability, other nations may mistake the UK’s diminished defence capacity for failing resolve. President Galtieri, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein all made that mistake. No one should underestimate the UK’s ability to regenerate and leverage military effort at very short notice, when we are confronted by a serious crisis. We have done it before and this kind of thinking will enable us to do it again in future.