“No matter how enmeshed a commander [or politician] becomes in the elaboration of his [or her] own thoughts, it is sometimes necessary to take the enemy into account”.
Winston Spencer Churchill
Alphen, Netherlands. 17 March. London is sinking the Royal Navy! Now, before I get into British defence pretence I must admit I was going to write this morning about the strategic implications of this week’s Dutch elections. The problem is there aren’t any. As my Dutch wife said to me before the election, “Whoever I vote for we will end up with Mark Rutte as prime minister. Whatever he has promised to do during the campaign he will not be able to do in practice”. Wise woman, my wife. Back to the Royal Navy.
Britain’s armed forces are in a mess because the ends and means of Britain’s defence policy do not add up. This mess has been caused by politicians trying to get both a strategic nuclear deterrent AND a power-projection force on the cheap, and pretending otherwise. For some years I have been warning about the consequences of Britain’s underfunded ‘little bit of everything, not much of anything’ force, so why do Britain’s political leaders play defence pretence?
Let me give you an example to better illustrate my case. Yesterday, a report was issued by London’s National Audit Office which warned that the planned move of the first of two new 72,500 ton large aircraft-carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth from Rosyth, Scotland, where she was put together, to the Royal Navy base in Portsmouth, from where she will conduct sea trials, has been delayed by some three months. The report goes into a raft of technical and financial challenges faced by the ship and the F-35 Lightning II and Merlin aircraft she will fly.
To be honest, technical problems never really bother me because they are entirely usual for such a big and complex project that will serve the nation for fifty years, and possibly beyond. Nor am I that bothered by cost overruns. Neither politicians nor defence chiefs ever tell the truth at the beginning about the eventual cost of big defence projects. As a matter of course I always double the planned cost and time such a project will take to be delivered by the British government. My ‘model’ seems to work.
However, there is a deeper problem with the new aircraft carriers that is indicative of the yawning gulf between ends and means that stretches across the British armed forces; the amount of money invested in defence bears no relation to the cost of the force London says it wants. Worse, the very politicians who tend to talk big about Britain’s armed forces also view defence as a cost not a value, which in turn suggest they do not in reality place much political value on security and defence. They might have gotten away with such strategic illiteracy in a previous age, but not this one.
And yet, and I am bloody good at this, my analysis of Britain’s strategic and political interests clearly shows the need for Britain to invest in a balanced, deep-joint, properly-funded and powerful core or command military force able to support an over-stretched US or, if needs be, act as a leader of coalitions of other powers. Why? NATO is at the core of British defence strategy and if Britain does not step up to the NATO plate then no-one else will. Consequence? Sooner or later post-Brexit Britain could be lost somewhere in mid-Atlantic between a hasta la vista America, and a Franco-German led Europe, unable to influence either.
Unfortunately, London has played defence pretence for so long now I think it must be a habit. Whenever Prime Minister May, Chancellor Hammond, or Defence Secretary Fallon are challenged about the ends-means gap they trot out the same old nonsense; Britain is investing £178bn in new equipment over ten years in our beloved armed forces (which are, of course, always “the finest in the world”), or Britain is one of only five NATO members that maintain 2% GDP on defence.
Take the £178bn. Much of that investment is being made on a lot of new kit needed to rebuild a force effectively broken over thirteen years of campaigning in Iraq and Afghanistan that went way beyond the so-called defence planning assumptions. The NATO 2%? Pure political artifice, as I proved in my November 2015 evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. 2% can only be achieved by including the cost (since 2015) of British intelligence (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) in the defence budget (c £2bn per annum), together with (since 2009) the cost of the strategic nuclear deterrent (£2-2.4bn per annum), not to mention a whole of so-called ‘administrative costs’ that prior to 2015 were not seen as part of the defence budget.
The problem with NATO’s so-called Defence Investment Pledge is that it is designed to give a bunch of recalcitrant European allies the easiest path to be seen to spend 2% GDP on defence. Britain has simply exploited to the full a very slack set of slack defence criteria. Critically, China, India, Russia, and the US would not dream of including many of the items NATO does as ‘defence expenditure’.
So yes, Britain may well be building (some) new and ‘exquisite’ kit, but the way the defence funding model has been constructed means the only way to pay for them is to cut the very people who will man the stuff, and hollow out the very services and systems needed to keep them running and fighting. The stress this unworkable imbalance places on the British military is clear to me every time I support them, something I regard as my patriotic duty. Or to use military-speak, the politicians are dumping crap from on-high on Britain’s fighting men and women!
Defence pretence also reveals the political cluelessness of the British Establishment. Now, I am a Briton first, and an Englishman second, who like many millions of others is desperate to believe in my country after the shocks of recent years. With Brexit looming, and the Scottish nationalist-fanatic Nicola Sturgeon hell-bent on tearing the UK apart, that means for me a Britain and its leaders who re-embrace patriotism, globalism and realism – the three are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, that challenge will be the real test of Prime Minister May.
It is against that strategic and political backdrop HMS Queen Elizabeth must be seen. Indeed, she is far more than a ship. She is a national strategic asset, a metaphor for Britain as a leading power, and a symbol of Britain itself. In other words, London has an enormous opportunity to show Britain and the world just what Prime Minister May’s “strong, self-governing, global Britain’ could actually look like.
Ultimately, it is the gap between ends and means of Prime Minister May’s rhetoric that is in danger of screwing up Britain’s armed forces. The strategy-free, micro-financing fingerprints of Chancellor Philip ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ Hammond and his Treasury ‘Minderins’ are about to make an almighty mess of Britain and its armed forces because the only big picture they see concerns debt and deficit. Don’t get me wrong, sound public finances are important. However, there are moments in politics and history when it is necessary to invest and things upon which proper investment must be made. This is one such moment and defence one of those issues if May is to create a new narrative for a new post-Brexit Britain. And yet, one can almost guarantee, that the Westminster-Whitehall political sausage machine will make a complete Horlicks of the launch of this ship, because that is what they do.
London wants to give the impression of power and influence without properly paying for it. So, London either fund Britain’s armed forces properly at a time of growing danger, or come clean and stop telling we Britons just how powerful Britain is if you do not believe that to be the case. Do not impose on a small force a job that is far too big for them.
History is littered with examples of just how horribly wrong such defence pretence can go when reality finally sticks its large jack-nailed boot in the face of the pretenders!