"The government must and will ensure that our Armed Forces are always properly equipped and resourced."
August 2017 letter of Sir Michael Fallon, UK Secretary of State for Defence, to Mrs Sue Smith, expressing regret for the July 2005 death of her son Private Philip Hewett in Iraq.
Alphen, Netherlands. 18 August. This morning the British news contained a story that reminds me of the importance of responsible, independent analysis in a democracy. The job of the analyst is to analyse. In my case I do this as a well-informed citizen in an effort to make political elites, and the bureaucracies that serve them better at what they are supposed to do in my name. Call that hubris if you will, but I see it as my duty. Unlike some I am not trying to destroy elites, or make them fail, and I fully recognise how difficult the task of government is in this fractured age.
The letter Sir Michael wrote to Mrs Smith is one for which I applaud him, even though it comes only after a Supreme Court decision, the Human Rights Act, and the Sir John Chilcot report into Britain’s role in the Iraq War. The letter rightfully states: "The government entirely accepts the findings of Sir John Chilcot in the Iraq Inquiry in relation to Snatch Land Rover….I would like to express directly to you my deepest sympathies and apologise for the delay, resulting in decisions taken at the time in bringing into service alternative protected vehicles which could have saved lives." At the time of Private Hewett’s July 2005 death the soldiers called the Snatch Land Rover ‘mobile coffins’, so vulnerable were they to roadside bombs.
However, another statement in that letter suggests the Government have really not learned the lessons which are the implicit purpose of the letter. It goes onto state, "The government must and will ensure that our Armed Forces are always properly equipped and resourced." So, why is London failing its own test? Why is London still fixated with the appearance of defence at the expense of its substance? The reality is that in spite of the mantra that Britain is one of few NATO members that meet the 2% GDP defence investment pledge, a dangerous gap is opening up between Britain’s stated defence-strategic ambitions and its military-strategy reality.
Take the new heavy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth which entered Her Majesty’s Naval Base Portsmouth for the first time this week, amidst much public fanfare. Regular readers of this blog and my books will know I am a firm fan of the two new British carriers. Properly equipped they will not only afford Britain national strategic assets, exert influence ‘weight’ far beyond their 70,000 tons, they will also enable London to provide coalition maritime-amphibious command hubs for NATO, European, and the wider Allied military groupings which will be the military-strategic method for much of first half of the twenty-first century.
And yet London is screwing up the strategic opportunity the carriers represent because as ever appearance comes before substance. Yes, HMS Queen Elizabeth provided an excellent photo op for Prime Minister May this week. And yes, my analysis suggests that if the British properly funded their stated ambitions Britain’s armed forces would, again, be amongst the world’s best – which is precisely where they should be. And yet, London is stalling on the investment of offensive and defensive systems the ships need to do the jobs they are designed to do. Worse, a mixture of inadequate spending and poor spending is forcing the Service Chiefs to make hard decisions that are rendering Britain’s armed forces as unbalanced as at any time possibly in a couple of centuries. And yet the defence pretence continues, a recipe for military disaster in this most unforgiving of ages.
Britain’s armed forces are fast becoming a Potemkin Village Force (PVF), which looks good, but peer behind the façade and one finds an overstretched little bit of everything, but not much of anything force. London invests in bits of a powerful force, whilst at the same time cutting the defence budget needed to invest in the other bits vital to ensure its proper functioning, even in the possible high-intensity conflict Prime Minister May warned about this week. The problem with such a political strategy is that whilst it might fool ‘Joe Public’ for a time, and thus serve some short-term political utility, it does not fool Britain’s allies, and certainly does not fool Britain’s adversaries.
Sir Michael Fallon is one of Britain’s better defence secretaries and has fought hard to protect Britain’s armed forces from the obsession of HM Treasury with sound money at the expense of sound defence. If Sir Michael really means what he writes, and that he is committed to ensuring Britain’s armed forces are properly equipped and resourced, then this moment is the crunch time! The next few years could mark the last time Britain has to prepare its military for a dangerous future that London itself acknowledges, and which given Britain’s relative power in the world, it will be unable to avoid. The operations Britain’s armed forces are likely be called upon to conduct are growing daily bigger, more intense, and more dangerous.
What to do? First, properly fund the commitments made in the 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews (SDSR), and end the current game of political charades with Britain’s defence. Second, use SDSR 2020 to re-establish a link between reality, strategy and British defence policy. Third, stop funding counter-terrorism and the nuclear deterrent at the expense of Britain’s conventional force.
At the end of the day the consequences of defence pretence and aspiring to play a strategic military leadership role with a military of insufficient capability or capacity are profound. Somewhere, sometime, some poor British sailor, soldier and/or airman/woman will be sent into action inadequately equipped and poorly protected. They will be effectively asked to fill a gap, at an elevated risk to their own lives, between the empty utterances of politicians and the deadly reality they face on the ground.
My recent hard-hitting blogs Lizzie Goes Forth… and …as Britain’s Military Sinks, took a lot of criticism from some high bureaucrats, and not a few senior military officers. The hard truth for London is that my concerns about Britain’s unbalanced defence policy are correct, and those responsible know that to be the case. The reason I am an analyst, why I do what I do, and why I will not be co-opted to support nonsense, is because of my citizen’s support for the men and women who defend me. And, if politicians, senior bureaucrats or career-sensitive senior military officers find that politically inconvenient – tough!
London, stop turning Britain’s armed forces into a kind of strategic Snatch Land Rover!