London: A Small Island to Which No-one Pays Attention. 12 September. DSEI is the world’s leading defence equipment show. The hall stretches before me like some latter day modernist, Mondianist cathedral. It is pot-marked with large bits of military equipment laid out in a kind of military feng shui. This week I have had the honour of chairing various conference sessions and meetings.
The message I take away from the week is that Britain is to pioneer a radical approach to defence. Indeed, it will be national defence driven by all the talents - official and non-official, national and international. Given that ambition the best and the worst of official Britain was on show here.
Britain’s armed forces were the best of it. The centre-piece of the week was the RUSI Maritime Operations Conference at which the Head of the Royal Navy, the impressive Admiral Sir George Zambellas, laid out what he called “Britain’s Maritime Renaissance”. Zambellas might have well called his statement “Britain’s Strategic Renaissance”. In many ways the Royal Navy is the litmus test of Britain’s strategic ambition and the re-forging of a truly national strategic force. One does not build large bits of floating national defence infrastructure (why are bridges counted and funded as infrastructure and not warships?) if one lacks strategic ambition.
Divided into three ‘epochs’ the Navy’s renaissance will stretch out to 2040. Right now two large aircraft carriers are being built with a new class of frigates about to be built. A class of new destroyers has just been completed with a new class of nuclear-attack submarines rolling off the stocks. A decision will soon be made to purchase a like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent and a host of support ships are also being procured.
This year Britain took delivery of its first Lightning 2 Joint Strike Fighter a version of which will operate off the carriers and the Navy is beginning to replace its entire stock of helicopters. Britain’s Secretary-of-State for Defence Philip Hammond also announced here a further £250m investment in a new weapons system for the Navy and a radical new approach to defence-industrial partnerships.
And then there was the worst of official Britain. It is not the scale of the reinvestment in the Royal Navy that matters but the radicalism implicit in it. From the Secretary of State down through his staff the message was the same – Britain’s defence is open to new business and new ideas. And yet the body language from the Secretary-of-State down could not be more different. Those of us who may have a tad of a reputation for thinking ‘outside of the box’ are still too often treated as though we are a bad smell. For all the talk of new beginnings the new Ministry of Defence (MoD) looks just like the old MoD – open to new ideas as long as they come from within.
It is not the people that are the problem but the culture and the climate of fear all too evident in the MoD. The MoD has been under intense pressure these past few years but ‘openness’ must not simply mean another tired reincarnation of the closed and self-serving iron triangle of defence, industry and politics. Indeed, if the ambition and enthusiasm evinced by Admiral Zambellas is to be realised (and it must be) the political and civilian side of the house needs to stop so obviously holding their noses when the supportive awkward squad make a challenging point.
New thinking requires risk and yes a few bad journalists will write a few unfair headlines because they are fully paid up members of the Little Britain mafia which is so pervasive in this town. However, leadership is not telling people they cannot take questions at sessions I chair for fear they might be misinterpreted. Leadership and effective defence engagement is about trusting people and maintaining the commitment to the exciting defence strategic vision Britain is pioneering whatever the headlines. Once again bad politics in London is in danger of confounding good national strategy.
If Britain’s radical defence strategy is to be realised orthodoxy will need to be challenged because Britain’s strategic business will never go back to ‘usual’. London’s Excel Centre from where I write this blog is but a broken banker’s bonus distant from the City where four years ago this week Lehman Brothers collapsed sparking Britain’s worst financial crisis for a century because government got it so wrong.
There is a really good news story to talk about Britain’s strategic defence renaissance. However, I fear it could well fail because of narrowness of mind and spirit in the Ministry of Defence. If the MoD simply talks the talk of culture change but refuses to walk the walk it will be the same old, same old – big talk, poor delivery. Culture change starts at the very top, Mr Hammond.