The calling of a Defence Review is never propitious. While such audits are necessary to better address changing risks and threats, the dozen or so that have taken place in the UK since the Second World War have excessively focused on what to cut rather than what was needed.
The decisions that flowed between the 1950s and 1970s can at least be attributed to pragmatism in the face of fewer bases and reducing commitments, coupled with a greater share of spending needed on new fields of technology and outdated kit. But the risks associated with decontextualised bean-counting soon cross over from the field of risk management into that of gambling.
This was most clearly shown with the Argentine invasion of the Falklands. The planned scrapping of HMS Endurance was identified by the later Franks Committee as one of the key signals that the junta mistook for disinterest by London. Papers released 30 years later reveal that the MoD was warned at the time. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Leach, even flagged up increased Argentine provocations. “We are on the brink of a historic decision. War seldom takes the expected form,” he warned, noting that the proposed cuts had been spun up in just two months. “It has neither been validated nor studied in depth. No alternative options have been considered.”
And so it turned out: the hasty planned saving from scrapping one ship turned out to carry a far heavier bill.
No doubt the UK’s latest Defence Review will take a more measured turn. But if it is to do so, it must first reflect on the review of 2010. That was thrown together in the aftermath of Gordon Brown’s Financial Crisis that left the UK with a deficit running at 12 digits. Around a sixth of all public sector spending was being borrowed. Clearly cuts were coming, while DfID and NHS budgets were being ringfenced.
Even so, the 2010 Defence cuts were only meant to be temporary, because the capabilities being dropped were considered to be essential. The deal reached was that capabilities might be cut, but only if they were replaced later. The immediate result for the Royal Navy alone was vessels without an anti-ship missile, the scrapping of the Harriers, and the slashing of the surface fleet.
This restoration process was, however, far from delivered five years later at the time of the next Review. Indeed, the sums were subsequently masked by collapsing Defence pensions into the books to reach the 2 per cent NATO GDP commitment. In particular, the small number of naval platforms prompted a former Defence Minister to declare to his successor that, “The budget is inadequate for the task that you face,” and that moreover that such was “the view of the overwhelming majority of the people in our party.”
If no one else in Whitehall or Government gets it, the Conservative grassroots tends to.
I rather fear though, instead of such root questions now being assessed, with focus on the money rather than the risks, we will see too much of the sharp elbows. Attacks will dominate headlines in a particularly counterproductive, uncollegiate, and even selfish way. Do we need heavy armour, or are tanks so Fulda Gap passé?
They may have just conducted a major airdrop exercise in Ukraine – helpful timing – but do we actually need a Parachute Regiment? What about the landing craft to land Royal Marines on a coast? Do we need the RM at all, or should they be sequestered away into the Army to be shredded at a latter date? Can we get rid of the Gurkhas, notwithstanding Joanna Lumley, since they now cost more to employ, because of Joanna Lumley? How many fighter squadrons can we disband? Which regimental associations will shout the loudest if we try on another merger?
These are rock-stale questions for our times, given the nation’s military capability relies on a precarious balance between manpower and assets multiplied by technical advantage; and where the former has been whittled away and the latter shredded by cuts. There comes a point where the numbers are simply too small, and the technology cannot compensate. It’s the ancient force-multiplier balance of numbers versus capability that Byzantine commander Belisarius faced, and the Treasury needs to finally learn.
Moreover, ‘tanks vs cyber’ is as false a dichotomy of choice in an asymmetric world as battleships was to radar, or infantry against H-bombs in 1957. The problem is that in the past it was a question of prioritising, whereas after so many cuts the debate today has turned instead to whether to retain any capability at all. Unfortunately, a capability usually gets appreciated when you no longer have it, such as the appearance of four Danish tanks still left in Basra that were able to overawe potential insurgents in 2004 by reappearing briefly on the streets while Whitehall was focusing on sending out Snatch Land Rovers.
Then there is the fraying of the thread running through policy. Doctrine and orders of battle have been changed faster than the procurement process has been able to keep up. That has been particularly costly in the tidal arguments over tracked vs wheeled, and speed over armour, and utility over mine protection. The saga of Future Rapid Effect System (FRES) is merely one underlying soap storyline across all this.
Nor can we overlook the needs of the personnel themselves. The MoD building in recent days flew the Bisexual Pride flag. This has thus joined both the LGBT flag and the Transgender flag on their respective commemoration days. While Whitehall’s interest in the welfare of its staff is commendable, the decision sets a troubling precedent that takes us beyond gender politics, beyond even the increasingly fractious dynamics of conflicting gender rights involving whatever new campaign groups emerge next year, into the Human Rights of any other individual who demands parity of recognition.
The example suggests a drift in HR policy as well as loss of focus. Civil servants might more usefully have concentrated on the very core issues around the Armed Forces Covenant, in particular relating to vexatious law claims pushed by ambulance-chasing lawyers and Irish Republican terror groups.
Governments cannot afford to get Defence Reviews wrong. Let us hope that policy makers are not side-tracked, either by short termism or by destructive Treasury demands, in the work ahead. A good starting point would be to consider first what Defence needs to function within acceptable predefined levels of risk, and then from that cost out the necessary bill.