Not so fast…
Alphen, Netherlands. 28 June. View this second blog of the week as a compare and contrast exercise. On Monday I celebrated the maiden voyage of HMS Queen Elizabeth, and I stand by every strategic word of that piece, apart from the fact that she will not be commissioned in 2017. Got that wrong. However, as I indicated most of that blog was written at the time of the ‘floating’ of ‘QE’ back in 2014, and my hopes that the ship and her sister HMS Prince of Wales would lead to a more properly strategic assessment of the role, scope and capabilities of Britain’s armed forces. Sadly, it seems from what I have been told that is not to be the case. Instead, fears expressed in my 2015 book Little Britain now look like being realised. Even as I posted the piece I was painfully aware of what London is probably about to do to Britain’s armed forces. If realised, the strategic vandalism by a Government about to renege on the modest commitments made in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review is stunning. What is about to happen, why is it about to happen, and what are the strategic implications? This is what I have been told.
The British Army will be cut from the ‘absolutely irreducible’ 82,000 personnel (current level c. 78,000 in SDSR 2015, to 65,000. 82,000 is an already absurdly small figure for a power such as Britain. The current Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, will be sent to NATO as Chairman of the Military Committee. He will be charged with the job of limiting Britain’s reputational damage reputation in NATO. He will fail. My very high-level contacts in Washington and Brussels are only too aware of this development, and are frankly amazed at the mixture of incompetence and strategic illiteracy for which London now has a well-earned reputation. The Government will try to assuage the concerns of the Head of the British Army, about the coming cuts to his force, by making the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter the next Chief of the Defence Staff.
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon will, as ever, fail to put up any resistance. He has spent his career acting as the ‘safe pair of hands’ sent onto the media circuit to defend the indefensible. He will do it again. Prime Minister May will try to stifle any debate in Cabinet and beyond, and act quickly before there is a functioning House of Commons Defence Committee that can challenge such dangerous folly. Indeed, Downing Street is planning a fait accompli in the wake of the vote on this week’s Queen’s Speech before opposition to the plan can be mobilised.
The cuts, I am told, will also affect the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. It will take longer now to procure the aircraft, weapons systems, drones, and other capabilities (most notably cyber) committed to in SDSR 2015 and before. The vitally-needed replacement Maritime Patrol Aircraft, the Boeing P8 could be either delayed or reduced, or both. The number of F-35Bs needed for the two aircraft carriers, will be either cut or some of the F-35Bs replaced by cheaper F-35As, or both.
There are three main political drivers that are killing sound strategy; cuts, Hammond, and Corbyn. The tattered and panicky May government is trying to close an impossible gap between a failing ‘austerity’ programme, growing demands for more and enhanced public expenditure, and low taxes. The recent fall in the value of the pound has also pushed up the cost of defence procurement. The fingerprints of Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) Phillip ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ Hammond are also all over this plan. Hammond’s idea of strategy tends to go no further than the balance sheet of government. He and his Treasury colleagues too often refuse to consider external strategic events and threats, and see defence merely as a cost rather than a value.
Security is also beginning to consume defence. In the face of recent terror and cyber-attacks London is ‘reassessing’ priorities. London now believes it faces a much more organised and dangerous threat from Salafist Jihadis living in the UK. Former senior officer Richard Kemp, who worked on this issue, said this week that the figure of 23,000 active jihadis and motivated sympathisers, which is the assessment MI5 has worked to of late, is a gross under-estimate. The nonsensical political correctness that enabled such networks to flourish in Britain during the Blair-Brown years is sadly beginning to reap its grim harvest. Add that to the fact that London simply has no real idea who is in the country and the result is a Government close to panic.
And then there is the Corbyn effect. In the wake of the appalling Grenfell Tower disaster it is clear that demands for improved social housing are seen by ministers as irresistible if Jeremy Corbyn is to be kept out of 10 Downing Street. Add those demands to the eternal call for ever more funding for the bottomless cash pit that is the National Health Service and it is clear something has to give. The head of the doctor’s union the British Medical Association this week called for Britain to spend the same proportion of government expenditure on healthcare as the rest of Europe. He failed to point out that the rest of Europe can only afford such expenditures because most Europeans choose not to defend themselves. Britain?
What on Earth?
What are the strategic implication? In a speech in London last December I said that Brexit would ultimately be decided by power. As I spoke I saw Britain’s armed forces as a key strategic lever in the negotiations. By re-committing a growing force to NATO London would prove that a strong strategic defence relationship between Britain and its European partners would be dependent in turn on a decent post-Brexit economic and financial settlement for Britain. Sadly, if my information is correct, London’s strategic illiteracy is about to be translated into negotiating illiteracy as Britain cuts one of the main influence enablers available to it. In so doing Britain’s shrinking influence will be further cut at a critical moment. This seems not to matter to Mr Hammond who seems content to turn Britain into an EU colony; subject to EU laws, but no influence over them, i.e. a colony.
And then there are the Americans. In April I was in the White House. It is clear that an increasingly overstretched US military needs strong allies as part of a new and more realistic transatlantic ‘contract’. It was my hope that London would help lead a host of allies to ease the pressure on the US. HMS Queen Elizabeth was meant to be visible proof of that commitment and would thus also help to restore London’s much-reduced and much-needed influence in Washington. Britain’s influence over NATO and/or the EU? These cuts will simply confirm that not only is Britain broken, but London will be unable henceforth to bring any force of any substance to any major crisis. What does the current strategic environment threaten? It threatens the very series of major crises in which Britain needs to seriously engage which this plan if enacted will prevent. Sadly, it seems Britain is about to pull up a drawbridge to nowhere.
As for Sir Michael Fallon and his pouring of balm on a broken defence and an open political wound, don’t believe a word of it. For once London do the right thing for the right strategic reasons, not the wrong thing for the wrong political reasons, and invest properly in the very defence that in 2015 you said Britain needed! It is not rocket science.
If this information is correct, and I desperately hope it is not, there is only one word for it;