Credibility in Defence


The MoD has recently described the SDSR process, how it has been inclusive and much more disciplined than the last fairly shoddy affair in 2010. Apart from the hiccup with the 300 word limit on public submissions it has been a muted affair up to now. This is good in some ways, discussion among academics and informed think tanks will hopefully provide a greater strategic underpinning to the eventual document.

In contrast to five years ago there has been little public discussion or documents, what few there have been have been fairly weak, like the one I savaged a few weeks ago. There has been very little leaking by seniors or those with an agenda, unlike the knife fight in a sandbag of 2010.

All good so far, at least as far as the process goes, am quite hopeful this time around will be very different than the last.

On Think Defence, there has also been a low volume of SDSR 2015 related posts, a few early ones from me, the current series from Andy C and a great article from David Hulme Footsoldier that contrasted the current discussion with similar processes in the USA and China.

There are many issues that SDSR 2015 will seek to address;

The continued utility of force, the role of the three services in addressing a changing and varied risk landscape, a balance of funding between capabilities, the UK’s long term strategic outlook set within the context of other rising powers and a declining influence relative to others, changing priorities and changing risk, and then onto force composition and equipment.

Above all though, maintaining the UK’s strategic and defence credibility is the most important issue the SDSR must address.

I think it is important to recognise that the British Armed forces will never achieve the mass available to others for a two very simple reasons; cost and demographics. To counter our weakness in numbers we have to unburden ourselves of worrying about how many tanks or frigates we have compared to others. What we do have is skill, experience and a technological advantage that despite recent setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan do provide us with a reputation of being a bit of a hard case, not to be messed with.

A reputation born of credibility has currency.

But this reputation is under threat.

At our peril, we squander it with timidity and half-baked strategies and deployments that spread our jam so thin we can be accused of talking loudly and carrying a small stick. I get the impression that this Government commits forces on the basis of ‘being second only to the USA’ as if this is the important factor, not merely a by-product. As long as we do more than France it doesn’t matter one jot whether the deployment is of value or has a clear target outcome.

Click the image to read in full at Politics Home

I wrote most of this post before the Conservative Party Conference but just to illustrate the point about spin and massaging figures for political effect, this is from Michael Fallon’s speech;

In fact today we have some four thousand servicemen and women serving on 21 operations around the world – twice as many as five years ago.

Some of these deployments have been tiny, 50 personnel for training in Ukraine for example, but they count as a deployment and so serve to counter the criticism from many that the UK is ‘leaving the world stage’

To those who last week questioned the relevance and power of our Armed Forces, let me tell you that only the United States is doing more around the world.

My point exactly, as long as we are second only to the United States, all is well in the world.

He went on;

But keeping Britain safe doesn’t depend on defence ministers – it depends on the almost two hundred thousand men and women who wear the Queen’s uniform.

Two hundred thousand divided by four thousand is?

And anyway, what is the definition of ‘nearly’

Well, the September Update of Defence Statistics might provide an answer;

The Strength of the Full-time Trained UK Armed Forces is 142,490, a decrease of 3.8 per cent (5,680 personnel) since 1 August 2014. The Full Time Trained Strength is 29,900 for the RN/RM, 81,060 for the Army and 31,530 for the RAF.

Ah you say, Reserves also wear the Queen’s uniform, indeed they do;

The trained strength of the FR20 Tri-Service Volunteer Reserve at 1 August 2015 was 25,490, an increase of 2,190 or 9.4 per cent since 1 August 2014.

So, 25,490 plus 142,490 equals 167,980, or if you are a Conservative Minister of State, nearly 200,000.

I suppose you could add in the 7,060 untrained Reserve personnel and 12,330 untrained personnel in the Regular forces to bump up the total to 187,370. How about the Ministry of Defence Police, they also wear the Queen’s uniform, all 2,700 of them. Add in the handful of serving Regular Reserve, Sponsored Reserve and Military Provost Guard Service and we might actually break the two hundred thousand barrier.

Still, I suppose he did say nearly two hundred thousand.

No mention of the MoD’s many and vital civil servants either.

The fudging of the 2% of GDP NATO target is grubby, shameful and frankly, beneath a power like Great Britain. The government can spin all they like but double counting and sharp accounting for the absolute reason of news management has damaged our reputation, Great Britain is not Volkswagon.

Michael Fallon, again in his conference speech, said;

In the first Conservative budget for 19 years our Prime Minister and Chancellor put defence first. Already the fifth biggest in the world, our defence spending will now increase every year and we will meet that NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence not just this year, but every year of this decade.

I must say, am not surprised about this because the 2% figure is a purely political target but this is exactly the shallow flim flam that might manage the short term news agenda but does nothing for the UK’s interests or the personnel we ask to go into harm’s way.

What if we need 2.5%, or 1.5%?

Finally, this made me smile;

Each service is committing to greater efficiency, for example…

The Army will cut the cost of leasing and hiring vehicles by 10%.

By having a 20% reduction in personnel numbers.

The Royal Navy will in the future have three hundred fewer officers but six hundred more sailors to man our ships and submarines.

To address a manning crisis that has seen record numbers leaving, personnel from overseas having to be used for gap filling and even the unedifying spectacle of re-recruiting personnel made redundant. To say nothing of the pinch point trades being mostly officers, cut 300 officers to get 600 sailors seems like a bit of a dumb thing to say but let’s not forget, this is a political point to show how much the Tories are cutting’top brass’.

The Royal Air Force will save over £250m through better use of our Voyager Airtanker fleet.

By having a massive reduction in fast jet numbers.

Those kinds of savings are easy!

So at its core, the SDSR must have a solid grounding of intellectual honesty in matching ends and ways with means.

If we have to lower our aspirations because we cannot afford the means then just come out and say so, doing less with less is honest and has integrity, there is nothing wrong with saying just that.

And please, can we tone down the politics, defence is too important for Soundbite Tony and his heir apparent, 2% Fallon.

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