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HomeNewsGavin Williamson's challenge: to develop a vision for keeping the peace

Gavin Williamson’s challenge: to develop a vision for keeping the peace


To my surprise and delight, defence actually made it on to BBC Question Time this week – perhaps unsurprisingly, since it was held in the Fleet Air Arm museum at Yeovilton. All very retro: we were even treated to the assertion that the nuclear deterrent was pointless (I think because David Lammy said he wouldn’t press the button – which rather presumes that he had his finger on it in the first place). The allegation was made that nuclear weapons would never be used, which of course completely misses the point; it is the threat of their use that makes them work. The threat has been used successfully. In the first Gulf War, one of the major concerns was that Saddam had chemical weapons and that he could use them to emasculate the Coalition air power by the simple expedient of covering Coalition airfields with persistent nerve agents. John Major ensured that the Iraqis were persuaded that any such attack would be viewed as a strategic use of WMD, the consequence of which would be instant sunshine in Iraq. The threat worked, and chemical weapons were not used. More recently, Trump reminded Fat Boy Kim that should he use his nuclear weaponry North Korea would be devastated. Again, it worked (if Fat Boy’s sister going to the Winter Olympics is a charm offensive).

On more conventional warfare, the NATO 2 per cent of GDP spending on defence was raised as evidence that the UK was serious about the Armed Forces. As someone in the audience pointed out, if that meant that all the Royal Navy could deploy to shadow a Russian Aircraft carrier in the English Channel was a minesweeper, it might be that 2 per cent was not enough. In the Cold War we spent more than 5 per cent of GDP on defence, when the world was (arguably) more stable. The US, still the NATO linchpin, spends 3.5 per cent of GDP on defence, and that is a far larger sum. But spending is the wrong measure, and expressing it as a fraction of GDP further obfuscates. What counts is capability, or in the British case, lack of capability.

The British Army currently comprises an infantry division (1 Div) and a mechanised division (3 Div). 1 Div has no tanks and lacks any tactical mobility, beyond some ‘light cavalry’ equipped with vehicles procured for the Afghanistan debacle. 3 Div comprises three brigades, each of which has one tank (Challenger 2) regiment and one reconnaissance regiment (Ajax, which is spite of the protestations of some in the MoD is not, never has been and never can be capable of fighting tank on tank). The brigades also have two Warrior-equipped Armoured infantry battalions, plus another one on wheels. The division has an armoured reserve of one further TA Challenger regiment. It is also short of artillery, for the simple reason that the British army has only three regiments of mixed MLRS and AS90. Back in the days when we did conventional war seriously, an armoured division comprised three (sometimes four) brigades, each of two tank regiments and one or two infantry battalions. Plus a regiment of artillery for each brigade, with more artillery in the division and even more in the Corps. The short version is that what is masquerading as a mechanised division is in effect a couple of weak brigades with no significant support. They will die gloriously, but that’s about it.

Why is armour important? Simple: if you want to win a war you need to outmanoeuvre the enemy until they are forced to fight a battle in circumstances of your choosing. The faster and more safely you can move the better your chances of winning. An infantryman without an armoured vehicle is dead meat. Yet of the 33 regular battalions of the British Army just six are armoured. The reorganisation to Army 2020, effectively reshuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic, changes nothing. At best it replaces a Potemkin Village with a Paper Tiger.

Enter our shiny new Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson. After allowing a senior officer to fire a broadside at the Treasury it’s all gone a bit quiet. Gavin faces a choice; he can mouth platitudes about 2 per cent of GDP or he can develop a vision. Had he not voted Remain that would be easy. Allow me to help:

1. Brexit has no impact upon our membership of NATO.

2. The EU’s attempts to develop a military wing are risible and will remain thus. Other than the UK, the only credible military capability in the EU lies with the Poles, and the Foreign Legion bit of the French Army. Plus the French nukes.

3. Freed from the navel-gazing of the EU, we can go back to what we have been for most of the past five centuries, a global trading power with global interests. The first easy step to that is the Commonwealth, which spans the globe and has the potential to become a global military alliance (i.e. a means of keeping the peace). So we need to be able to lead the Commonwealth militarily, which means more money. Now.

I am watching Mr Williamson with interest. Was his defiance of Hammond a flurry based on inexperience or the start of a ‘Brexit is an Opportunity’ platform – fronted by Boris? I fear that the latter is unlikely, and Williamson will descend into obscurity, with Hammond’s knife in his back. I would be delighted if he proved my fears unfounded.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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