GRANT Shapps has never struck me as the soundest or most capable politician. Shapps (also known as Michael Green, Corinne Stockheath and Sebastian Fox) has always struck me as a snake-oil salesman at best. I’m not surprised to see him floating to the top of the Parliamentary cesspit as our new Secretary of State for Defence, but I am disappointed. It’s not personal (having no need for snake oil, I have not met him), it’s just that there is nothing in his career to date to suggest that he has the intellect or gravitas, let alone genuine leadership and charisma that the role requires. The Armed Forces are in a mess and desperately need strong political leadership. Shapps is no Haldane. (The Haldane reforms of 1906-1912 defined the modern British Army. When tested by the Great War they worked, delivering effective military power where it was needed.) Nor is his career to date likely to inspire affection amongst the sailors, soldiers and airpeople of our armed forces: military leadership demands palpable integrity.
As a former Army officer, Ben Wallace was able to establish strong relationships with service personnel. He also succeeded in his primary role of extracting money from the Treasury – no mean achievement and one that defeated many of his predecessors. However his four years at the helm of the MoD have not resolved the problems, or even charted a credible route to viable solutions. The Navy is probably in the best shape. Its prime problem is a lack of surface ships – the Nelsonian cry of ‘more frigates’ is as apt now as it was 110 years ago. Indeed it’s more urgent. That could be fixed by flashing some cash. At least the Navy knows what it’s for and how to go about its job.
The Royal Air Force is far from well. While shiny new fighters (F35) and anti-submarine aircraft (P8 Poseidon) are finally being delivered, its Typhoons are ageing (rumours abound as to their low availability). It has failed to procure enough Wedgetail airborne early-warning aircraft – it has just two when it needs at least the five it first ordered. This is not parsimony, this is a fundamental inability to procure essential systems. It’s also gone needlessly woke and is funding unnecessary research into green aviation fuel as well as imposing unlawful racist recruiting caps. Oh, and its discipline problems mean that the Red Arrows are short of one display pilot (which will probably be masked to some extent by spares shortages reducing the number airborne). Shapps is a keen private pilot; no doubt the RAF is already measuring him up for a trip in a fast jet.
And then there is the Army. Despite having the manpower of the old British Army of the Rhine it delivers perhaps one sixth of the combat power. It has no clear idea of what it should be delivering. It has three divisions, two of which are solely administrative. The other one pretends to be an armoured division, although it is short on tanks (Challenger 2), its infantry fighting vehicles (Warrior) are obsolete and its artillery (AS-90) is clapped out. It’s never even been on exercise, despite it possibly being committed to Nato.
The confusion as to role was very much exacerbated on Wallace’s watch. He started with the ‘strike’ concept, which evaporated. The Army then went all medium and easy to deploy, inventing Rangers, abolishing Infantry Fighting Vehicles. This phase was typified by creating slogans such as ‘network centric warfare’ and ‘any sensor, any shooter’ while ignoring the reality of the problems with Morpheus, the still-troubled communication system required to deliver it. Then Putin demonstrated that armoured warfare remains the single greatest military threat to Europe, thereby exposing the Army’s planning assumptions over the past two decades as self-deluding wishful thinking. In a breath of fresh air, General Patrick Sanders started his tenure as Chief of the General Staff (CGS) by stating that one ‘can’t cyber one’s way across a river’. That this needed saying speaks volumes about the malaise at the heart of what passes for military thought. That it was career-ending for General Sanders speaks volumes about the way the upper echelons of the MoD work.
The next CGS, General Roly Walker, had plenty on his plate already. Breaking in a new Defence Secretary with near-zero military knowledge will simply add to it. I suppose that he can take comfort from the fact that since an election is looming Shapps is unlikely to be in place for more than a year. Unfortunately Putin’s Russia will be a threat for rather longer.