Wednesday, May 22, 2024
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The defence delusion


I’VE just spent a day reading the 63 pages of gobbledegook that comprise the Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Refresh. In this context ‘Refresh’ means ‘Rewrite.’ The document was produced by the Cabinet Office as an update to their 2021 version, which was ruined by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The short version is simple: £2billion or so for Ukraine weaponry and £3billion for nuclear submarines, including the AUKUS ones that Mr Sunak was generating headlines about on Monday. That’s hardly the ‘major investment in defence’ that the press release mentioned.

The document comprises wishful thinking masquerading as a coherent academic veneer for the government’s defence and security activities. It also mentions energy security, climate change (of course), border security (ha!), education, the threats to academic freedom  and the online safety bill. In brief the UK will:

1.    Shape the international environment in the UK’s favour.

2.    Deter, defend and compete across all domains (by which it means land, sea, air, space and cyberspace).

3.    Address UK vulnerabilities through resilience.

4.    Generate strategic advantage for the UK.

As policy aims those are hardly ground-breaking; they’re a statement of the obvious for any country. The important question is how to deliver? Apparently these four pillars: ‘set the “ways” through which the UK will pursue these “ends”. The framework will guide all relevant areas of national security, international and domestic policy and resource decisions until the next general election. Given the interconnected nature of the challenges we face and the breadth of the policy agenda sitting under the IR, the pillars do not cover policy in exhaustive detail. However, each pillar highlights the particularly important areas of policy that will be essential to delivering the overall intent, and indicates prioritisation where this is possible. They are designed to support a sustained, campaigning approach that keeps pace with the changing international environment, with the emphasis on “think longterm; act now”.’ (Page 16, paragraph 3).

Surely if one is shaping the international environment one needs to be at the head of it, rather than merely keeping pace? And the next general election is only 22 months away, hardly ‘long term’ – unless you’re Harold Wilson.

On the next page paragraph 4 blithely asserts that ‘the National Security Council (NSC) will oversee a “strategic cycle” that drives delivery of the IR2023 strategic framework. This will emphasise: greater integration of IR2023 into the Government Planning and Performance Framework (GPPF) through departmental Outcome Delivery Plans and cross-cutting Priority Outcomes; regular horizon-scanning underpinned by products including the NSRA; ongoing monitoring and evaluation of delivery progress; more frequent opportunities to consider cross-cutting issues such as strategic advantage in the round; and greater agility in responding to the intent and actions of our competitors. As set out in IR2021, this requires long-term cultural change so the Government is able to navigate a much more challenging operating environment. The IR strategic cycle will therefore (my emphasis) require ongoing commitment from senior leaders across the national security community to strengthening culture, diversity and inclusion.’

What’s with the ‘therefore’? How does a culture of diversity and inclusion among senior leaders drive delivery? (Note, I’m not saying it doesn’t, I’m asking how – it’s hardly worked in other government departments.) What about intelligence, wisdom, analytical ability and intellectual robustness? Or the ability to write plain prose? These surely are requirements more likely to deliver results in a challenging environment?

Apparently our ‘first thematic priority remains tackling climate change, environmental damage and biodiversity loss’. (Page 26 paragraph 25) Really? Deterring World War 3 and preventing war in Europe would be my highest priority, given the current Russian aggression. I would also fret a bit about Taiwan and Chinese expansion. Climate is mentioned 37 times. Tanks are mentioned three times, and one of them is a think tank, not a Challenger!

Moving on to deterrence, paragraph 7 on page 34 states: ‘In addition to our nuclear deterrent, the UK’s conventional, cyber and space forces must be sufficiently capable, resilient, deployable and adaptive to deter potential adversaries from engaging in conflict, and to win a conflict if deterrence fails. The UK’s forces already have cutting-edge technologies and capabilities across all five domains of land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. Combined with our ability to train and operate with others in an integrated way, this enables the UK to deliver disproportionate effect relative to our size. But as others modernise their own armed forces, we must work to maintain our edge.’ The sentence in bold (my emphasis) is just wishful thinking.

The Royal Navy’s current ‘cutting edge’ fleet includes 12 ageing Duke Class Frigates whose life has been further extended to ensure that the fleet of frigates and destroyers totals no fewer than 17 (the number the Royal Navy needs to fulfil its current commitments). The Dukes will eventually be replaced by eight Type 26 frigates: the first (HMS Glasgow) will be in service in 2026; and by five Type 31 frigates  which lack anti-submarine warfare capabilities. The first Type 31 is in construction and will probably join the fleet in 2028. There’s an awful lot of ocean for not much Navy to cover.

The RAF’s primary problem is that it ordered only three Wedgetail AWACS (airborne early warning and command system) aircraft when it needed five (at least). With a bit of luck Wedgetail will be in service next year. Until it is the RAF can fight only with the assistance of (some) friendly powers. Despite this glaring and profound shortfall, the paper states: ‘The UK will remain a leading contributor to Nato, offering the Alliance the full spectrum of defence capabilities.’ (Page  40, para 23) ‘Full spectrum’ implies all capabilities, which the RAF does not have. Are the Refresh authors ignorant or deceitful?

The Army is in such a state that last year the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Saunders, had to launch Operation Mobilise to get it ready for war. Even so Nato, the French and the US have all suggested – with good reason – that the British Army is no longer top tier. While money is part of the problem, weak thinking has exacerbated its appalling procurement. Half of our infantry are equipped to go to war as per 1916 – which didn’t end well for those involved – and it’s still not possible to cyber one’s way over a river, as General Saunders reminded RUSI last year.  Far from delivering ‘disproportionate effect relative to our size’, the Army is larger than the Cold War British Army of the Rhine yet delivers less than a quarter of the combat power.

The third pillar (addressing vulnerabilities) mentions the impact of the Ukraine war on energy prices. Yet gas is mentioned just once and shale gas not at all. (Net Zero is mentioned 15 times). We’re promised an ‘upcoming Energy Security Plan’ and ‘Net Zero Growth Plan’ which ‘will provide further detail on the action the UK will take to deliver energy security in line with our commitments to low-cost decarbonisation’. It’s a shame no one looked at that before Mrs May committed us to Net Zero in 2019.

There’s ‘a clear pipeline of new nuclear power projects’. Perhaps. But as Kathryn Porter points out on her Watt-Logic blog, by the time the first of that allegedly clear pipeline (Hinkley Point C) comes on line in 2028 the only nuclear power station running in UK will be Sizewell B.

The fourth pillar (generating strategic advantage) opens thus: ‘The UK is a globally engaged power with a uniquely diverse range of national strengths. We are a G7 economy, the sixth largest in the world by gross domestic product, the seventh largest exporter of goods and services, one of the leading countries for outbound foreign direct investment (FDI) and one of the most attractive for inbound FDI. We are known for our innovation and R&D excellence, and the quality of our universities, 17 of which are in the world’s top 100. We are a permanent member of the UNSC, a founder member of Nato, and a globally engaged defence and security actor currently operating on every continent and in all domains. We are one of the world’s five largest bilateral donors of ODA [official development assistance], valued by partners for our deep expertise. And we have a global cultural reach, through institutions such as the BBC, the British Council and the Premier League, our creative industries, and our extensive people-to-people links.’

No mention there of the ballooning national debt (£2.5trillion) and the ever-increasing annual deficit. No mention of the Chancellor’s current plan of raising corporation tax which will massively reduce the UK’s attractiveness as an investment target, as evidenced by AstraZeneca’s recent decision to invest in low-tax Ireland rather than Warrington.

This Integrated Review supposedly sets out how various parts of our government work to deliver the UK’s Defence and Security. Riven as it is with delusions, platitudes and aspirations masquerading as fact what it actually does is illustrate the rot at the core of the government machine.

In June last year, when Rishi Sunak was a candidate to lead the Conservative Party, he said: ‘We need to provide our military with the resources it needs to do what it needs to do to keep us safe,’ and added that he would ‘never short-change the armed forces’. The Prime Minister has not just broken that promise, he’s short-changed the entire country.

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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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