You’ve got to take your hat off to the Secretary of State for Defence. With speculation rising to fever pitch ahead of the imminent publication of the Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, hardly a day goes by without yet another story appearing in the national press about what is being cut from the Royal Navy, Army or Royal Air Force.
As a man who has nobly carried on his shoulders this most ambitious and far-reaching of all defence reviews for years, you can hardly blame Ben Wallace for keeping tight-lipped. Having an extra £16.5 billion to spend on shiny new toys is perhaps the stuff of dreams, but predicting the future is a tricky business, and our enemies are unlikely to fight as we might expect. The element of surprise is everything.
In addition, not only must the Ministry of Defence fulfil its clear imperative to keep our national secrets safe, but it is surely the most susceptible of all Government departments to the friendly persuasion of so many armchair experts.
With our retired admirals, generals and air marshals, in particular, refusing to bow out gracefully, journalists poised to deploy their pens and Opposition MPs lining up to fire their opening salvo, is it any wonder that copious quantities of body armour are being issued to officials along the corridors of Whitehall?
Sadly, the excellent Defence Secretary may himself need to be first in the queue – for no other reason than he is the fall guy who will ultimately have to take responsibility for what he must now glean from his crystal ball. And to be frank, it is a near-impossible task.
At the heart of the review is the need for the UK to properly define its future role in the world. In true ‘chicken and egg’ fashion, my view is that policy follows strategy, so it stands to reason that our global strategy will pave the way for the next generation of foreign and defence policy aims that will see us to 2030 and beyond.
But, as always, the reality is somewhat more complex. For as long as the UK continues to see itself as a global player, which of course we must, our ongoing and rightful commitment to a seat on the altar of the United Nations Security Council comes with responsibilities that cannot be sacrificed, not least our independent nuclear deterrent. So the review must not just tackle how we allocate the recent increase in defence spending to beyond 2.2 per cent of GDP, but where, when, and why.
For those in any doubt, defence spending is a necessary evil to keep us safe. Today, we face a multitude of threats in multiple domains, some are known to us and some are not, and we are living in an era of constant competition and persistent engagement with our foes. Sub-threshold conflict pervades all around us and it’s a dichotomy perhaps that, in this era of relative peace and prosperity, our future has also rarely been less certain or predictable, not least in the new battlegrounds of space and cyber.
So the UK needs an insurance policy and, thanks to the financial commitment of this Government, the Ministry of Defence finds itself in the rare position of being able to think long-term with its capability planning. This provides certainty, security, clarity, and the confidence to meet our ambition through longer term strategy.
But, as the perceived requirement for precision, stealth, remote and indirect weapons at distance becomes more acute, the bills that come with this are also increasing. Whilst we do still need to put boots on the ground, sailors in our ships and pilots in the air, it may just be that there are better ways of prosecuting military force in a way that does not decisively commit our forces to unacceptable physical risks.
My suspicion is that buying out this danger is one of the core challenges of the digital age, and there may not be a better time to bury bad news. And as Wallace knows, not least as a former Army officer, honouring every single sacred cow is the stuff of fantasy, and there may be blood on the carpet.
It is not for me to wax lyrical about what should be in the Integrated Review, but it seems obvious that the proverbial golf bag of military capability will need to carry a greater range of more expensive clubs. For a start, the golden thread that links hard power with soft power through global free trade, freedom of movement, cooperation and diplomacy, all under-pinned by military force, is persuasive.
Indeed, protecting our trade routes, oil reserves, sovereignty, exports and national interests will continue to require the availability of hard power at unlimited liability and at immediate readiness. If post-EU Britain is to maintain its global presence alongside increasingly ambitious competitors, perhaps even East of Suez, it is inevitable that truly expeditionary capabilities will be needed.
We must therefore enhance our ability to project force by being able to call upon the additional lift needed. So, our naval support vessels, ferries and long-range transport aircraft such as C17 and A400M will need to be augmented alongside our fighting platforms. And if our core assumption is still to put a divisional sized force anywhere in the world, with all of the support arms and force protection that comes with it, then going to the market for a commercial lift solution or contracted logistics cannot be the default setting. We skimp here at our peril.
Beyond this, the Navy will need more ships. As quantity does have a quantity of its own, I would like to see a larger surface fleet, perhaps with less capable platforms, to protect our carriers and enhance our global presence. And if we are to project power from land, sea and air, we will need to invest in our operating bases, not just at our traditional sites in Cyprus, Gibraltar and Ascension, but also at Diego Garcia, Bahrain, Singapore and beyond.
Coalitions will be a force-multiplier so existing defence relations with NATO, the UN, Five Eyes community, Five Powers Defence Agreement, EU and through bilateral deals with allies such as France should be reinforced. Greater integration between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, plus our intelligence services, GCHQ, cyber centres, Space Command and our diplomatic network will be essential too. Better aligning our foreign policy with defence policy in the light of the reduction from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of GDP will also be pivotal and we must not of course forget the need for a new industrial strategy to better support our nascent defence manufacturing industry. So, let’s again build British, buy British and sell British.
Irrespective of the conjecture that has recently appeared in the national press, I can state with certainty that two things will occur. The first is that our best brains have been working on the review for months, and that the final publication will be worth the wait. And the second is that it will be the most brilliant, comprehensive, and incisive analysis of modern defence and foreign policy requirements anywhere in the world for years.
As any armchair enthusiast knows, the first rule of politics is that there is no right and wrong, only degrees of judgement. So irrespective of how unpalatable the review may be to some, there is no doubt that the Secretary of State will be earning his money by standing up to be counted at the Despatch Box. And it may even be that body-armour will not be required.