As an Officer Cadet at Sandhurst there are many hard lessons to learn about leadership, team building and the executing operations as effectively as possible. But one word of warning is given by every Colour Sergeant. Don’t charge in and try and change everything immediately. Make sure you take time to meet and get to know the team around you, what works well and what needs improvement. Allow your own ideas to mature and where possible test them in small ways before making radical changes. By pausing and considering before acting you can mitigate error and make the best decisions.
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP and his Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace MP, have now had a little over 100 days at their respective helms- a three month working window in which to develop their ideas, confer, assess, and hopefully agree on the direction they want to take the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom in. These plans have been momentarily derailed by the General Election which we must win. The manifesto, to be released at some point over the next week or two, will provide some clues as to their plans. In the meantime however, there are already some indications of what Number 10 and the MoD are trying to address.
First – the start state. What is the situation and how does it affect us? Depending on who you listen to we either have the most capable and professional military in the world (alongside the Israelis and the Americans), a highly effective and esteemed Special Forces, two new Aircraft carriers, Trident nuclear submarine capability (despite Jeremy Corbyn’s wishes) and a potent Airforce currently engaged in 15 missions, on 4 operations in 22 countries around the globe.
At last week’s Conservative Voice event entitled “Why the UK is no longer capable of defending the homeland or its vital interests and how to put that right” a very different picture was painted. Sir Gerald Howarth, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Defence 2010-2012 laid out the numbers. In 1982 we had a military of 327,000 people and an Army of 155,000 soldiers. Now our total military numbers some 141,000 and the Army on around 76,000. The Navy has fewer than half the ships it did and Defence spending as a proportion of GDP has gone from approximately 5.95% to 2%. In his words “We have shrunk our armed forces and the nature of the threats we face are infinitely greater.”
General Sir Richard Barrons was equally downbeat, as he was at the Carlton Club earlier in the year for Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces panel discussion. He bemoaned our lack of combat power “enough to take a small market town” and derides the financial commitment to the two most recent medium scale conflicts “We fought Iraq and Afghanistan with the petty cash of government.” He calls UK citizens strategic snowflakes and victims in waiting and pulls no punches in blaming politicians for not adequately understanding or communicating the potential threat to the country.
Both men, however, do see positives and opportunities most notably in technology. Modernising our military will need political transformation and a manned, unmanned and autonomous mix drawing on our conceptual strength and industrial capability. It is in the domain of government to harness them. Are the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State interested in tackling these wider existential issues?
The previous Secretary of State Gavin Williamson MP engaged in monumental efforts to secure a semi adequate funding settlement under Theresa May’s Government. Since then soldier’s basic salaries have increased to £20,000 and since Boris took over HMS Prince of Wales has completed sea trials and Army recruitment figures finally appear to be improving. Most eye catching of all, on the 29th July 2019 the Office for Veterans Affairs was created. Oliver Dowden MP and Johnny Mercer MP share responsibility over the department, the aim of which is to “ensure the whole of government pulls together to deliver the life-long support our veterans deserve”. This must be a good thing.
Ben Wallace MP said on the department’s inauguration “People join our armed forces prepared to give their lives in defence of their country. In return, government and society owe them a debt long after their service is finished.” Judging from media and CF Armed Forces members and friends’ reactions to repay this debt the first thing that needs to be tackled in short order is the issue of historic prosecutions and vexatious litigation sometimes called “lawfare”. Something must be done. Also in the news recently, Johnny Mercer MP was right when he implied the number Forces charities was too high; efforts to amalgamate, connect and foster co-operation between these bodies must be made.
Our members and friends are most concerned with historic prosecutions closely followed by recruitment and conditions for soldiers, sailors and airmen’s families and these issues were duly raised and discussed by the Secretary of State at our Party Conference event.
But whilst these issues are emotive and immediate in their requirement for solution, the questions raised by panellists, experts, veterans and industry insiders about the future of our Armed Forces on a global strategic sense remain. No doubt the cerebral and very capable Chris Brannigan, Number 10 Spad for Defence, along with the MoD team and with those drafting the manifesto will be putting their minds to the challenge over the coming weeks and hopefully months and years.
Until a Conservative government sets out a compelling vision of the future of the Armed Forces, and a sustainable funding plan to ensure we can achieve it, the Conservatives look set to continue a policy of managed decline. In my opinion this betrays our primary duty to our citizens, keeping them and their interests safe in an increasingly volatile world, and to our allies in a global context. It also diminishes a huge advantage or strength we have which many other nations covet.
Once the election is won, perhaps Boris Johnson and his other ministers will elevate Defence to where it should be in the nation’s consciousness, set clear direction and provide our Armed Forces with the tools they need to get the multitude of jobs we require of them done. Let’s hope when parliament resumes they are in a position to take further action.