Well, the Prime Minister has announced the Government’s ‘Strategic Defence and Security Review‘. It’s a dreadful mess, a dog’s breakfast, a bugger’s muddle, an appalling nightmare, a train wreck on a cruise ship drifting into an iceberg with a jumbo jet crashed on top, to paraphrase some of the coverage. There’s not much more to be said about it, honestly. The Leader of the Opposition is entirely correct that it’s a ‘spending review dressed up as a defence review‘. And I also agree that it was ‘chaotically conducted’ and ‘hastily prepared’. True, true, all true.
And yet why does my skin crawl watching the Opposition front bench while he says these things? Because of course the question on everyone’s mind is ‘how in the hell did things get this bad?’ for which the answer is in no small part because those guys had ten plus years in Government during which time they ran the place into the dirt. That said, having taken an afternoon to stew in righteous anger I’ve had a few other thoughts which I thought I might share with you readers, please feel free to add your own remembering our injunction to ‘be polite, be sensible’, constructive in other words.
1. We are where we are not entirely at the hands of feckless Government ‘decision’-making. Sad to say, but still palpably evident, that the armed forces are atrociously led. We have far too many generals, as we have noted here in the past as have many others; more the worse far too many of them are no good. German U-Boats didn’t sink half the Royal Navy, neither did the Russians or the Chinese, it’s been sunk by our own admirals. The logical next step seems too obvious to need mentioning…
2. I struggle to think of a single major defence procurement contract over the last decade which cannot be described as catastrophically overspent, mismatched, over-sold, obsolete or near-obsolete junk-on-arrival. The Directorate of Equipment and Services I understand employs about 26,000 people. The Israelis get by with 400 in there equivalent institution. Is the IDF less well-equipped? Again, with apologies to Betjeman, the next step seems plain…
3. £38 billion. That was the defence overspend before these cuts were announced. God knows what it is now. We could argue about the details, a carrier here, a fourth-generation fighter aircraft there, whatever… details. The thing to grasp is that this is not Year Zero for the UK military, it’s worse than that. It’s more like Year -5 or -10 because that’s what it’s going to take to move all the accumulated bad decisions, and even worse non-decisions, through the system. It will be years before we get to zero and can start to work on building the armed forces we want and need. So, yes, this was a spending review not a strategy review; and, yes, it was hastily conducted. But so what? I’m thinking that given that all the smart choices that might have been taken for the 2010-20 timeframe have been long since foreclosed we might as well spend some time thinking really carefully about 2020-60.
4. The National Security Strategy, which I confess I am still pondering and reserve the right to change my mind on this tentative conclusion: is actually not bad, says many sensible things. One of the things it makes quite clear (on page 27) are the priority risks to the UK which are divided into three tiers in descending order of severity. The bulk of the armed forces, as currently constituted, really only seem relevant to the Tier 3 threats. Why is this the case in 2010 when people have drawn up similar lists since the end of the Cold War? Good question, see Point 1, for a start. For 20 years or so, actually probably more like 50, defence planners in this country have been making the classic Milkshake Mistake ‘assuming as if all habits were deeply rooted traditions instead of accumulated accidents.’ In other words, as we think about defence in the 2020-60 timeframe we ought to consider the possibility that all of the things the forces talk about as deeply needful may all be accumulated accidents, virtually none of it ‘fit for purpose’. Don’t get me wrong, I think defence spending at 2 per cent of GDP is less than half of what is right but even so, dream, if we had a big fat chequebook I would not advise buying what we’ve been doing so far.
So, where to go now? There’s a bleak Russian proverb which I think apposite: we thought we’d finally hit the bottom [of the barrel, well] ’til we heard someone scratching from below.’ Let’s pause for a moment and take stock. Is this as bad as it gets or is more and worse to come? Once we reckon we’re at the nadir then let’s start afresh. Personally, I’d run it like the Dragon’s Den, the BBC show where budding entrepreneurs get to pitch an idea to a panel of zillionaires willing to invest their own money. Send an invitation to every single officer in the armed forces regardless of rank. What’s your vision for the RAF, British Army, Navy, Marines? The best idea wins, ‘Congratulations, Captain X. You are now Chief of the General Staff.’