Mark Francois MP is a former Armed Forces Minister, and is a member of the Defence Select Committee. He is MP for Rayleigh and Wickford.
In giving important evidence to the Defence Select Committee recently, Gavin Williamson argued that “state on state” threats are now the primary threat to the security of the United Kingdom. This is a very important shift in the Government’s position, and has the logical knock on effect that defence expenditure should now be increased to meet these new circumstances and the far more serious challenge which they represent.
It is important to put this change into historical context. If we begin by going back to the 1980s, when the Berlin Wall was still up and the Cold War was still at its height, Britain, which then as now was a key member of NATO, spent around five per cent of GDP on defence, principally to deter the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. In the 1990s, when the wall had come down and, like other countries, we took a peace dividend, that reduced spending to somewhere between three and three and a half per cent of GDP.
As we entered the new millennium, the horrific events of 9/11 led to massive shifts in strategy. The United Kingdom became involved in expeditionary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where our forces became increasingly optimised to fight wars with a counter-insurgency element, at reach, against technologically inferior but nevertheless very determined enemies.
As a result, and with the MoD already under considerable financial pressure, we optimised our force mix accordingly, whilst at the same time deprioritising areas such as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and air defence to the point where today we have only 19 frigates and destroyers and have seen a major reduction in fast jet squadrons.
As this process continued, by the time of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and the accompanying National Security Strategy it became the Government’s policy that there was no existential threat to the security of the United Kingdom. With echoes of the ‘Ten Year Rule’ of the 1920s and 1930s, state-based threats to our security were effectively seen as no longer relevant.
However, events of the last few years have shown those assumptions to be highly erroneous. The activities of a resurgent Russia in annexing the Crimea and effectively invading parts of the Ukraine have shown a willingness to use military force on the European land mass in order to achieve its political objectives. We have also seen heavy Russian involvement in Syria and massively increased Russian submarine activity in the North Sea, the North Atlantic and the GIUK (Greenland/Iceland/UK) gap, plus Russia also exerting pressure on the Baltic States, now members of NATO and covered by the Article 5 guarantee. All this is occurring at a time where we have reduced our defence expenditure further, to where it sits today, at barely two per cent of GDP.
General Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of the General Staff, in his very good recent speech to the Royal United Services Institute, sounded a timely warning about growing Russian military capability and areas where we need to bolster our own Army in response.
In the United States, the recently published Defence Strategy authored by Secretary Mattis has declared that state on state competition, particularly with Russia and China, is now viewed as the primary threat to the security of the US and its allies. This very important change in policy was then echoed to some degree by our Secretary of State for Defence in his evidence to the Defence Select Committee. During that session, he explained that the threat to the United Kingdom from other states, such as Russia and North Korea, is now greater than the threated posed by terrorism.
As he told the Committee: “We would highlight state-based threats as the top priority”. He went on to say “state-based threats are something which have grown immeasurably over the last few years”.
When I put it to the Secretary of State that what he was announcing in the primacy of state based threats to our security was a massive change in focus, and that this would have a knock on effect on how Britain’s military was structured and its readiness for war, he replied unequivocally that “yes it does”.
What this now means is that the defence review which is currently underway – the Managing Defence Programme (MDP) – is taking place against a significantly revised strategic background in which deterring military threats from other states such as Russia, North Korea and, to a lesser extent, China is now to become the primary focus of this country’s defence policy. This new context brings with it certain very important implications.
Firstly, we absolutely must retain our independent strategic nuclear deterrent as the ultimate guarantee of our national security. All of the three states mentioned previously are nuclear-armed and it is important that we retain our deterrent as a weapon of last resort in order to deter any nuclear threat against us.
Secondly, if we are to deter state on state threats then clearly we must bolster our conventional defences. Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said “quantity has a quality all of its own”, and we can no longer rely on advances in technological capability to always give us the edge in a future war. We also need to consider the issue of mass, i.e. numbers of platforms and to make sure they are sufficient in future to deter our potential enemies. This means, for instance, rebuilding our air defences and bolstering our ASW capabilities in order to help protect the sea lines of communications across the Atlantic, which would be vital in any conflagration on the European mainland.
Thirdly, we must seriously consider how we could reconstitute forces in a national emergency. We must accumulate war reserves in order to show that we have the ability to sustain a fight if we were ever to get into one. As just one example, the committee took evidence from BAE Executives a few months ago. When we asked how long it would take to build a Typhoon from scratch, we were told it would take four years, or if they attempted to accelerate the process, perhaps three years at best. These long lead-times for manufacturing sophisticated modern military equipment means in reality that we would likely have to fight a so-called “come as you are war”, which involves using equipment which is either immediately available or which can be reintroduced into service at short notice. It follows from this that we should now adopt a practice of mothballing highly expensive and complex equipment when it goes out of service rather than disposing of it all together, often for a pittance, so that we will have the ability to reconstitute at least some mass, should it be required if the skies were ever to darken again.
Fourthly, in light of this new strategic situation of state on state based threats, spending two per cent of our GDP on defence is simply not sufficient. If during the Cold War we helped to deter Russia by spending five per cent of GDP then if we now have to do it again, we are simply not going to be able to do so by only spending two per cent. Our allies also need to make a greater contribution, too.
In this renewed threat environment, if we are to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent, bolster our conventional forces and build up our war reserves then we are obviously going to need to spend something much nearer to three per cent than two per cent. If we will the ends, then we must also will the means.