Labour, ahoy! HMS UK needs you

Conservatives are adrift on defence and security. Labour must step up.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
28 June 2018

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson during a visit to RAF Lossiemouth, Moray. April, 2018. Jane Barlow/Press Association. All rights reserved.

The United Kingdom's defence policy is an unholy mess on many levels. At present, most public focus is on basic questions of expenditure and the frictions these are generating inside Britain's Conservative government. In many ways this represents a diversion, but it does indicate how far the political establishment is at sea over this policy area, and how important it is to articulate new ideas.

A new report by the House of Commons' defence select committee recommends a huge increase in military spending, up about 50% on current figures to take it to 3% of GDP, much higher than the Nato preference for a 2% minimum. The call is backed by the defence secretary Gavin Williamson, but strongly opposed by the chancellor, Philip Hammond: the result, an increasingly bitter row between the two departments.

At a surface level these tensions involve establishment politics, the weakness of Theresa May, the jockeying for position to replace her as prime minister, and Williamson's own ambitions. He entered parliament only in 2010 and has achieved rapid promotion, unexpectedly being moved from the post of chief whip to the defence portfolio when the previous incumbent, Michael Fallon, was forced to resign in November following harassment allegations.

Since moving to the MoD, Williamson has consistently argued for a much larger defence budget, a stance that appeals to many backbench Conservative MPs as well as the wider party membership. The anger at the Treasury over what is seen as blatant leadership antics is palpable. 

Williamson, though, is a motivated figure, still in his early 40s. The information-gathering role he previously occupied means he is privy to the dark secrets of Conservative MPs, likely to be a factor in any near-term leadership contest. Even if his first bid proves premature it may put down a strong marker for the next. Given the unstable if not febrile state of politics in Britain at present, two more Conservative leaders by 2020 – making four in a single decade after the Cameron-May years – is not at all out of the question.

Such speculation is the everyday backdrop to enduring questions about Britain's defence and security posture. These questions go far wider than the level of defence spending. Indeed, even before money comes into play, three much more fundamental issues need to be faced head on: recent wars, defence management, and future security challenges.

A triple failure

Let's look at these in turn, with the second receiving most attention on this occasion, though the three areas do need to be considered as parts of an integrated whole.

First, then, the legacy of recent wars must be the foundation of a hard-headed analysis. All these – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – were disastrous ventures. Even though ordered by deeply misguided politicians, senior military personnel have been reluctant to query successive governments over their decisions. While the main function of the military might be seen as the defence of the realm, that very purpose should include a willingness to speak truth to power when potentially very damaging orders are being given (see "The thirty-year war: still on track", 16 September 2016).

Second, the numerous examples of major projects going wrong need to be addressed. This phenomenon is reinforced by the power and influence of what can be described as the military-industrial-academic-bureaucratic complex (see "A war-promoting hydra", 25 May 2018).

So many areas exemplify the problems here, with the Royal Navy certainly heading the list. Two decisions of the past twenty years stand out: the hugely expensive replacement of the Trident nuclear-missile submarines, and the building of two new aircraft-carriers. The latter are the navy’s largest ever warships, and numerous other ships are required to support them. In consequence, the navy is moving steadily towards being a two-ship fleet, able to mount one long-range carrier task-group and maintain a single Trident submarine on station – and very little else (see "In defence of greatness: Britain's carrier saga", 10 May 2012).

Even in naval circles, Trident is now being questioned. A thoughtful current article by a retired Polaris submarine executive officer, Rob Forsyth, is one example (see, when available online, “The case against UK Trident: a Naval Officer’s Perspective”, Warships International Fleet Review, July 2018, pp. 31-33). 

As to the carriers, when a warship of this size and importance is deployed at long range, as it is designed to be, it requires considerable support. Usually this would be two air-defence destroyers, an anti-submarine frigate, one or two nuclear-attack submarines, an oiler, and a supplies ship.

Deploying ships for six months or more, thousands of miles away, means that for each warship, three more are permanently available. While one of these is actually on station, a second is en route there or back, or working up, and a third is in refit and repair. So a carrier task-group deployment requires nine escorts (destroyers/frigates) and preferably two attack-submarines. But the Royal Navy will only have nineteen escorts and seven attack-submarines in total (when they are all in working order, which is not very often). In other words, close to half of the whole fleet will be involved in this single operation.

A missile-submarine is sent on patrol only with back-up. This is termed “deterrence support” and requires the ready availability of an attack-submarine, an escort, and long-range maritime-reconnaissance aircraft. All this is against the background of a contracting fleet. In the late 1990s, the Royal Navy had thirty-five escorts and twelve attack-submarines; again, the equivalent numbers today are nineteen and seven (see "Britain's deep-sea defence: out of time?", 3 March 2016).

Furthermore, the costs of masquerading as a great power are no more clearly seen than in selling off current ships even when they have recently been refitted. The navy’s only helicopter-carrier, HMS Ocean, was refitted at a cost of £64 million in 2013; but it has just been decommissioned and sold to Brazil for the knock-down price of £84 million, despite the original intention to keep it in service for around fifteen years. An investigative report in the latest edition of the fortnightly magazine Private Eye finds that many other ships are being sold off early to save money for the two aforementioned grand projects (see “Staying afloat”, 29 June 2018). The UK's misplaced pretension to greatness is never more evident (see "Britain's military: costs of failure, symbols of vanity", 26 January 2018).

Seeds of change

Third as a fundamental issue, after recent wars and defence management, comes emerging security challenges. Almost no thought is being given to these, which stem from pervasive socio-economic marginalisation and the increasing risk of revolts from the margins (not just across the global south). When climate disruption really begins to kick in, the potential for these escalating problems will be even greater (see "A world in trouble: drought, war, food, flight", 6 July 2017).  .

With these prospects, now is the time for a serious rethink on UK security. If undertaken, this could lead to a very different kind of status than the current delusion of post-imperial grandeur (see "Making Britain Great Again – in a different way" (16 November 2017).

For the moment, only a few independent initiatives – not least Rethinking Security – are calling for a fresh approach to security. In this respect the current stance of the Labour Party is pivotal. On the one hand it is regrettable that the party, as the official opposition, is very reluctant to criticise almost any aspect of Britain’s defence posture. This is mainly from fear of being labelled unpatriotic, which could well be a misjudgment of the public mood (see "Britain's security, Labour's missed opportunity", 29 March 2018).

On the other hand, speeches by shadow ministers Emily Thornberry and Kate Osamor do explore some of the themes raised in this series of columns. Along with Jeremy Corbyn’s largely ignored speech in Geneva on 8 December 2017, the seeds of a bold new policy matrix exist in Labour, as well as in circles outside the party. These figures' contributions signal willingness to tackle vital problems of future security, but there is very much more to do.

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