Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Fox at RUSI: Do the Tories 'get' Defence?

Yesterday, the Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Defence gave a speech at RUSI laying out what the Conservatives are seeing for the future of Defence in the UK. The full text is available here, but I'll be pulling quotes that I feel are interesting.

This is a pretty important speech, as it gives us an opportunity to see how screwed the Armed Forces will be under a Tory government.

One of Foxy's earliest points is to point out that unlike the current governmental incumbents, he does not believe that the UK will always be fighting with allies. He states that:

"Second, we cannot accept the assumption in the Green Paper that Britain will always operate as part of an alliance. We have unique national interests and have to maintain the capability to act on our own if required."

Bravo that man! This is a fundamental tenet of the UK's armed forces. Sure, we're not the biggest, or the best equipped. But we should always be able to operate on our own, without missing any critical elements that we've relied on allies for (ISTAR, CAS, medevac, or anything else).

He even lines out a sensible structure for the upcoming Defence Review, which hopefully hasn't been too pre-judged by the Green Paper:

"As for the review itself, it must have a logical sequence. It must begin with our foreign policy priorities, outlining our national interests. We must then consider the threats which may affect our interests so that we can determine the defence strategy needed to respond to them. Only then can we determine the military capabilities we need to protect those interests in this threat environment.
Only then can we come to the equipment programmes that will make these capabilities a reality."

The traditional way of running a Defence Review has been to work out what equipment we can afford, then which threats that the equipment is capable of operating against, then whether we'd like to be able to meet those threats or not. Whilst at the moment, this process is just talk, it is at least the right sort of talk.

Foxy then moves onto some potentially unpopular (well, on Whitehall anyway) suggestions:

"We must be able to defend the UK against the threats posed to our interests within reasonably predictable limits...When required the Armed Forces must be able to augment and support civil emergency organisations during a time of crisis.

Defending the UK also means maintaining key strategic tasks like a continuous at sea submarine based minimum credible nuclear deterrent.

Secondly we must be able to defend our fourteen overseas territories and, of course, the main focus is on the Falklands.

Thirdly, when required, we must be able to come to the aid of NATO allies in a significant way under our Article V obligations.

Fourthly, we will need to be able to project power on a strategic level alongside the United States and France.

Fifthly, we will have to have the capacity to conduct extended stabilisation and nation building exercises

Sixthly... We will continue to work closely with countries with shared mutual interests and geo-strategic importance, like Norway and Turkey or Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States."

As before, this is all sounding remarkably sensible. I can't actually disagree with any of these points. This is sounding like a government who understands the point of actually having an effective Armed Forces. Foxy isn't talking in grey terms about "A Force for Good" but actually laying out the jobs he's expecting our servicemen and women to be doing.

He outlines an array threats, from the usual suspects (TERRORVISIONISM) to a few that are new but more likely and more threatening (Cyber-warfare, Nuclear proliferation, Piracy). He doesn't discount state-on-state warfare, whilst reiterating the importance of being able to operate as a counter-insurgency force. He even uses the phrase:

"This has led many to believe that we have to choose between fighting 'the war' or 'a war'-but this is a false dichotomy."

Bloody hell, that's one of the most sensible Defence comments I've heard since someone suggested that perhaps we should do something about this Hitler fellow.

He even mentions the Russian invasion of Georgia (is it me, or did the current government miss that game entirely?), drawing not just conclusions about the kinetic weapons employed, but also the broad range of information operations. Someone is clearly briefing him properly. And more spectacularly he is listening to them. This isn't something you normally expect to see amongst Defence focused politicians.

The next part of the speech is focusing on equipment. As mentioned above, this follows the structure for the Defence Review, first focus on threats, then what you buy to deal with them.

However, the good Doctor continues his sensible analysis. One phrase I saw was:

"In order to ensure we are able to respond to rapidly to changing threats we must have a vibrant defence industrial base. Without it we would have no operational sovereignty-thereby threatening our national sovereignty."

Is anyone else hearing the resurrection of DIS? Unusually for the Tories, with their previous focus on telling the Government they should have been buying American products, it sounds like they're actually starting to understand one of the basic rules: If you have no Defence Industry, you have no Defence.

Foxy then brings up and interesting and for Labour, distasteful point. Exports. He says both that: "The Conservative Party will use defence exports as a foreign policy tool and we will seek to increase Britain's share of the world defence market." and that new equipment programmes will: "have a high export demand". This is only common sense. A system that costs £1Bn a pop and can't be bought by anyone else is a lot less useful to our armed forces than a system that provides 90% of the capability for half the price AND can be sold to our allies, dropping the unit price further. Our constant gold-plating of pretty much anything we've built or bought has destroyed the ability for the UK Defence Industry to flog it.

Labour has talked at great length about how the Tories will turn their backs on Manufacturing. Here is a clear example that under the Tories, our largest manufacturing export industry will actually be encouraged, rather than seen as some dirty secret.

Brilliantly Foxy was even able to point out the truth that we've all known for some time: That under the current financial constraints operations aren't being fully funded from the Treasury Reserve as they should. Whilst this may be a complicated political point to the general public, it's a critical part of how our Armed Forces operates. The Budget only exists to give them the capability to go to war (the equipment, training and manpower required). To actually go to war (for example: replacing worn out equipment) the costs have to be funded by the Treasury. This hasn't been happening, so the Forces have been cannibalising training and equipment to fund the Government's war.

Foxy goes on to point out that financial constraints will provide a serious limitation (much of what he's quoted above is expensive) on the next Government to actually fund Defence properly. It will be very interesting to see how the Tories manage this problem over the next year. As he points out, the financial constraints may make it possible to drive through reform that would be impossible otherwise.

Right, my final thoughts on the speech. I think what he said was excellent. He sounds like a minister who has deeply understood the problems of his portfolio (one of the toughest available). He has detailed the threats that the Forces should be balanced to deal with and what capabilities are required (without demanding specific pieces of equipment). In fact, by staying away from equipment, he was able to keep the speech fairly force-neutral. He did mention both the Navy and the Army (with no mention of the RAF) but only both briefly and in the context of current threats. I imagine at the moment, he's steering fairly well clear of the minefield of inter-service rivalry. Maybe, with the upcoming review, he may be able to do something about it. From the intelligence contained in this speech it appears that he's smart enough to understand the value of some under-appreciated capabilities we have today, such as Fast Jets, ASW and heavy armoured units, which whilst not particularly useful against the Taliban have proved their worth time and time again.

To my mind, this is one of the best Defence speeches for some time. For all the talk that Brown has finally "got" defence there is no substitute for a minister who understands the issues and is able to eloquently defend his position. However, it is just a speech, it won't achieve anything on its own. I hope that it's merely the start of a sustained Tory understanding of the problems. Can Dave spare Defence from the worst of the cuts, listen to his minister and understand that there are votes in the UK being strong and able to stand with the rest of the world?

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