James Gray is MP for North Wiltshire, author of Who Takes Britain to War?, and a former member of the Defence Select Committee.
The world is a more dangerous place than ever in our lifetimes
A resurgent Russia, from the Arctic through Eastern Europe to Syria and the Med, is once again a strategic threat. Do we seek to contain the Russian bear, to deter him, or to engage better with him?
Daesh and Islamist fundamentalist terrorism is as big a threat as ever. Can it be defeated militarily, or is it a multi-headed hydra under the Arabian (and perhaps European) sand?
Does Brexit strengthen NATO as the cornerstone of our defences, or weaken it? Does Britain have a stronger and more important role in world affairs, or are we to be peripheralised? Do we have an expeditionary, world policeman role? Or should we just be pulling up the drawbridge and defending our home territories?
The Defence of the Realm – that oft-quoted primary duty of any government – should not be a party political matter. No government of any political persuasion has a good record on it. Barely managing the NATO minimum spend of two per cent of GDP, we boast an army of only 78,000 (instead of the bare minimum 82,000 we were promised); the Royal Navy is justifiably proud of her two new aircraft carriers – the largest ships ever built for the service – yet there are very real concerns about whether or not they have the right planes at the right prices for them, and about whether or not we have enough personnel to man them; and the RAF have done well in equipment terms overall, but are still seriously short of serviceable fast jet fighters.
Not only are we lamentably short of materiel – ships and planes and tanks and the people to man them – but we are only beginning to get our brains around the stratospheric changes which are occurring in terms of the threat and in the technologies available to counter it. Cyber and hybrid warfare are much discussed; yet are we really ready to switch resources from conventional weaponry and platforms to spotty youths in computer centres? Do we really understand the hybrid warfare threat presented especially by Russia; and, leaving aside 77 Brigade, are we really focussing on how to counter it? Have we mastered the new ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Recce) capabilities offered, for example, by drones? The battlefield is both wholly different to that of Iraq, for example, but it is also changing at a breathtaking pace. Do our generals and admirals and air marshals really have the intellectual agility and readiness to change to master that challenge?
It is rumoured that the Ministrt of Defence is considering a kind of mini Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), to try to address some of those questions. Yet it is only two years since we had a pretty rigorous SDSR, which was welcomed in most areas. What we need now is not a review to consider our military capabilities, which will almost certainly be camouflaged cover for yet further cuts in our spending and capabilities. What we need instead is a really fundamental rethink of who we are; what we are for in the world? What really is our strategic purpose? Only having decided that – once we have a true grand strategy in place – only then should we set about working out how to achieve it.
We are probably in the lead in the world in very many of those areas. The Defence Academy at every level, 77 Brigade, and some of our think-tanks – RUSI especially springs to mind – are world-class. Yet they can only answer the questions which are set for them. The National Security Council was supposed to do that – and the National Security Strategy should have been the super-strategic exam paper which the generals and the think-tanks alike then strove to answer. Yet the reality is that National Security Council meetings are reported to be overwhelmingly tactical. They focus on what to do about tomorrow’s newspapers, rather than what role we should have in the world, and how to set about achieving that role?
The National Security Council should be much bolder, much clearer in setting our national goals and ambitions, in analysing our national characteristics and purposes, and in keeping up to date as they morph from war weariness from misconceived interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and a resulting over-reaction against military intervention anywhere in the world, to national outrage at some international event (nerve gas used on innocent civilians in Syria, for example).
Now is the time – as we leave the EU – for us to come to some kind of clear and consensual view of who we are and what we are for, and then for the MOD and Treasury to work out how we can achieve it.