Cllr Andrew Wood is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Tower Hamlets Council and a councillor for Canary Wharf Ward.
With a new manifesto being finalised it is time to review how our 2017 manifesto commitments on defence have worked out. The manifesto started with the line “Our world is full of opportunity, but is also riven by conflict, terrorism and threat”.
The good news is that ISIS has been defeated, but the stalemate in Syria continues. And the victory against ISIS could only have happened with the active assistance of the Kurds, but they have been abandoned and we may now lose Turkey as a reliable NATO partner. It is also striking that the Americans as a result last week had to move armoured units into the oilfields of Syria to protect them from the re-emergence of ISIS.
Watching the 70th anniversary parade of the foundation of the Peoples Republic of China in Beijing last month was to see rank after rank of new advanced weaponry on display. While the Pacific may seem remote, we have important allies and strategic interests in the region not least Australia and New Zealand as well as a number of Commonwealth countries. We may need to be prepared to support them one day as they did us in 1939-1945.
And we have at least 10 Russian Navy submarines on exercise in the North Atlantic right now (the most since the end of the Cold War), eight of which are nuclear powered and to watch some of the Russian Army exercises, like those currently underway in Egypt, is to be impressed by the scale and sophistication of their training and their outreach to potential allies (many of them not democracies).
The world remains riven by conflict and some of our potential adversaries are becoming more capable eroding the qualitative edge we have traditionally enjoyed.
The finest servicemen and women
While we may have the finest forces we have fewer of them. The most recent Quarterly Service Personnel Statistics reported that we had a 7.6% deficit (10,982 personnel) against the planned number of trained personnel needed at 1 July 2019. That affects every branch of service and every rank level, but is worst in the Army’s regular non-officer ranks where we have a 10.8% deficit.
In April 2012, we had 221,327 UK forces personnel including reserves, in July 2019 we had 191,600. In full time regular forces we had a 20% decline in numbers over the same time period, or a13% decline if you include reserves. At least our Volunteer Reserves grew, but they are still 2,506 below the SDSR (Security Defence and Security Review) 2015 target of 35,000 reserve personnel. Is the world 13% safer than it was in 2012?
With near full employment, fewer overseas campaigns and a legacy of concerns about previous deployments overseas, we need to find a way of making up the numbers or, as we did in Normandy in 1944, learn to fight with fewer soldiers. We cannot expect fewer numbers to carry the burden.
The best equipment for our armed forces
On the surface our commitments to the best equipment looks solid: two new aircraft carriers, new maritime patrol aircraft just delivered, new early warning aircraft ordered. A new generation of Ajax armoured vehicles underway. But look below the surface and things are less rosy. The Army still uses the FV432 aka Bulldog, which went into service in 1963 as a battlefield taxi. And none of our future destroyers and frigates will be able to sink submarines directly unless they are able to launch a Merlin Mk2 helicopter. Our Royal Navy Wildcat helicopters cannot find submarines on their own as they carry no dipping sonar or sono-buoy launcher (unlike their South Korean equivalents nor Lynx predecessors).
Last year, the National Audit Office said this about the 2018-2028 Equipment Plan: “The Plan remains unaffordable, with the Department reporting a £7 billion difference between expected costs and budget for 2018 to 2028, 84% of which falls in the first four years.” Although the September 2019 Spending Round found more money for defence, which if continued will close some of the gap, pressures remain, especially the need to replace Trident. And we have so far only ordered 35 of 138 planned Lightning F35 fighters.
Supporting our veterans
The Queen’s Speech announced a new Office of Veterans’ Affairs, but did not include legislation to protect military veterans from prosecution. While a lot of good work has been done I suspect the average potential new recruit still thinks we have not done enough to reassure them about the dangers they face in the future whether from prosecution, mental health, physical disability or post military employment opportunities.
What should the 2019 manifesto say?
It needs to commit to reversing the personnel deficits we have; it should send a signal that improving accommodation, reassuring future personnel that they will be looked after, providing vegan boots and better food might be a good place to start.
While the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2020 will be when we review force structures and numbers, it needs to make clear that at a minimum the good news in the September 2019 spending round will become the future minimum spending commitment, and that conventional defence spending will not be affected by any overspends on Trident’s replacement.
The defence section of the 2017 manifesto said nothing about our relationship with Europe. But it is clear that our domestic security can only be achieved with our European partners preferably within the NATO framework, but also directly as well in a Trump world if need be. We need to be explicit about that.