Sir Gerald Howarth was the MP for Aldershot from 1997-2017, and Minister for International Security Strategy 2010-2012.
As a former Minister for International Security Strategy, I warmly welcomed a review intended to place defence and security within a foreign policy strategic context.
Entirely correctly, the Government has made clear that it wants post-Brexit Britain to play a key role on the world stage. That vision alone calls for a strong military posture because, like it or not, military strength tends to command influence.
It is that strong posture, built over centuries, which has enabled the UK to deploy soft power to significant effect. Loan service officers, joint exercises, training overseas military personnel and the Royal College for Defence Studies all help promote British influence, but our ability to deploy soft power is founded on our hard power – the nuclear deterrent, state-of-the-art kit, and, above all, superbly professional armed forces personnel who have distinguished themselves in recent battles from the Falklands to Afghanistan.
Indeed, the successful Falklands campaign overnight transformed the world’s perception of the UK from a nation in terminal postwar decline to one which once again commanded international respect and propelled Margaret Thatcher onto the world stage.
Increasing global tensions also dictate that we need to increase our defence capabilities – and certainly not cut them. Since the 2010 review in which I was involved, and which was Treasury-driven as a consequence of the £160 billion budget deficit we inherited, much has happened. Take just two examples: in 2014 Russia annexed the Crimea. It did so with complete impunity notwithstanding the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by John Major, under which the US, UK and Russia agreed to respect Ukraine’s borders in return for that country destroying its nuclear arsenal.
In the South China Sea, the Chinese Communist Party has persistently annexed uninhabited atolls, ownership of which is disputed with other nearby nations, and turned them into military bases. Again, it has done so with complete impunity, so it is hardly surprising China has taken advantage of Western paralysis to impose draconian new laws in Hong Kong. Britain has a locus: following our withdrawal from East of Suez in the 1960s, the UK drew up the Five Powers Defence Arrangement with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia to safeguard the interests of the latter two.
Our failure to strengthen our defence posture poses the real risk of further instability worldwide.
Britain has an impressive defence industry which a Conservative government should be keen to nurture. For over a century the UK has been a world leader in aerospace and continue to hold that position today through companies like BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce but sustained by a broad and innovative SME sector. We are the second largest exporter of defence equipment, after the United States, which not only earns us annual revenues of around £15 billion but enables us to offer tangible support to our friends and allies.
“Buying off the shelf” in reality means buying from the US which is our closest military ally but a formidable competitor in the defence market which has in the past blocked UK military exports containing US components through its application of ITAR (International Trading in Armaments Regulations) restrictions.
As Labour Lord Drayson’s 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy stated, the loss of sovereign capability leads inevitably to loss of operational sovereignty, to which add the loss of those defence exports. The UK is an equity partner in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme, yet the US continues to deny us access to the computer source codes.
Fortunately, the UK has recognised the danger. The Tempest aircraft programme, which is ITAR-free, will deliver a sixth generation optionally manned capability, exploiting new disruptive technologies essential to tomorrow’s battle-winning capability.
It is led by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, supported by Thales UK, Leonardo and missile manufacturer MBDA together with around 600 UK SMEs and institutions. It will generate valuable, new UK technology and employ tens of thousands of skilled people, many in the North of England and Scotland. It is a statement of national intent which also makes economic sense.
The special challenge today is how to maintain effective conventional forces (we cannot expose ourselves to the risk of being outmanoeuvred as a result of having neglected those forces) whilst also developing tomorrow’s technology. You do not win wars using old equipment so investing in future technology like cyber and AI is essential. Funding for defence research has endured a persistent decline in the last two decades; that must change.
Through no fault of its own, apart from our excellent Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, this Government lacks senior ministers with knowledge of, or experience in, the military. This review must not be rushed and expert advice should be sought and heeded.
Inevitably, Covid-19 has thrown government financial planning into chaos. Nevertheless, it would be folly, and damaging to the PM’s critical post-Brexit vision for the United Kingdom, if he fails to acknowledge the long-term requirements of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.
Abandoning the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review will cause major problems for the MoD which manages an equipment programme stretching over several years. For example, the Tempest programme requires multi-year funding to maintain the confidence of our international partners that the UK remains committed to Tempest. It will also ensure the UK remains ahead of competitor programmes.
Conservatives hold that the first duty of government is defence of the Realm. Money has rightly been found to deal with the pandemic; it now needs to be found to ensure our national security and give credibility to that post-Brexit vision.