In a scoop last summer, the Guardian’s Defence Correspondent Ewen MacAskill set out the story of a reckless raid on the Armed Forces’ budget. Luckily, it did not succeed. The report was sourced to a “well-placed” senior civil servant and was not meant to be friendly to the secretary of state: “Gavin Williamson on Dangerous Ground in Defence Budget Row”, ran the headline. What followed was a striking account of bureaucratic intrigue.
It centred on the National Security Capability Review (NSCR) conducted by Sir Mark Sedwill – then the National Security Adviser, now Cabinet Secretary as well. His brief was “to look at the UK security needs in the round, taking in the intelligence agencies as well as the MoD” and “also to evaluate the risks posed by terrorists and cyber-attacks as well as from conventional forces”. According to the Guardian report:
“By the autumn [of 2017], it was clear the intelligence agencies had come out on top and the MoD was looking at being forced to make cuts, with options ranging from reducing the size of the army from 77,000 to 70,000, cutting 1,000 Royal Marines and decommissioning two specialist amphibious landing ships, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion.
“There was a consensus among mandarins [sic] involved in the negotiations [that] the UK was less likely to need two specialist amphibious landing ships than the ability to defend against a cyber-attack on its infrastructure or financial networks … the UK should abandon its adherence to tradition and instead build a modern force, a pared-down one, with lower spending levels closer to comparable European neighbours. Compared with the UK’s 2.1% of GDP spent on defence, France spends 1.79%, Germany 1.2%…, Italy 1.1% and Spain 0.9%.”
This really let the cat out of the bag. Far from aiming to restore Defence expenditure to 3% of GDP – as repeatedly urged by the Defence Committee – elements of the state bureaucracy intended to abandon even our present commitment to the 2% NATO minimum.
By tying conventional Defence into the NSCR, alongside hybrid threats from terrorism, social media subversion and cyber-attacks, those orchestrating the NSCR were intent on raiding the Armed Forces’ budget. In December 2017, six months into the NSCR process, it emerged that the overall review would have to be “fiscally neutral”. From that crucial limitation, it followed that every extra pound spent on meeting new “21st century” threats meant one pound less for the Royal Navy, the Army and the RAF.
That was the reason that our world-beating amphibious capability – vital for projecting land-power from the sea – was about to be sacrificed. Fortunately, when the Defence Committee’s highly critical report Sunset for the Royal Marines? came out in February 2018, it dominated the television news cycle for fully 24 hours with its description of the proposed axing of the Albion and Bulwark, 15 years early, as “militarily illiterate”.
The secretary of state was well aware of the lethal trap set to shred the armed forces’ budget. With considerable dexterity, he stripped out the defence “strands” from the NSCR, and separately established the Modernising Defence Programme. Crucially, this broke the linkage between funding to meet new cyber-threats (which clearly need to be countered) and funding to meet conventional threats (which certainly have not gone away).
Defence Committee members, from four different parties, were united in denouncing the planned disposal of our amphibious assault ships. Our inquiry had received top-quality submissions from an unprecedented number of experts. The case they made was overwhelming – or, as the source of the Guardian report waspishly complained:
“there was a backlash from an informal coalition led by Williamson, appointed [as Defence Secretary] in November, and the chairman of the Defence Select Committee…as well as a score or more Conservative MPs (and Labour ones with defence jobs in their constituencies), Conservative-leaning newspapers and former generals…The Treasury had been slow to engage with the MoD, leaving Williamson and his allies dominating the media agenda.”
For once, we had avoided a disastrous wrong-turning. Losing our ability to deploy troops from the sea in a far-flung theatre would indeed have betrayed our global strategic interests. Not only were the Albion and Bulwark saved, they are now to be joined by two Littoral Strike Ships, enabling the Future Commando Force – in the words of the Defence Secretary’s 11 February speech at RUSI – “to respond at a moment’s notice bringing the fight from sea to land”.
The battle to save our amphibious capability ended in success; but its outcome should never have been in doubt. When overseas aid equals one-third of the defence budget, and tens of billions are allocated to a high-speed railway, we really ought to treat defence as “the first duty of government” which it is, so often, glibly proclaimed to be.
Wars usually break out with little or no warning. At that point, defence expenditure immediately becomes our top priority. Everything else is dwarfed by the need to survive and ultimately prevail over our enemies.
To do so, we need allies, principally the United States. It is not, therefore, a quixotic gesture to send escort vessels or even aircraft carriers to accompany the US Fleet in asserting the freedom of the seas against Communist Chinese encroachment. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is in our own strategic interest to assist our indispensable allies.
There can be no security for Europe if the Transatlantic link is broken. Military alliances must be reciprocal. Our ability to exert land-and air-power from the sea, in distant operational theatres, sends the strongest possible signal that we are an ally worth preserving.