Realms of Defence | Tim Dennis

In the past week a concerning development for the British military has been widely trumpeted. The influence and intentions of the media’s favourite bogeyman, Dominic Cummings, on the ongoing Strategic Defence and Security Review 2020 has begun to re-enter the news cycle as the government tries to reassert it’s pre-coronavirus agenda. The progress of the review was inevitable and had been ongoing prior to Covid-19 but the manner in which the involvement of Mr Cummings has skewed the discussion even before any actions have been published is significant.

The subject of defence cuts or reform is often limited to an instinctively emotive reaction for the public. This is fuelled by the fact that the Armed Forces are by design not well understood from the outside and that they closely linked to the nation’s heritage. Overt goodwill inevitably subsides without major combat operations but is never far away when mobilised by headlines that warn of existential threats to parts of the military. The instinctive emotional attachment of the British public to the Armed Forces means that even the most reasoned basis for reform is likely to be met with hostility when presented in the media. This instinct is paradoxical as it can oppose the legitimate cause of ensuring that military capabilities are provided efficiently and responsibly in light of the cost to the taxpayer. Like any government institutions the MoD and the Armed Forces are monolithic beasts both resistant to change and slow to respond to it, regardless of necessity. These traits form both an impediment and deterrent to external attempts at reform. Is it not possible that some good might spring from someone determined and with access to the levers of power to apply themselves to this difficult undertaking?

Unnamed commentators from within defence and the military have begun to appear in the news ringing alarm bells over the defence review as well as highlighting specific capabilities and units that apperently face being cut. Even without the contentious spectre of Mr Cummings looming over proceedings, it is not an unusual phenomenon for members of the defence community to make use of leaks and anonymous press contributions as an SDSR comes to fruition. Taking a single service perspective within the Army the tribal process of different regiments, corps and trade groups justifying their resources and capabilities is a never-ending attritional battle; it merely takes place internally at a low level most of the time. Add to that the need for the tri-services to fight for their slice of a diminishing budget allocation and the reputation of the Prime Minister’s chief advisor and you see why the Daily Mirror ran a piece describing fears that the ‘Parachute Regiment faces the axe’ according to ‘senior sources.’ The Parachute Regiment is an easy win for the media as it occupies a specific niche in the nation’s collective conscious due to its recent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and historic exploits in the Falklands and the Second World War. Even if the sources quoted are fictional such profile raising headlines would be of benefit to the Parachute Regiment, or any other unit for that matter, at a time when a defence review is being conducted.

A department highlighted for examination by Mr Cummings is Defence Procurement and it is certainly a sound target for reform. It has for many years been criticised for incompetence and inefficiency. Projects routinely run hopelessly over both budget and timeframe in a pattern that is repeated over and over. Every so often it surfaces in the national press and is maligned but similar to other types of expense scandals falls away from notice relatively swiftly. Considering this interesting sentimental blind spot in public opinion it is easy for ministers, MPs and members of the defence community to leverage Mr Cummings’ involvement for political capital or to stifle necessary debate on reform. As a matter of interest we should examine Mr Cummings’ criticism of the Carrier Strike Program.  The Royal Navy is in an extremely difficult position as having got its way over the building of two enormously expensive aircraft carriers it now does not have the resources to fully man both of these prestige assets and does not possess the requisite escorts to protect them.  With a maximum of 19 escort vessels it would be operating at breaking point to provide even the most basic protective group to a single carrier and maintain its other national commitments. Two of those escorts have been held at low readiness since 2015 due to a lack of manpower, an issue not aided by the requirement to crew the new carriers. The projected date for HMS Queen Elizabeth to reach full operating capability is now May 2023 due to delays in development and installation of key capabilities. By then the UK should have 42 F-35B fighters (at a lifetime cost of £270m each) of which only 24 will be available for two carriers with a total capacity of 80 aircraft. On top of this the first of the necessary support ships to keep the carriers supplied isn’t predicted to be ready until 2026 at the earliest. The carriers themselves were planned to cost £3.9bn originally, an estimate that has risen to £6.9bn and has never included a proper assessment of their in-service lifetime costs.

No matter what might be though of Mr Cummings it is hard to defend the management of this project and the apparent lack of forethought given to factors other than the literal building of the carriers themselves. And this is only one of a plethora of examples that demonstrates the need for a serious culture change at the MoD. The scale of the investment into the Carrier Strike Program means that it will almost certainly not be axed despite fearful claims to that end. The Prime Minister’s fondness for symbols of Britain’s prestige should ensure that, if the recent repainting of an RAF Voyager from drab grey to pseudo-British Airways colours is anything to go by.

To take the opposite approach, Mr. Cummings has an apparent preference for investment in information technology, cyber capabilities and specialised units. These are area for development already acknowledged in defence circles. The rapid expansion of China’s military capabilities has gone hand in hand with a far-reaching and long-term development of its cyber-capabilities. Alongside the potential for malign cyber activity from other state and non-state actors the UK will need to increase the resilience and scope of its existing cyber capabilities in order to robustly contest the digital battlespace. There have been tentative steps in the right direction with the creation of specialist formations including 77 Brigade, the National Cyber Force and 13 Signal Regiment. Add the name ‘Dominic Cummings’ to the discussion and the tone in which these acknowledged requirements are commented upon would make readers think that something outlandish and sinister was being proposed.

There has always been controversy over what the different services choose to spend their portion of the budget on acquiring and whether the underlying reasons for doing so are well thought out, future facing and in the national interest. This equation, and the scrutiny of decisions made regarding it, has only become more acute with the rise of different forms of non-conventional warfare. It is no longer purely a consideration of the numbers and types of equipment needed to confront an enemy on the physical battlefield.  The critical importance of the cyber and information warfare domain has forced a reevaluation of what falls within the boundaries of ‘defence.’ Even as a narrow consideration the systems carried on board armoured vehicles, aircraft or ships need protecting from cyber attacks and electronic warfare that could degrade or destroy them. This additional set of responsibilities places an added burden on military planners to fight harder for scarce resources to avoid the pain of reducing conventional capabilities. It is a problem only exacerbated by the economic damage caused by Covid-19.  In order for the UK to deliver both a credible conventional force and the means to contest cyberspace one may very well have to be at the expense of the other unless there is a significant and sustained increase in the defence budget.

Mr Cummings bearing down on these institutional issues and budgetary concerns is understandably alarming for those involved in defence. However it possibly betrays a worry as to what deficiencies might have a spotlight shined on them by someone determined to get to grips with institutions used to deterring sustained interest in the details of their affairs. What we do not need during this process is the destabilising presence of this one personality to overtake rational debate or to obfuscate serious issues that need addressing. Whether provoked by his own actions or the agendas of his critics the involvement of the Prime Minister’s closest adviser must not cause us to lose sight of forging the best possible defence policy for Britain.

Photo by Matthias Harbers on Flickr.

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