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Navy Cuts. Presentation by Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham at a dinner to Conservative Associations

Published: 17 Jun 2011

Speech 2 June 2011. I have been asked to speak to you about our current defence position. I may be somewhat critical of the government and so I should first explain my qualification for so speaking. I joined the Navy 50 years ago in the week the Berlin Wall went up at a time when the Navy deployed East of Suez was significantly larger and in some respects more capable than the entire navy of today, and certainly more numerous in people; it is strange for me to realise that after 2015 there will be, at most, 22000 naval people – insufficient even if they spent nearly all their time at sea to man the fleet prescribed by the 1998 DR. Similar, if less stark figures apply to the other services. Indeed, given the importance of defence, it is an extraordinary thought that the total of our service people in 2015 will be less than a quarter of 1 per cent of the UK population and less than 15% of those working in the NHS – facts which have a major impact on our national understanding. The Navy will have only 0.04% of the population. Perhaps most particularly, only around 1% of MPs have any real military experience.

Back to me. I served for 41 years in the RN, commanding five warships and, as Captain of the last Ark Royal, commanding the first naval task group of any nation to enter the Adriatic in the Bosnian crisis. In between, I worked many times in the MoD as a budgeter and force planner, acted as deputy to the First Sea Lord, and before that to the CNP, was Deputy C-in-C Fleet and finally was the first compiler and owner of the MoD’s single equipment plan. I then worked for 5 years for EADS – the largest defence and aerospace company in Europe, setting up their new London office. After that I became a consultant, writer, speaker, university lecturer and journal editor, mainly though not exclusively in the broad defence field, and so remain in close contact with many colleagues in industry, the armed forces and academe, not only in the UK, but in several European countries, in the USA, the Gulf, India and Australia. I am doubtless out of date in many technical respects but have much more time for thought, debate and research than when I was serving or than anyone now serving has. That is my background – now to the subject.

We are used to the comforting and rather romantic thought that our forces are world class, and that we are military leaders in Europe. I believe this is no longer the case. As just one piece of evidence the French, now indubitably the leading European military power, have flown three times as many sorties in Libya as the RAF.

I aim to be deliberately provocative but not I hope wildly inaccurate or ranting, and I shall not attempt to cover everything. I want to start with five propositions which I believe should inform our approach:

Although there is a range of instruments available to provide security, UK governments seem today more ready than ever to use military force.

The world is a more dangerous place than it has ever been. Not my words but those of Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary in the House of Commons in November 2010. The Prime Minister has said that Defence is the first duty of government............but so did Mr Brown, who incidentally visited MoD only once in his 10 years as Chancellor. Does this mean the first call on resources? If not what does it mean? En passant, the same Dr Fox, in the 2007 Commons defence debate, described the then defence force structure of the previous government, which was of course significantly larger than that resulting from the SDSR as woefully inadequate.

The amount of money allocated to public spending certainly must be constrained but within that total the proportion allocated to any particular public service is a matter of choice and priority. I contend that it isn’t true that only 1.8% of GDP can be afforded for defence – it is a matter of choice and an indication of its priority. Do I spot a contradiction here with the PM’s statement?

The nature of threats changes over time, in geographical, ideological, economic and technological terms, and can change quickly. Whilst it is nice to think that the world is a better place, that is not necessarily the same thing as a safer place. Although the amount of money the government wishes to devote to defence has changed, the threat from the external world has certainly not.

Defence is a long term business. Even if our defence acquisition was a good deal more effective than it is, many of our equipments would still take ten years or so from concept to in service date, and remain in service for over 30 years. So it is not easy to deal with sharp changes either in the budget or, indeed, in the geostrategic climate – this is a conundrum which no-one has really yet solved. What it certainly means is that we are conducting today’s operations with yesterday’s acquisition. Putting it another way, we are today procuring the defence capability that our children will rely on. Or not.

Now, I am not going to pretend that unlimited funds can be spent on defence (or anything else). As it happens, I am a member of the pessimistic school of amateur economists and believe that the economic situation is worse than the government seems prepared to admit and that the currently planned cuts do not go far enough. This makes longer term aspirations for increases in defence problematic, and it is worth remembering that Dr Fox has said publicly that his SDSR force structure can only be delivered if there is an increase in the defence budget after 2015 – a far from certain eventuality. But I will claim that there is a choice about where we spend whatever sized cake we do have and I shall suggest that we have not thought about this enough. What is undeniably true is that the drastic cuts so far announced fall well short of meeting the budgetary target and a lot more are required.

Recently I had a breakfast with..............well with a very senior member of the government, who told me that defence was a politically hopeless subject and that it was (quote) “silly” to spend time considering our national stance and aims in the world, or what our key national interests might be. Perhaps he really meant “inconvenient.” Leaving aside the slight insult I felt after a 41 year career in which I have seen many friends and colleagues in all three services killed or badly maimed, I could not help feeling that this was an extraordinary statement, lacking in vision, leadership and intellectual rigour – surprising from the source of the remarks. If his remarks are true it is hard to see what starting point there can be for the planning of defence force structures, however incompetent we might believe the MoD to be.

For the starting point for defence and security force structure must surely be an analysis of the long term existential threats to our nation, our economy and our way of life – and there are plenty around. Today, whilst we may believe that, for the immediate future at least, the direct threat of invasion of our shores is remote, many of them take the form of terrorist activities or serious threats to our access to the raw materials of modern life. Add to that climate change, food shortages (both reported in Monday’s Times as serious threats this very year to world order), water shortages, pressures of population growth, financial collapse, political chaos, bitterness and indeed war. It is a potent and explosive cocktail from which we cannot expect to be immune. Response to all these must clearly be the first priority of our security forces and that response must be worked out. It must be worked out in the light of the fact that we have simply been unable to foresee every conflict in which we have been engaged since WW2. You will find mention of all this in the recent so called Strategic Defence and Security Review but little detailed analysis of what we should deduce from it. That review, by the way, was publicly described by the Conservative Chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence, no less, as “pretty much rubbish.” Perhaps for the reasons I have just given.

What prevented this proper analysis being done apart from the attitude I have already described? Well, firstly the setting of a budget which was significantly lower than that assumed when the present programme was constructed and ordered. Secondly, a long term refusal by the MoD and successive governments to face the financial realities and align their military ambitions and operations with their budgets. Next, the fact that we have simply lost the capacity in both the MoD and more widely to “do strategy” – this is something strongly and effectively criticised by the Select Committee on Public Administration, also chaired by a Conservative. Then it was constrained to an extraordinary degree by the priority given somewhat dubious current operations, not all of which are demonstrably addressing key national interests. This last factor led,inter alia, to a refusal to reduce and reconstruct an army that can field operationally only about 20% of its strength, in turn requiring greater cuts from the Navy and Air Force. Fifthly it was riven, as so often in the past, by the inability of the existing MoD management structure to rise above competing individual service aspirations. Finally it was constrained by a complete failure to construct an industrial policy. I can summarise all this by saying that there was neither the political will nor the intellectual effort available to do the job properly.

The result is a mishmash and incoherence which I shall endeavour to sketch out, although I have to tell you that everything that I shall say will be probably denied by the MoD if put to them – a sad example of what has in the last 20 years become a marked feature of public policy – attempts by government departments, when criticised, to try to make water run uphill and deny the laws of gravity. For about £40 billion a year we are getting a pretty poor deal, and as I shall explain, a pretty incoherent deal too. We shall by 2015 have a Royal Navy which will be the smallest since Pepys day, and in my view the wrong shape for the threats it has to deal with, a Royal Air Force with less combat aircraft than Sweden, and an Army of about 80,000 soldiers, one of the smallest amongst the top 20 or 30 nations and smaller than most major NATO countries, if much more experienced. It has left us trying to conduct a major operation in Libya by one means only – airpower, when there is no recorded case in military history of campaign aims being achieved solely by air power. It has left us trying to conduct a major campaign in Afghanistan without being able to deploy the necessary force – if indeed that is the right way to do it. It is encouraging us to conduct operations without preparation.

We have an expressed aspiration to intervene abroad as “a force for good.” No doubt this is an admirable objective. But we shall have removed one key capability for such purposes, the carrier borne aviation, and we have severely reduced another, the amphibious capability. In what is probably the worst decision of the SDSR we shall have removed, after nearly all the acquisition spend on it had been made, our maritime surveillance capability as well as our principle ASW defence of the nuclear deterrent. This weakens considerably both our homeland defence and our ability to conduct anti piracy and other maritime roles. We have continuously failed to provide adequate helicopter support. There is some strategic confusion here. Clearly there is a need at the level of spend we are now prepared to contemplate to make some strategic choices between the various roles for which we might employ our forces, and the operations we can safely do, to avoid having a little of everything but not enough of anything. But we have ducked these choices. It is this connection which my senior government interlocutor effectively denied.

However, pace this gentleman, a strategic choice has in fact been made by default because we will not any longer be able to intervene in a coherent way but only as a bit player. But it has not on the face of it been made in a logical or considered manner, nor with any clarity and this has led to some curious and incoherent decisions on specific issues.

Consequently it is difficult to plan coherent force structures and, as a further consequence, difficult to justify them. Some of the rationales given are, to say the least, very curious and seem to have been the result of some less than honest briefing of ministers. And there is no question but that they have also been the cause if some irritation and even, I am afraid, contempt amongst some of our allies. For example, NATO is planning to close at least one of its maritime headquarters in Europe. There are three, in Lisbon, in Naples and in Northwood UK – historically the major maritime power in Europe. NATO apparently wants to close that in Northwood leaving maritime command with one of those great maritime powers Portugal or Italy. The French Chief of Navy is “astounded” by what we have done and believes the European model for navies has surrendered its position; a mixture of concern and contempt in effect. You couldn’t make it up, but it is an example of how we are now regarded despite being a member of the G7.

I have already instanced the case of Nimrod – admittedly a very poor example of procurement but a key capability. This was a capability provided by one service (the RAF) for another (primarily the Navy). One wonders what kind of a case was made and by whom. Certainly the official statement that we had other ways of delivering the capabilities it offered raised hollow laughter amongst the operators. Even more extra-ordinary has been the range of decisions on the aircraft carrier. Firstly, in an era in which we seem to be wishing to use airpower as the weapon of first resort, we have got rid of the aircraft we purchased specifically for ground support. Secondly we have removed its platform and a government minister actually remarked in defence of the decision that we had not operated Harriers off carriers for 8 years – a straightforward untruth which we must put down either to false briefing or to ignorance – neither appropriate for government statements though not, I am afraid, uncommon. Then the SDSR told us that there is a strategic requirement in the future for Aircraft carriers although it did not explain what this was, nor why it would be so in 2022/3 – the earliest time we can actually provide the capability, and yet was not required now. Finally it removed from the Navy immediately any chance to keep the wide range of specialist skills required. I am prepared to bet a large sum that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to resurrect this capability.

Incoherence has become the name of the game. For example, we talk a lot about the need for intelligence enablers but have reduced our capacity in these areas. The army has surrendered much of its high intensity warfare capability – perhaps correctly. But the Navy is building aircraft carriers that the budget cannot operate properly, and the most expensive and high capability destroyers and frigates that we have ever purchased, at the expense of numbers and presence. The Air Force has failed to modernise its helicopter force until recently, despite it being a major issue for at least 15 years, and its transport and tanker force, like the Navy’s tankers key enablers of deployed operations are demonstrably inadequate. I could go on.

I should mention people too our people, and their commitment and courage are what makes it all work. They were seriously overstretched, according to the Liam Fox who was in opposition. We are now running them down further and yet we have found them a new war, whilst at the same time looking to reduce some of their allowances. And these are people whose starting salaries for young men in the field are little more than half the starting salaries of police constables. I may sound provocative – deliberately so – but we must not be surprised if morale generally is not as high as serving commanders would have us believe; because I edit the only service journal in which serving people can write without obtaining permission, I learn some things denied to visiting firemen. Confidence is undeniably evaporating. It is also worth mentioning that we are currently running studies with the specific objective to reduce considerably the proportion of senior jobs – which is to say putting limits on the earnings people can expect. You may like to know that many public authority employees earn more than generals – Ms Shoesmith of Hackney did – and most generals enjoy this level of earning for a maximum of two or three years. The same studies seek to remove most military influence from MoD. I realise that I am sounding a little like “disgusted of Greenwich” but I think it is worth saying. It is motivated, well trained and properly supported people in sufficient numbers who win battles. Even more importantly I want to make it plain that military capability is not only, often not even mainly, about equipment with which we have become obsessed. It is about a range of things which we are forgetting, including enablers, training, infrastructure, logistics, ammunition, connectivity and so on. These are areas in which military knowledge is vital to effective military capability acquisition.

Let me summarise. I believe we are in some kind of denial. We are continuing to pretend that we can be a major international player and deploy military force without taking the trouble to invest in it and especially without investing in its future, simply because we are leaning on the provision of the past and some romantic memories. We want something for which we are not prepared to pay the price, and we are not prepared to make the strategic and policy choices which follow from this refusal. We are guilty of not giving the serious intellectual effort necessary to our position and strategic goals in the world, nor analysing the threats risks and vulnerabilities that face us. We have allowed our present involvements to skew our priorities and we have allowed political, factional and other considerations to take precedence over coherence and logic. We are not putting our public spending where it is most conducive to our security and thus our prosperity. Like greedy children, our ambitions are greater than our desire to afford them; but not than our ability if we so choose. We are not providing the political leadership to educate the public in what they ought to know, in both financial and security terms; this is a government responsibility. In a word, we are living in a dream of the past, and gambling with our future in a way which may be irresponsible in a world of whose dangers we should be well aware but of whose precise timing, scale and nature we are necessarily unaware. A nation which has no clear vision of its future is a nation in decline.

My guess is that Dr Fox knows all this and is very unhappy about it, but he has been badly advised by people who have no accountability.

I could go on but rather we should consider, “What should now be done?” – that is the question we should debate for as long as you would care to do so. They are after all your defence forces, working on your behalf for your security. And it is you the electorate, and the government, not the military who have to make the choices and provide the solution.

6 June 2011.


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