Tuesday 8 September 2009

For the record

A major public speech by a shadow defence secretary of an opposition party which will in all probability win the next general election should, by any normal measure, be an important event. It is in that light that we approach yesterday's keynote speech from Liam Fox to the UK Defence Conference 2009.

Fox takes as his theme the thesis that the world is becoming a more dangerous place and that we are living in "a deteriorating global security environment". He takes in Afghanistan, next door Pakistan, and then Putin's Russia, which he tells us is "an ever more assertive state" which is rearming, is still occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia and has threatened to militarise the Arctic region, to the great concern of our close allies in NATO, especially Norway and Canada.

To his mix, Fox adds the piracy "running rife not only off the Horn of Africa but also in other less frequently mentioned places like the Gulf of Guinea and the Strait of Malacca." He mentions Iran, on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon, North Korea, which has tested a second nuclear bomb, and then declares that, "in all parts of the globe new threats are emerging which require a response from the international community."

Next, we are told that "defining our strategic interests and determining how to protect them is one of the biggest challenges facing any government," which one might expect to be preparatory to Fox's ideas for when he takes control of the MoD.

However, there then follows a lengthy dissertation on the failings of the Labour administration – which is fair enough. This is what party politicians do, and have to do. They attack the other parties, especially when they are in opposition.

Once past this obligatory section, though, Fox is still not ready to offer his recipe for defence under a new administration. Instead, he continues with his analysis.

We learn from him that the world is "becoming more complex." Globalisation means that Britain's economic and security interests are increasingly interlinked to others with an unavoidable shared set of interests and the unavoidable importation of strategic risk. We are also reminded that instability in one corner of the globe can quickly affect everyone.

Fox then tells us that "this interdependence must have major implications on how we organise our national (and international) security structures and identify our threats." It goes without saying, he says, that the challenges this presents to our Armed Forces are numerous and complex.

Thus are we informed that the 21st Century strategic environment demands that Western militaries are able to simultaneously conduct war fighting, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. Furthermore, says Fox, it requires Western Governments to supplement these military operations through an array of soft power tools, such as international aid, diplomacy, and the spread of information and ideas.

This is followed by a warning that organising our Armed Forces to combat the current insurgency in Afghanistan, "coupled with a defence budget with a black hole of £35bn", offers a temptation to lose sight of future conflicts for the sake of the ones we are fighting today.

This has led many, Fox adds, to believe that we have to choose between fighting the war or a war - but this is a false dichotomy. Insurgencies are not a new phenomenon and the operations currently being conducted in Afghanistan are not a guarantee of what warfare will look like in the future.

As to the future – and still in analytical mode – Fox is prepared to make some "educated guesses". Although state-on-state warfare is still a possibility, he says, it is unlikely to take the same linear, symmetric, and conventional form as state-on-state warfare did in the 20th century.

Rather, he opines, it is likely that many of our potential adversaries, knowing that they cannot match our technology, resources or conventional firepower, will resort to strategic and tactical asymmetric measures in an attempt to defeat us. Attempts to disrupt our social and economic well being through international terrorism, cyber attack or threats to our energy security can be anticipated.

This, Fox declares, has implications for our procurement plans. "We need to focus more on capability and less on specific equipment." However, we are told, "the equipment programme is only one piece of the puzzle." All three services need to be asking if they have the correct up-to-date doctrine to meet and defeat the challenges they may face now and in the future. "Do they have the institutional framework in place to ensure that our military leaders can grow, learn and adapt when required?"

Now we learn that it is the Government's role to ensure that our military has the tools and resources needed to make this possible. Saying that we can only focus on the war at the expense of a war is not good enough for the British people.

And then more questions: How do we balance competing defence priorities? How do we ensure that current commitments are properly resourced without neglecting future strategic challenges? And then answers. A future Conservative Government will immediately do three things: launch a wide ranging and detailed strategic defence review; conduct an in-depth capability review; and carry out a radical root and branch reform of the procurement process.

The purpose of the SDR will be to define what Britain's strategic interests are and where they exist at home and abroad. Unless you have clear foreign policy objectives you cannot have a proper defence strategy, says Fox. This will allow the strategic environment and the threats posed to our interests to be assessed within reasonably predictable limits. It will then determine the capabilities we need to protect those interests.

Only then, Fox tells us, will we be able to look at specific programmes and the shape of our Armed Forces to see if they can deliver the capabilities we need. "Of course," he adds, "the main challenge here is between equipping our forces to succeed in our current conflicts and preparing for any future contingencies."

Finally, Fox announces, we will have to determine the affordability of the designated equipment programmes and whether they offer value for money. All defence programmes, he says, will need to demonstrate their value for money before we start spending taxpayer's money.

Then, strangely, we get to some detail. The capabilities review will be used to get the structure of the Armed Forces and civilian component inside the MoD correct to ensure that we, as a department, are best configured for the tasks we have to accomplish.

It is time for the MOD to get its house in order, Fox says. There are questions for all three services as to whether they have an over abundance of senior posts. Furthermore, there is one civilian for every two armed forces personnel in the Ministry of Defence. In other words the total of civilians in the MoD is larger than the Royal Navy and the RAF combined – 16 percent of the civil service is in the Ministry of Defence.

We need to do a proper capability review which looks at all aspects of manning and force structure to ensure that we have the right balance of personnel-both in and out of uniform.

As to defence procurement, this will have four main objectives. Firstly, it will provide the best possible equipment to our Armed Forces when they need it, where they need it and at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer. It will underpin Britain's strategic relationships. It will provide better stability to the Armed Forces and better predictability to the defence industry. And it will preserve UK defence jobs by maximising exports.

To meet these objectives, any future equipment programme will be tested against five criteria.

First, the question will be asked: does this piece of equipment enable our Armed Forces to fight effectively and win on the modern day battlefield? Second: can we afford not only the initial procurement costs but also the through life costs? Third: how can we get the greatest flexibility, while ensuring that as many potential roles as possible are fulfilled? Fourth: will this piece of equipment allow the British Armed Forces to take part in Combined and Joint military operations with our allies, specifically in NATO? And finally, will this piece of equipment have a high export demand which, may in the long term, create jobs at home and positively affect the British economy?

And so the peroration. The MoD needs a new vision, fresh thinking, and new leadership that only a new Government has the energy and confidence to provide. You can delegate authority, but not responsibility. Labour Ministers are to blame for the failings at the Ministry of Defence - not the Civil Service or the Armed forces, says Fox. In the sphere of security we need to stay ahead of the curve-changing if we wish to stay ahead of the threats. We need to adapt if we want to keep safe and time is not on our side.

That is the Fox view. That is the platform on which the Conservative Party, presumably, will go to the people during the general election. Make of it what you will.