Preparing for Tomorrow: Future Challenges in Defence
At the recent Conservative Party Conference, Sky News’s Tamara Cohen sat down with Secretary of State for Defence, Grant Shapps at a BAE Systems-sponsored event. On the agenda were the future defence challenges that the UK faces, and how the government plans to meet them.
Grant Shapps was appointed Secretary of State for Defence at the end of August. He inherited a department juggling a range of complex challenges, - from the ongoing war in Ukraine to cyberwarfare, and recruitment and retention.
Shapps is clear throughout the discussion that his primary responsibility as Secretary of State is to ensure that the UK remains protected in the face of an ever-changing landscape of threats.
The conversation with Sky News’s Tamara Cohen opened with a focus on Ukraine, an issue that continues to dominate the international agenda. Shapps himself has a strong connection with the conflict, hosting a Ukrainian family fleeing the war at his Hertfordshire home.
“My personal commitment to Ukraine is very strong,” he tells Cohen. “We cannot have another autocratic dictator march across Europe. We've all been there before. I think that is the central basis of the British connection to Ukraine.”
The fundamental principles at stake mean that Shapps refuses to impose limits on the length of time that UK support for Ukraine will continue.
“It will go on as long as we need to defend the freedom of democracy,” he explains to Cohen. “There cannot be a limit to that commitment.”
Shapps visited Kyiv to meet with President Zelenskyy in the week before conference. He returned with a renewed conviction that the bond between the two nations is stronger than ever.
“Zelenskyy told me, ‘You guys at the beginning were the difference between collapsing in the first few days, weeks, and months, and where we are now,’” Shapps explains.
Shapps views the UK’s role in supporting Ukraine as being far wider than the direct provision of training and weapons. He believes the real value is through strong and consistent international leadership that is shaping a wider international response.
“We have led the way on both the military front, but also on the diplomatic front,” he tells Cohen. “Our job is not to send every last tank in Britain to Ukraine and nor can we without affecting our own defence of the realm. Our job is to make sure that every country steps up and plays its part.”
That requires resources. Shapps maintains the stance he set out in last year’s leadership election, that UK defence spending needs to increase to 3% of GDP, adding he would also like to see other European nations increase their contributions.
However, he makes it clear that just as important as the total spend is the way in which resources are used. This is particularly important in a world where the nature of the threats that the UK is facing is always evolving. Whilst speaking proudly of the historic contributions of the British military, Shapps is primarily focused on the future and ensuring our armed forces have the agility to respond to new and emerging threats that may require different tools, skills, and approaches.
“We spend a lot of time thinking about the wars we fought in the past and are particularly influenced by the last war,” he explains. “We end up prepared to fight that last war again. But the next war is rarely like that.”
This forward focus has shaped Shapps’s conviction that we need to have a balanced force that can operate in new potential theatres of conflict, including space and cyber. It is only by doing so, he argues, that when the next war comes, the nation is able to respond effectively.
That demands ensuring resources are supporting an agile and technologically advanced military able to respond flexibly to new threats. Shapps accepts that for this to be put in place is particularly challenging in a tight labour market where there is intense competition for skills that are needed for a modern fighting force.
Recruitment is a challenge that Shapps acknowledges but he also highlights the critical importance of retention. Ensuring people do not leave the forces demands a granular understanding of the specific challenges that military personnel and their families often face. Shapps highlights £400 million of investment already committed to improving accommodation for service personnel and their families, as well as ongoing work to better understand how issues like children’s schooling can impact on retention.
Shapps sees such initiatives as important in establishing the forces as an employer of choice that can provide fulfilling careers for people regardless of their background, gender, or beliefs.
“The only thing that should matter in front of somebody's name is their rank, not their pronoun,” he tells us. “Let's just get back to being a great employer. Welcoming everyone and getting on with the job.”
That pragmatism is a hallmark of the Secretary of State’s approach. It also informs his view of the need for the UK to be active on the world stage, even when it comes to engaging with nations that do not always reflect our own values. Discussing China, he outlines an approach that balances protecting national security interests with the economic need to engage.
“China is a reality,” he tells Cohen. “We have to face the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. I'm not somebody who says let's cut ourselves off from the reality of a billion people economy that is part of our world. You can't live in a world where you just wish bits of it away. That’s the sensible, mature way to approach global policy.”
Whether discussing China or Saudi Arabia, Shapps consistently advocates the UK adopting a “balanced role” that is robust in defending national interests and security, but which is also “level-headed” and “rational” when it comes to engaging with those that may have different values to our own.
He also emphasises the importance of engagement as an effective tool to drive wider change, moving other nations closer toward a more tolerant, inclusive, and democratic model.
“When your friends are doing things that you want them to do,” he explains, “The best way to have that continue is to carry on working with them and carry on sharing.”
It is clear that in Shapps the UK has a pragmatic Secretary of State who is focused not only on the immediate tactical challenges but also on the longer-term strategic need for a modern and agile fighting force. As the threat landscape continues to evolve, that will be essential in ensuring the nation has the capabilities to play an important military and diplomatic role on the world stage.
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