Michael Fallon: "Donald Trump must be a wake-up call for Nato"
The defence secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, talks to Alan Mak MP about fighting Daesh, dealing with President Trump and his plan to modernise the Armed Forces
Replacing the sofas in her office with a table and chairs is often held up as symbolising the shift in approach from David Cameron’s style of government to Theresa May’s.
More formal meetings, less sofa government. If any Cabinet minister reflects this serious, methodical approach it’s Sir Michael Fallon. Having served in the Thatcher, Major and Cameron governments – and re-appointed as defence secretary last July – he has become the epitome of calmness and continuity. A safe pair of hands who has stood firm through unprecedented tumult at home and abroad, from coalition to the aftermath of the EU referendum all whilst Russia, Syria, Daesh and North Korea have become increasingly potent challenges.
Fittingly, Sir Michael and I sit opposite each other across his solid oak office table. “For the last two-and-a-half years round this table I have in effect been running a war,” he says, describing the fight against Daesh. “That has included approving rules of engagement, approving individual targets and making sure our servicemen and women have the resources they need. It has involved all three services.” He tells me the RAF is mounting its biggest air campaign since the first Gulf War, with around 1,200 sorties and counting.
While a large portrait of Winston Churchill watches over Fallon’s office war room, huge maps on easels mark out the Iraqi and Kurdish advance towards Mosul and Raqqa, strongholds of the so-called Islamic State, which Fallon refers to by its pejorative Arabic acronym “Daesh”. Britain has been at the forefront of operations not only in the air but on the ground, with the Army helping to train 45,000 Iraqi troops, and at sea with Royal Navy ships protecting French and American carrier groups.
“I arrived here [at the Ministry of Defence] when Daesh were almost at the gates of Baghdad on 14 July 2014, and military action commenced in September 14,” Fallon recalls. “This has been a huge military effort over the past two-and-a-half years and it is not over yet. We hope this summer we will see Daesh driven out of the last city they hold [in Iraq] which is Mosul. They lost 12 cities last year and now there is work to do to push Daesh out of Syria. Slowly we are winning, supporting a very fragile democracy in Iraq, but we are making our own streets safer as a result.”
Fallon knows the problems in the Middle East will not be resolved by Britain alone, and he places his trust in our traditional alliances: Nato and America. In fact, the new US defence secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis has already struck-up a warm relationship with Fallon, providing a vital link between London and the new Trump administration. Fallon shows me a warm letter Mattis has sent him from the Pentagon.
The retired four-star general who was previously Commander of the United States Central Command, is revered in military circles, and known for slogans such as “marines don’t know how to spell the word ‘defeat’”, and “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”
Mattis visited the UK for the first time in his new role at the end of March, hosted by Fallon, and both share a common ambition to reform Nato. “The special relationship is a source of strength for our two nations, standing together in defence of our freedoms,” Mattis said after the meeting, as he and Fallon announce a new £90m investment to support the UK’s new F-35 Lightning aircraft. Britain has been chosen as a global repair hub for the new fighters, helping create hundreds of high-end jobs and safeguard thousands more.
Fallon backs President Trump’s dramatic intervention in Syria, and says he is relaxed about the impact of the change in administration, pointing out Whitehall has seen transitions before, from Democrat to Republican and vice versa.
But he predicts the biggest effect will be felt by Nato and the “very clear American demand for European allies to do more and to modernise”. That includes asking more members to ramp up their defence spending to match Nato’s target of 2% of GDP. “19 of the 28 don’t spend even spend 1.5%, whilst five of the 19 don’t even spend 1% and they are by no means the poorest.” Fallon says they need to step up.
“Trump’s call needs to be heeded,” he adds. “We would like to see Nato allies, if they can’t get to 2% right away, at least commit to increasing annual defence spending. We need to modernise Nato, it needs to be fitter and faster, dealing not just with Russian aggression but with threats to cyber security. Trump is a wake-up call for the alliance.”
Pointing out that post-Brexit, 80% of Nato spending will come from outside the EU, and that three of the four battalions defending the three Baltics states and Poland will be led by non-EU countries – the US, UK and Canada – the driving force of the alliance has fundamentally changed. “Who is defending Europe here?” Fallon asks.
Nonetheless, Fallon is clear that plans for an EU Army are off the table, with the UK blocking the idea for both an EU Military Headquarters and an EU General. Saying other EU countries supported the government’s stance, he firmly believes that “Britain is not alone in wanting to avoid duplication with Nato”. However, when the UK leaves the EU it will no longer have a blocking vote, and that prediction may well be tested.
Still, security co-operation will be key negotiating priorities when talks on Britain’s future relationship with the EU begin in earnest. Particularly, Fallon made clear that the future of Gibraltar and military bases on Cyprus were non-negotiable.
“You see references to security partnership throughout the Article 50 letter and in [Theresa May’s] Lancaster House speech,” he continues. “That means not just co-operation on intelligence sharing and the fight against terrorism but it also means continuing a broader security relationship. We already participate in some EU operations, for example tackling people smuggling in the Mediterranean. We will look to see if it’s in Britain’s national interest to continue in some of those operations.”
But as well as maintaining current security arrangements, opportunities also exist, with Fallon quick to point out that freedom from EU rules on procurement could mean more opportunities for UK defence businesses.
This will boost UK innovation and bolster the Industrial Strategy, especially as new technologies such as drones, lasers and automated weaponry begin to revolutionise the battlefield. Fallon goes into detail on his Armed Forces modernisation plans, including the use of advanced technologies.
He picks up the prototype for a miniature Dragonfly spy drone from his desk. Developed by a scientist with experience at Oxford University’s Zoology department, who noticed that dragonflies can fly in high winds, this tiny spy drone could operate in the future behind enemy lines virtually unnoticed in all weathers. It comes after Fallon launched the Defence Innovation Fund last year, an £800m project designed to find the best new technology from both inside and outside the military.
“We have been missing out on some of the best of British technology,” he says. “Some of the things we take for granted today are spin-offs from military applications. I want to turn that on its head. I want high-tech companies who are developing something for daily life to consider how they might help us in the military.
“So for innovation what we are doing is putting £800m on the table, and running a series of competitions designed to say to the smallest, whizziest, high-tech companies: come talk to us in defence about how your application might help us.”
Another part of Fallon’s modernisation plan is to train “thinking servicemen or women”. His idea is that the Armed Forces should create a flexible career structure to train and retain the highly skilled modern soldier, sailor and pilot. “We need the skills – IT, coding, logistics – that the rest of the economy needs. So we need to improve the way we recruit and retain.” In recruitment Fallon points out that the MoD is increasingly “competing for the brightest of each generation” and future personnel must master a wider range of skills.
Another part of making the military an attractive career will be the implementation of the Flexible Engagements System, an almost halfway house between reservist and full-time roles, being rolled out from 2020. It will offer part time working and protection from deployment for regular service personnel, as well as the opportunity for reservists to volunteer for higher commitment roles. “There should be something in-between for people in different stages of their careers, especially women returning after children,” he says. “It should be possible for people to have a more flexible contract with us and we are also exploring that.”
When it comes to running the Armed Forces, Fallon sees parallels with running a business, delivering efficiencies and putting in place the right people, structures and processes. This business approach was honed during his five years outside Parliament after losing his seat at the 1992 General Election. Away from Westminster, he became a director of three companies run by Duncan Bannatyne, the Glaswegian entrepreneurs who became a regular on television show Dragons’ Den.
He remembers Bannatyne teaching him about cost control, an important competency as Fallon continues balancing the books whilst delivering one of the biggest equipment investment programmes in MoD history – including two new, state-of-the-art aircraft carriers. A “huge moment for Portsmouth” and the rest of the country he says.
These will help Britain deal with global threats, from Islamic terrorism to growing Russian aggression in the Middle East. And echoing Trump’s sentiments, he is steadfast that Assad must go.
“We have to persuade everyone in Syria that there is no future without democratic consent and support,” Fallon contends. “Assad clearly does not have the support of the Syrian people. Six years of civil war has proved that beyond doubt. We have to lead Syria to a new political settlement which gives all factions a proper voice. We will continue to work with all of the parties in Syria to that end and indeed Russia.”
Throughout the interview it is clear that Fallon views his number one priority as defeating Daesh, yet in a fractured picture with many warring sides, the solution will likely need agreement from multiple parties, including Russia.
But Fallon’s message to Moscow is he wants to engage not antagonise: “Engage but beware is our policy.” A delicate balance to strike, but one ideally suited to a man clearly in command of his brief.