“I’m sure you know your Tigris from your Euphrates… Here’s Sinjar mountain; it’s a huge area, it’s a mountain range really...”
Michael Fallon is in his element, pointing to key locations on a big map of northern Iraq in his office at the MoD. Similar maps of Libya and eastern Ukraine lie at the foot of his easel, all interchangeable and ready for action. And action is what the new Defence Secretary has seen plenty of since his appointment in the summer reshuffle. Within days of taking office, he had to deal with Russia’s interference in Ukraine, the murderous barbarism of Islamic State and the near collapse of Libya as a functioning state.
“It’s been continuous,” Fallon says, referring to endless emergency Cobra meetings and his authorisations for RAF sorties, army battle group exercises and naval deployments. He’s been to Helmand and Poland, Glasgow and Salisbury Plain, in quick succession. “It’s a 24/7 department. Things happen here round the clock. Troops, aircraft, ships are moving every night and every day. I’ve been in three other departments and this is unlike any other.”
Fallon is used to being busy. In his previous post as joint Energy and Business minister, he was renowned for the way he would beetle up and down Whitehall between his two offices. “Sometimes I literally had to run between the two. I used to have meetings with an official as I walked, because there wasn’t time,” he reveals. His DECC office drawer was always stuffed with a ready supply of Nature Valley granola bars to give him an energy boost. The energy bars still provide his daily fuel, yet the Ministry of Defence represents a different order of magnitude of busyness. And with growing signs of a fresh military campaign in Iraq, the threat posed by Islamic State terrorists is taking up much of his time.
But the prospect of UK forces returning to the region has made both parliamentarians and military types warn that lessons of the recent past need to be heeded. General Sir Peter Wall, the outgoing Chief of the General Staff, said Britain could not get sucked into another Middle East campaign without having a proper understanding of the situation on the ground and sufficient firepower and strategy to deliver. As the drumbeat for air strikes gets louder, does Fallon think we’ve learned from our last experience in Iraq?
“This has to be planned, it has to be sustained,” he says. “This is going to be a long-drawn campaign which we have to be careful, methodical and measured about. But equally, there’s a determination right across Nato to tackle ISIL. Because if we don’t, it comes back on us.” So, the UK’s armed forces will be in it for the long haul? “John Kerry has estimated two to three years; that looks like a long haul to me. But we have to face up to this. This kind of extremism has been spreading, taking root in democracies.”
Just how the US and UK line up against ISIL remains to be seen. The day we meet, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond indicates that “Britain will not be taking part in any air strikes in Syria”, only for No 10 to swiftly insist that all options are still open. Asked if Syria is completely off the agenda at the moment, Fallon stresses how dissimilar Damascus is from Baghdad. “They are different countries,” he says. “Everything we’ve done in Iraq so far, every flight, every delivery has been with the permission or at the invitation of the Iraqi government. Everything we are doing in Iraq we are authorised to do. And that doesn’t apply to Syria, so it’s a different legal situation and it’s also a different military situation because of Syria’s quite formidable air defence system. So clearly any approach in Syria will have to be different to that in Iraq.
“But it is the new government of Iraq that we need first to help. It’s only just been formed and we need to rally moderate Arab opinion behind it, we need to make sure it’s inclusive and we need to get the international community to support it and to help it repel ISIL and to drive it back from the territory it’s claimed.”
Crucially, he seems to leave his options open about Syria, while recognising the constraints on any military action. “You’ve got Assad’s forces fighting the opposition groups – including moderate opposition groups – but the enemy is ISIL. The international community, one way or another, has to deal with ISIL.”
And the threat posed by ISIL to Britain and other nations cannot be overstated, he suggests. “I was really struck at the Nato summit by countries as far apart as Norway and Australia concerned about returning fighters, about the threat from re-importing terrorism. We all have a very direct interest; Britain does above all. We’ve seen already terrorist attacks here: the London Tube, London buses, the murder of Lee Rigby, the attack on Glasgow airport; we’ve already been under attack from this kind of extremism, and we have to deal with it.”
The recently raised threat level reflects intelligence that a Mumbai-style attack on UK civilians is the scenario most feared by Government. “We have done a lot of planning on that,” he says. “We have prepared for this kind of contingency, and I obviously don’t want to get into detail on it. But we have one priceless advantage here, which is the quality of our armed forces. Both regulars, special forces and in terms of equipment we are able to respond to that threat, and one of my jobs alongside the Home Secretary is to make sure that we can keep our people safe – that’s something we have to be vigilant about every day.”
Vulnerable states like Lebanon, Kuwait and Jordan need protecting too, he stresses. “We are offering support and training to Iraq and Syria’s neighbours. There are many other ways we can help with logistics, supplies, surveillance, sharing intelligence. There are lots of other things we can do before it comes to direct military action. But we shouldn’t resile from direct military action if ISIL is going to be defeated. This isn’t about containment. This is about the defeat of ISIL.”
As for timetables for action, Fallon is understandably coy, but yet again keeps his options open for any strikes during the conference season. “We have to see the new Iraqi government find its feet, show that it is properly inclusive. There will also be further discussions at the United Nations General Assembly… But in the last resort, if the security of this country is at risk we can’t wait for the parliamentary timetable.”
Just as our armed forces gear up for action in Iraq, withdrawal from Afghanistan continues apace. With the pull-out deadline of the end of this year looming, is he convinced the Afghans are ready? “We are leaving a legacy of security there. There’s no guarantee Afghanistan will be completely stable, but we’ve given them every chance of a stable, secure future and we can be proud of that. It’s been a hard-won legacy with a lot of sacrifice along the way.”
Failing to honour that sacrifice is what worries some critics of the current pull-out plan. Lord Richards, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, told The House earlier this year of his dismay at the way the Prime Minister appeared to be opting for an accelerated timetable for withdrawal, wondering if No 10 “had learned nothing” from the way ISIL had been allowed to take on the Iraqi army after the US and UK pull-out.
Fallon respectfully disagrees. “We are giving Afghanistan every chance of a stable future. David Richards is a very experienced soldier, but if we had not set a deadline for withdrawal we would not have got the Afghan National Army to step up to the plate – which they are,” he says. “I’ve been to Helmand, I’ve met them. I’ve seen how they are taking the fight to the Taliban. They are now conducting over 90% of operations, taking on some of the toughest fighting and ready to defend their country thanks to our training and mentoring, but also because we set a deadline and they’ve had to now take up that responsibility. And they are ready for it.”
Under Fallon, the MoD certainly seems to be looking forwards, not backwards. Whereas Philip Hammond arrived with a reputation as a bean counter, Fallon clearly has an affinity with the military chiefs, not least given his own family ties. In the Second World War, his father served as a surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps and his mother nursed for the Royal Navy in Haslar hospital in Portsmouth.
While careful to pay tribute to Hammond’s parsimonious approach, Fallon exudes the confidence of a Defence Secretary who knows his department will be in demand in coming years. And, after the morale-sapping rounds of redundancies of recent years, investment is once more taking place. “The last of the redundancies were in June, and because we’ve sorted the budget we are able to invest again. In terms of spending we start in a much better place. We have a defence budget that has been balanced thanks to Philip Hammond’s painstaking work.”
With the 2015 Strategic Defence Review expected to set out the fresh threats to the UK, the emphasis appears to be on spending rather than cuts. Fallon says he looks forward to the chance to look again at the challenges facing Britain’s armed forces. “The world has not become a safer place since SDR ’10, that’s for sure,” he says. The defence budget is “in a far better place than we were in 2010”, he adds, a situation underlined by the UK meeting the Nato commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence.
Yet while that commitment lasts until 2016, some say the Tories should go further and make a manifesto pledge to extend it for the whole of the next parliament. Will the rank and file in Birmingham get that promise next week? “Conference would love to hear the manifesto… They may not get the whole of the manifesto,” he smiles. “It’s been a huge achievement in a very difficult fiscal climate to get to 2%. We have a prime minister and a chancellor who absolutely get defence, who are committed to it. The Chancellor has played a huge part in enabling that.” But, he adds pointedly: “Having got there, I obviously don’t want to see us fall back again.”
It’s not just the rise of ISIL that has shaken the defence kaleidoscope for the West. Russia’s military intervention in eastern Ukraine has made Nato reconsider just how much of the post-Cold War peace dividend remains. Within days of taking up his post, Fallon flew to Poland to show solidarity with eastern European Nato members and announce a new joint military operation, Exercise Black Eagle, due to start next week.
“It’s not symbolic,” he says. “This is a huge commitment. I’m sending a full battle group – 1,300 troops, over a hundred tanks and armoured vehicles. This is a full-scale exercise – the biggest for six years in Poland – and a demonstration that we are reassuring Nato members on their eastern flank and sending a pretty clear message to President Putin that Nato is going to defend itself.”
Fallon has taken a hard line with Moscow, stressing the need for the EU to coordinate its response with the US. “We need to have more sanctions in reserve,” he says. “The sanctions [so far] seemed to have worked. As we stepped them up, Putin did respond; sanctions are beginning to damage the Russian economy. They’ve impacted on Russian GDP, they’ve put up inflation in Russia. The solution to this can only be political and economic, it can’t be military. But President Putin has to understand that he cannot invade a sovereign independent country in the way he has.”
And despite threats to ban Western airlines from Russian airspace, does he think that Russia has a lot more to lose from any tit-for-tat reactions to tougher sanctions? “Yes. In terms of economics, it’s a war that they can only lose. And in terms of politics too, if they want to put themselves outside the international order, that will be their loss.”
Nigel Farage famously described Putin as a “brilliant” operator earlier this year, and Fallon is withering in his assessment of the UKIP leader’s “completely misguided” approach. “What Putin has done is completely beyond the bounds of international law and acceptability,” he says. Referring to Farage’s claim that the EU had “blood on its hands” over Ukraine, he adds: “It shows how little he understands about international affairs and how dangerous it would be to vote for a Russian-loving UKIP party. The MH17 shooting is being investigated, but it’s pretty clear it was brought down by a missile that had been supplied across the border from Russia. If anybody’s hands are stained with blood, it’s Putin’s.”
As for UKIP more generally, and the threat they pose to the Conservative party at the next election, Fallon insists there is only one response. “We fight back by persuading the public that only the Conservative party can deliver the referendum that they want. UKIP can talk, but only this party can deliver a clear choice on Europe.”
The rise of the SNP, as well as UKIP, has been a more pressing concern of late. Fallon, who was born and brought up in Scotland, insists that “there hasn’t been any contingency planning” for a Yes vote. No 10 tried to inject some passion into the campaign last month by flying the Saltire over Downing Street. But there was a claim that during the Commonwealth Games this summer, the Defence Secretary had vetoed a plan to allow the Red Arrows to trail blue and white Scots-themed smoke.
Asked if the story is true, Fallon doesn’t deny it. “The Red Arrows always use red, white and blue, so there was no reason to depart from that. But the Games were a success. The Royal Air Force is as much a part of Scotland as England.”
One other change from the Hammond era seems to be a willingness to engage more with the media. Lord Richards has criticised as misguided the edict that military chiefs could no longer meet journalists privately. And only recently, it appeared that Hammond had authorised a new restriction requiring all serving members of the armed forces to contact the MoD’s media team if they encountered any journalist or thinktank academic in a social setting.
Fallon seems surprised when told of the curb, saying “I’ll look into that”. But he stresses that his approach is one of openness, with the usual security limits. “This is not a Stalinist operation. I had the defence correspondents to breakfast on Monday.” So is there a thaw in media relations going on? “There’s a thaw. I invited defence correspondents to accompany me in Helmand, I’ll be taking other correspondents to Poland to witness Black Eagle. My door is open.”
That door has certainly been busy of late, with those maps of Libya, Iraq and Ukraine all featuring in briefings with military chiefs. For Fallon, the most important fact about his new job is the quality of the servicemen and women he now leads. And as the UK faces new threats in the 21st century, they are more important than ever. “Wherever you go to meet our armed forces, you meet some of the finest men and women you could meet,” he says. “And that, in the end, is the best reassurance we can give our people.”
FALLON ON… TAKING ON ISIL
“This is a very direct British interest and our armed forces are ready for it.”
FALLON ON… ‘BOOTS ON THE GROUND’
“We’ve been very clear we are not sending British troops into combat in Iraq. But what we are doing is going after ISIL with the rest of the international community.”
FALLON ON… PARLIAMENT’S AUTHORISATION
“In general terms, military action in Iraq or in Syria should be endorsed by Parliament and I hope it will be.”
FALLON ON… RUSSIA IN CRIMEA
“Crimea is part of Ukraine under international law. It’s an illegal occupation.”