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Ben Wallace interview: UK defence isn't fit for purpose – our Armed Forces must adapt to 21st Century threats

11 min read

Ben Wallace should have spent the past few months working on the largest defence and foreign affairs review since the Cold War. Instead, he’s been mobilising thousands of troops to support the Covid-19 response. The defence secretary speaks to Georgina Bailey about the future of the Integrated Review, and why our Armed Forces should be celebrated as well as the NHS

My trip to the Ministry of Defence to interview Ben Wallace starts strangely. Immediately I’m sent through the wrong set of doors – the one-way system through the building to minimise the spread of Covid switches direction midway through the day. The secretary of state is also running late – a last-minute meeting has been added to his diary – and I’m being squeezed in between the weekly defence ministerial team meeting and a call with his Portuguese counterpart.

We wait in a room full of pictures of former defence secretaries before being ushered through to the Mountbatten Suite, a grand, wood-panelled meeting room where on occasion the Defence Council meets. 

Wallace is joined for the first few minutes ­– with appropriate two metre spacing – by two of his ministers, Jeremy Quin, procurement minister, and James Heappey, who is responsible for Armed Forces and operations. The room is so secure that Johnny Mercer, defence people and veterans minister, is actually unable to dial in from his home in Cornwall. The absence of the only woman on the team, Baroness Goldie, isn’t explained at the time, but I later find out that she is working remotely in Scotland.

This is, Wallace tells me, probably the most experienced ministerial defence team ever in terms of time served in regular forces, with Wallace, Heappey and Mercer having 27 years in the Army between them. “From my most junior minister to me, you have a team who knows more about defence and aerospace than probably there has been since the 1960s,” he boasts.

By his logic, the team is well-equipped to make the tough decisions necessary to deliver the Integrated Review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development, which will be a key focus between now and September. 

Originally announced in February but delayed due to Covid-19, the review is promised to be the largest of its kind since the end of the Cold War. “They're not just tough decisions for the sake of them, they are decisions that are about shaping, modernising or reforming defence to make sure that you will sleep safely in your bed long after we've gone,” says Wallace. “I'm determined to reform defence.”

The Government's last Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015 categorised 'Disease, particularly pandemic influenza, and emerging infectious diseases' as a tier-1 ('highest priority') risk. Just over two years ago, the Government's National Security Capability Review upgraded 'diseases and natural hazards affecting the UK' to one of the six principal challenges likely to drive national security priorities over the coming decade. Does Wallace think the Government was adequately prepared for the pandemic?

From the MoD’s perspective, yes, they were, he contends. “Once the decision was made to lock down, the speed at which people in the Armed Forces stepped in to populate wider Whitehall with commander control and logistics support, and intelligence and data analysis was very, very quick. I mean, we had nearly 1,000 people within the first week or two in every major department,” Wallace says. “Because that's what we do. We do resilience. Resilience is our watchword; you know, we're the last line of defence.”

The Armed Forces have been at the forefront of the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic – although a lot of it has been behind the scenes – with 177 Military Aid to Civil Authority tasks either ongoing or complete, and 3,460 personnel deployed in the UK and 264 abroad. 

As well as building the largely-unused Nightingale Hospitals, supporting testing services, driving ambulances, and designing and operating mobile testing units that can be set up in 20 minutes, the Armed Forces have played a key role in logistical support, procuring and distributing medical equipment and PPE. They have bought what Wallace describes as “a bit of process and discipline and moving at pace into the network”, with military support to local resilience forums trebling. “We could do that in days,” Wallace explains. 

More widely Wallace believes it’s “unfair” to criticise other parts of government for not being as ready for the pandemic. “Most people don't live at the pace of our Armed Forces. We are there to provide that pace and that clarity of decision in wartime or in conflict or crisis, as we are now… Other departments are not set up that way,” he explains. 

“People’s memories are very short in this crisis. At the beginning of this process, it was all about ventilators. Then we got the ventilators and we got the Nightingales and then they changed how they treat people. So that all became about something else. And now, as you notice, it's away from PPE stocks, into care homes. And now it's into going back to work.”

He adds: “I think when the dust settles, and we look back at this, there will be lessons to learn, but there'll also be some very, very proud moments.” 

He would like to see the contribution of the Armed Forces to the national effort recognised more, much like the ‘Clap for Carers’ initiative. “A lot of the stuff you haven't seen is because of the Armed Forces and the danger is people treat us like the Pied Piper of Hamelin – at the end of all of this, when it comes to remembering what we've done, it'll be, ‘we didn't really need you anyhow’,” he says.

“And that would be the worst thing for our men and women of our Armed Forces if that was the case, but they deserve a lot of credit. And they will be around still doing it for many months. This is not done yet.”

One element Wallace would like to see included in any inquiry into Covid-19 is the role of China, particularly when it comes to early communications about the virus. However, he says Britain should be as willing to be subjected to an independent investigation as China or anyone else. 

Wallace, who was one of the more cautious Cabinet ministers over the decision to allow Huawei access to the UK’s 5G networks, believes there will be a reassessment of Britain's relationship with Beijing. “I think Covid has probably shaken quite a lot of people about China's role in assisting the response, but also China's role in biosecurity,” he says. “The Government is obviously assessing its relationship with China. It was starting to do that already before Covid.” 

Last week Jens Stoltenberg, the general secretary of Nato, said that the organisation should focus on the threat posed by China to ‘our values and way of life’. Does the defence secretary agree with Stoltenberg? “Well,” he responds, pausing with his hand over his mouth. “Nato stands up for liberal democracies and values and respect for human rights and I would agree that, therefore, Nato's values are values that we should defend. That's how I'd say that, from whoever.”

While Wallace thinks there are lessons to be learnt from the global pandemic, he says it will not change the way he approaches the Integrated Review. Instead, Wallace believes, it will help the MoD’s messaging “land better”, because “the rest of Government now knows what resilience means.”

“It comes from different angles. Today it's coronavirus, tomorrow it could be a very high-level cyber-attack,” Wallace warns. “Resilience is going to be a challenge in the 21st Century, because we are open, we are dependent on I.T, globalisation is everywhere, and so we are more vulnerable to these kinds of shocks.”

There have long been concerns among defence hawks on the Conservative benches that defence is underfunded, damaging the UK’s resilience to evolving threats. In February, the Public Accounts Committee found that the MoD had a £7bn black hole in its 10-year plan for Armed Forces equipment. 

Wallace admits that previous reviews have been “overambitious and underfunded” – a view he says is recognised by both the Treasury and military leaders. “There is an opportunity to, once and for all, try and make sure that we both live in our means, but also, we get the right funding for what we need to do,” Wallace says.

I see this as a unique moment to repurpose our Armed Forces for an era of constant competition

“While not wishing to prejudge the Integrated Review, I see this as a unique moment to repurpose the UK Armed Forces for an era of constant competition.”

This will means embracing new technologies and being “less sentimental” about some older equipment and the way things have always been done – something he describes as “a rebalancing from Industrial Age to Information Age capabilities”, including investing in cyber, space, electronic warfare, AI, robotics and autonomy.

“There is no longer a binary distinction between peace and war, and our adversaries wear many disguises. Yet we have failed to make the tough choices necessary to unmask and counter them,” Wallace explains.

“If you look at the lessons of how Russia operated in Ukraine, how Turkey has been operating in Syria and Libya, you look at the newer threats in cyber and space: we have to meet those threats, and we have to work out how we can be as nimble as our adversaries.”

“Corruption from debt-trap diplomacy, cyber, misinformation, use of proxies, to traditional military areas: all of that is how our adversaries seek to make us weak,” Wallace adds. “We have to be able to move between those to defend ourselves and call upon not just defence. We cannot defend the nation entirely through defence and the intelligence service.”

Another priority for Wallace is addressing cultural issues on diversity and inclusion in the Armed Forces. 

For the past four years, the Armed Forces ombudsman annual report has highlighted that BAME personnel in the armed forces are significantly more likely to complain about bullying, harassment and discrimination than their white counterparts. In fact, BAME personnel make up 13% of all complaints on discrimination, despite being only 8.2% of personnel overall, including being racially abused by senior officers and forced to play Taliban terrorists in army training videos.  

You don't get your message across by desecrating anything. In fact, you look like an idiot

Wallace is vociferous in his condemnation of any racism or bullying in the Armed Forces. “This department has simply not done well enough on two areas, predominantly on BAME issues: we have not recruited enough people, and we have not made this a welcoming place for enough people. Our figures are woeful,” he says.

He continues: “The integrated review is a great opportunity for a reset or a reprioritisation of funding to make sure we put this right.” Wallace insists that if he reads or hears about any racism or bullying, he will be talking directly to the commanding officers involved. 

Wallace would also like to see more women in the MoD civil service and Armed Forces. “From a purely selfish point of view, by not having more BAME personnel, not having more women, we are losing the opportunity to have some great talent. So it's really, really important that this is stopped, crushed, got rid of, and we have to double our efforts,” he says.  

By not having more BAME personnel, not having more women, we are losing the opportunity to have some great talent. So it's really, really important that we redouble our efforts

On moves by backbench Conservatives to introduce a 10-year sentence for the desecration of war memorials, Wallace warns against making people into “martyrs”, adding that a more appropriate response might be making those who desecrate memorials spend some time with service people and veterans to “learn what sacrifice is really about”.

“I feel pretty angry that people think the problems of the world are because of statues, and actually, our history is warts and all – you have to be warts and all or you don't learn the lessons of history. And so, you don't get your message across by desecrating anything. In fact, you look like an idiot,” he explains.

While Wallace says he felt sick watching the Cenotaph be graffitied, he warns against over-sentimentality. “For what it's worth, as a former soldier, what makes us great as a country is not just statues, and it's not just medals – it’s our values. And it's valuing the living as much as the dead, if not more. The dead are dead.”

He adds: “I'd love to see this department remember that the greatest asset we have is not our tanks or our aeroplanes, it's people. They are the greatest asset in defence.” 


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