Monday’s speech was just another in a long line of content-light ill-judged interventions by this Defence Secretary
Former Defence minister Labour’s Kevan Jones writes that Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s vision may appeal to the selectorate of a future Tory leader, but is one that has little relevance to the challenges facing Britain and our allies.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s speech to RUSI on Monday this week was billed as his vision for the UK’s defence and security post-Brexit.
Withdrawal from the EU in Williamson’s belief will give Britain the greatest opportunity for 50 years to redefine its role in the world.
But the speech was an amateurish display of foreign policy analysis and avoided the financial reality facing UK defence. Reference to the importance of our international alliances was light, replaced by a nostalgic rose-tinted view of Britain as a global power capable of intervening at will throughout the world.
This vision may appeal to the selectorate of a future Tory leader but is one that has little relevance to the challenges facing Britain and our allies.
The facts that since 2010 the Government has cut the defence budget by 16% and that his Department now faces a £15 billion shortfall in its equipment plan, were conveniently airbrushed out.
Instead what we had was a shopping list of future equipment, ranging from swarms of network enabled drones to a new fleet of littoral strike ships with no explanation of how they would be funded, or how they would fit into broader UK military strategy.
In Williamson’s vision British warships flying the White Ensign would project UK influence across the globe. This ignores the fact that a third of the Royal Navy’s frigates did not spend a day at sea in 2018 due to the MoD’s stretched finances and navy manning crisis.
The deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s first super carrier to the Pacific is also cited by Williamson as an example of Britain’s new global reach.
He fails again however to mention that the deployment is only possible because of the embarkation of US Marine Corps F-35s provided by our United States ally.
Uncertainty still surrounds the affordability of the UK’s own F-35 fleet with only 17 delivered to date and no clarity in the MoD’s budget of how future numbers will be funded. Projecting global power with aircraft carriers without aircraft is difficult to envisage even in Williamson’s reality-light world.
Williamson also claimed to be making sure our armed forces have sufficient mass to deal with a range of threats, an important element being having sufficient personnel. But again, scrutiny of the facts highlight the hollowness of his words.
The Army is smallest it has ever been, and both the Royal Navy and the RAF are facing a growing personnel crisis. In 2010 the Army had a surplus of trained strength of 0.1%, but today that has shrunk to -5.1%.
A similar trend is faced by the other services: in 2010 the Royal Navy had a trained strength deficit of -0.8% but today it is -2.0%, and the RAF has gone from a manageable deficit of -0.5% to -4.4%.
The backbone of our armed forces are its people and without sufficient numbers Williamson can make as many ambitious claims as he likes, but none will be fulfilled unless these fundamental issues are addressed.
Monday’s speech was just another in a long line of content-light ill-judged interventions Williamson has made since becoming Defence Secretary.
What is now needed is a strategic review of our defence and security policy, which realistically assesses our strategic aims and place in the world, matches our ambitions with the resources that are available, and looks to the future rather than harking back to a vision of the past which if you seriously looked at never existed.
Kevan Jones is a former MOD minister and Shadow minister. He is the Labour MP for North Durham
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