The MoD is in chaos, but it must adapt to tackle emerging threats
SNP Spokesperson for Defence, Stewart McDonald MP, is concerned that the current review into the UK's military and counter terrorism capabilities will be mired in disengagement and secrecy.
By most metrics, the Ministry of Defence is in chaos: a £20 billion funding shortfall; low manning levels not seen since before World War 1; a historically small Royal Navy; a forward procurement programme the National Audit Office says is ‘at greater risk than at any time since reporting was introduced’; and to top it all off, a book in the pipeline from Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott which is unlikely to be sympathetic.
However, when I was named the SNP’s Defence Spokesperson earlier this summer, you could be forgiven for thinking that all was well in Main Building – The cursory page committed to Defence in the Conservative manifesto told us little we didn’t already know, with the headline £178 billion to be invested in new equipment presumably the same as the £178 billion the NAO had already shown to be inadequate: and with a NATO-sceptic Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party, it wasn’t going to feature too heavily in their manifesto either.
And that suited the Defence establishment just fine. When Sky News’ Alistair Bunkall posted an opinion piece online in late July chastising the leadership of the Armed Forces and MoD for ducking serious media scrutiny in favour of arranged appearances, it chimed with the impressions of a general disengagement in the vital debates around the future of the UK’s defence and security that I had been receiving from my own sources.
Take HMS Queen Elizabeth as a prime example. The slow news summer period has proven to be the perfect time for the MoD’s media operations to put out a whole series of impressive, lavish video and picture packages as she is put through her paces before arriving in Portsmouth. But while undoubtedly a triumph of engineering and a testament to those who designed and worked on her, the whole Carriers project still faces massive questions. How much of the Navy’s manpower will be sacrificed to crew the Queen Elizabeth, and the future HMS Prince of Wales? Will the Navy’s frankly inadequate escort fleet of 17 frigates and destroyers be enough to protect these carrier groups? And are the 138 F35B Lightning II fighters which will be purchased to fly from their decks the best use of diminishing resources for all three services?
Quite simply, the Carriers go to the problem at the heart of the MoD: a reliance on the old school razzmatazz offered by traditional, expensive, big-ticket platforms while putting off any sort of reasonable debate about what our armed forces should look like in the 21st century and beyond.
In a year when we’ve seen so many attacks UK soil in such a short space of time, there seems to be no appetite to move the discussion on to security in its broadest possible context – not to discuss threats in the abstract, but ones that are very real and will have a lasting impact on the human race.
The threats and challenges that we face are complex, fast moving and sometimes unforeseeable. Whilst the national and international networks that keep us safe are largely successful in doing so, they are continuously needing to adapt to changing environments, new threats and challenges that have, sometimes, been decades in the making: climate change, mass migration and terrorism can’t be tackled the way they are just now.
And there are people thinking about this, in the MoD and in the three services: as the recent ‘Global Strategic Trends’ report shows, the UK could respond effectively to many of these threats if it choose to: but it would require a fundamental reappraisal of our Armed Forces, both in response to these trends, and to the underlying assumptions of the 2015 SDSR, which have been changed completely by Brexit – a new SDSR is something that believe is greatly needed.
So while the announcement came through last month that the National Security Advisor Mark Sedwill was to review the UK’s military and counter terrorism capability, it looked like a positive step. Sadly though, it seems like the disengagement and secrecy identified by Alistair Bunkall will also define this review, and many MoD watchers I know fear it will simply be another excuse to salami slice budgets and further degrade the military’s human capital in order to preserve expensive platforms.
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has long been seen as the Conservative Party’s safe pair of hands, and I’ll admit to being not quite prepared for the way in which he despatched my first questions to him after the election. Many, however, have grown tired of this high-handedness and boring condescension, and will be expecting answers to the myriad of questions the MoD now has to answer. As ever, they can rely on the SNP to continue to ask them.
Stewart McDonald is the SNP Member of Parliament for Glasgow South, and is the SNP Spokesperson for Defence