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As promised a week ago, TMT has taken a more detailed look at the recent “RUSI speech” by our Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, in order to try and find out what it is that he is proposing the Armed Forces should become in the context of a resurgent Global Britain.

In our previous brief report, published on 11th Feb, we indicated that some of his statements left one wondering whether he has a full grasp of the problems that face the MOD today. Lack of manpower, equipment and other resources mean that the Forces are badly stretched and individuals are feeling the strain. We seem, for example,  to have gone from a situation where the Navy was having problems deploying a single carrier, to a new plan to have two fully operational in separate Carrier Task Forces covering areas of interests from the Med to the South China Sea.  It all seems rather “Tintin-esque”.

In fact, having sent what some regarded as a thinly-veiled threat to China on Monday at RUSI, Mr Williamson followed this up yesterday with another strongly-worded speech at the Munich Security Conference. This time he left Russia in no doubt about Britain’s low opinion of that nation’s recent antics. More of this later.

Back to the RUSI speech, our source for this review is the MOD’s own transcript, available for all to see at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/defence-in-global-britain. The heading to the speech includes the following statement: “Delivered on:  11 February 2019 (Transcript of the speech, exactly as it was delivered)”. So we know the words are definitely those of the Defence Secretary.

 

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Straight away, it has to be said that the speech is littered with non sequiturs; it is disjointed in many places, with incomplete sentences and thoughts strung together in loose paragraphs. Indeed, it begs the question as to who wrote his speech and whether it was vetted by the professionals behind the scenes. If it had been checked, then perhaps Mr Williamson simply failed to read it properly – which, to be frank, is a bit worrying,

His initial comments deal with the way in which security threats have changed from that of a purely conventional nature to the now familiar problem of asymmetric warfare, where the enemy uses terror tactics, takes to the internet, or starts to try to destroy our economic and social systems from within. This is all good, sensible stuff, although not especially novel. He concludes this section by talking about the need for the UK’s Joint Forces Command to be more “integrated” so they have “greater agility to meet the demands of this increasingly contested environment.”

However, he then rather turns his back on the “unconventional bit” for the rest of the speech, concentrating instead on the rather more tangible aspects and assets that he regards as being the core of any future capability enhancement.  He refers to current events (Brexit et-al), as being an opportunity to re-establish Britain’s place in global affairs. On the assumption that “Defence will be pivotal in reinforcing Britain’s role as an outward looking nation” he confirmed that: “We are making sure it does so in a number of key ways:”

The first of these “Key Ways” is NATO. MR Williamson is fairly forthright in his views about the place of the UK in NATO:

Britain must be willing and able to lead the Alliance, to bring stability in a changing-world. We are a leader in NATO, this year hosting the Leaders Meeting here in London.

“And in NATO, we must stand firm against Russia’s non-compliance with the INF Treaty.”

“The Alliance must develop its ability to handle the kind of provocations that Russia is throwing at us.”

“That is why the United Kingdom is leading the nine-nation Joint Expeditionary Force which in a few months’ time will take part in its first deployment to the Baltics.”

“But we must not see this as our limit. We must be willing to go further.”

“In an era of ‘Great Power’ competition we cannot be satisfied simply protecting our own backyard.

The UK is a global power with truly global interests.”

“That is why Global Britain needs to be much more than a pithy phrase. It has to be about action.

“And action, on occasion, that may lead us to have to intervene alone.”

“Now, I know there are some that question the cost of intervention. But it is often forgotten the cost of non-intervention.”

“To talk…but fail to act…risks our nation being seen as nothing more than a paper tiger.”

The observant will have noted the seamless shift away from “leading NATO” to “intervening alone”: or indeed working with a range of other, non-NATO partners that he then goes on to mention.  There is, of course, nothing wrong with forming alliances around the world; every country with international interests would be well advised so to do. But it is the manner in which the speech manages to blend all of these somewhat separate considerations and then move rapidly to a series of conclusion about force-levels and equipment requirements that must leave the military planners looking around for something tangible upon which to base their deliberations.

Mr Williamson quickly moves to the question of the size and capability of armed forces required to meet the challenges he outlined. He talks about “Armed Forces with more mass” which will be achieved as a result of a “multi-million-pound Transformation Fund”, (note;  millions and not billions), which will clearly have to achieve an awful lot.

The Royal Navy is to have a new class of Littoral Strike Ship (elsewhere referred to as a Littoral Combat Ship, or even Littoral Assault Vessel), “able to conduct a wide range of operations form crisis support to war-fighting”. They would be able to deliver “forward deployed” elements of:  “..Our Future Commando Force”, able to respond at a: “moment’s notice”.  At this point, Mr Williamson slightly confuses the picture by defining the littoral ship concept by referring to them as Littoral Strike Ships. He also makes it clear that he in fact only envisages having two of them, given his additional comment:

And, if we ever need them to, our two Littoral Strike Ships, our two aircraft carriers, our two amphibious assault ships Albion and Bulwark, and our three Bay Class landing ships can come together in one amphibious task force. This will give us sovereign, lethal, amphibious force. This will be one of the largest and best such forces anywhere in the world.

So we now see that the Littoral Combat Ships will be a separate type of vessel to the two current amphibious assault ships, but we are not much clearer as to the difference between the two types.

However, he also reveals that he wants to have two separate task forces, one in the Med and the other East of Suez. He does not talk about the number of surface combatants needed to provide the level of protection that these groups of relatively under-protected vessels would require in the event of actual combat. Given Mr Williamson’s comments, it is likely that he has in mind Russia and China as being the most likely opposition – so the Navy is not going to get away with some second-rate fix when it comes to escorts.

 

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Mr Williamson’s remarks have attracted additional comment in recent days as a result of China taking offence at his speech and cancelling a series of trade talks between the two countries. This morning, the 21st Feb, in a BBC radio programme, the Chancellor was asked whether he thought Mr Williamson’s remarks were somewhat intemperate; although Mr Hammond did not actually say so, it was clear that he has some concerns.

 

The talk moved on to the Air Force. It consisted mainly of a summary of the current purchases of F-35 fighters, nine Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), and the upgrading of Typhoon fighters with ground-attack radar and cruise missiles. His only suggestion about any future shift in equipment or other strategies for the RAF mentioned the use of drones:

“I have decided to use the Transformation Fund to develop swarm squadrons of network enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences. We expect to see these ready to be deployed by the end of this year.”

The Army is similarly dealt with in a few short sentences, with little to add beyond comments about well-publicised programmes such as the Warrior-upgrade and the new Ajax roll-out.  He does however indicate that the UK is committed to staying in our current German bases for the foreseeable future, presumably in order to speed up any response to a crisis that might require the attention of the new Warfighting Division.

Mr Williamson then set off on a summary of how he sees the MOD increasing “lethality” by way of spending money. The only problem here is that the sums he mentions seem oddly out of kilter with the size and scope of the problems he identifies; that is to say, he gives the slight impression of not really understanding the cost of modern defence programmes.  This might be quite unfair – but there are some who now regard Mr Williamson and his credibility to be “on probation” after some of his recent performances.

 

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At this point it might be useful to run through a few background figures. That “transformation Fund” is actually some £160m which has been “ring-fenced” out of the £1bn November budget increase to deal with aspects of the Modernising Defence Programme – or MDP.  However, analysts now point to a growing shortfall in overall defence budgets which some put at £15bn over the next ten years – and that might even be rather optimistic. The actual shortfall will be worse in the next few years as spending on major programmes such as the carriers, F-35s and nuclear sub fleet are incurred.

Fluctuations in costs can be large; for example, currency exchange rate changes added over £309m to the F-35 project last year. In fact, in the MOD’s own Defence Equipment Plan 2018, they list a number of aggregate forecast cost-increases as being:

Lightning (£309m); Protector unmanned aircraft(£278m), Astute Boats 4-7 (£199m), and Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers(£149m)

The extra cash provided in November’s budget helped, but many argue that this cannot be seen as money for fresh ideas; instead, it is urgently needed to help keep an overstretched, existing, defence-equipment programme on track in the short term.

 

The speech lists a number of programmes for which “additional” funds are to be earmarked. The £600m for the Astute seems to be one that might not be new funding – but merely the next stage payment in the programme needed to keep that project on track. Others, like the extra £33m to “improve our anti-submarine warfare capabilities” might well be a new allocation – but it seems a rather small drop in the ocean in the context of the overall scope of the UK’s anti-submarine defences, and one which might not keep Mr Putin awake at night.

For its part, the Transformation Fund is also going to allow the UK to:

“Double our armed ISR capability so we can identify and neutralise targets far faster. The Venom kinetic strike capability will mean those who wish to do us harm have more to fear.”

As far as the Ground Forces are concerned, Mr Williamson again draws upon the Transformation Fund which will, in addition to its other tasks:

further increase our armed forces’ lethality. For example, we’re going to make sure that our ground troops – whether in the Army, the Royal Marines or the RAF Regiment – are going to get the same night vision equipment that their colleagues in Special Forces have. We’re also going to buy pioneering robotic fighting and logistic vehicles. Reducing the risk to our personnel and increasing the firepower and agility of our infantry.”

Mr Williamson then summarised his vision for each of the three Services as being:

“I expect to see, the Army using both manned and unmanned teams, Artificial Intelligence and the unmatched quality of our personnel to win, not just conventional wars but also dominate the conflict in the grey zone.

I expect the Royal Navy to deploy flexibly, to be capable of being in many places at once and to ensure we have an efficient fleet of warfighting ships, looking at how they can grow both their mass and their lethality.

And, I expect the Royal Air Force to operate the next generation with modern Air Command and Control, more combat air squadrons and energy weapons to keep our skies safe.”

Conclusions to speech

In his conclusions, Mr Williamson sets out a grand vision of Britain’s role in the world, with the emphasis (as one would expect of a defence Secretary fighting for funds), on our ability to confront threats or challenges head on, and to uphold our interests and values around the world. He is not afraid to call for more defence funding:

against adversaries upping their spending…investing in new technologies… we have to respond.”

He regards Brexit as something to welcome, bringing with it opportunities to re-establish our place in the world-order, and chides those who recommend we retreat from global responsibilities rather than confront them head on with a powerful military to back up our political and diplomatic strategising. In a post-Brexit world, he states,

“We have an unparalleled opportunity to consider how we can project and maximise our influence around the world in the months and years ahead. It is up to all of us…from here on in…to make sure that our great nation seizes and grasps the opportunity that present themselves with both hands.”

(NB: that last quote copied verbatim)

Anyone involved in the world of defence, whether in the Services or industry, would, at face value, welcome Mr Williamson’s speech as a bold and confident statement at a time of great uncertainty; full of boyish-optimism even. However, it is perhaps not entirely unfair to say that his track-record causes one to stop and consider whether all of what he puts out is based upon sound fact and not some wishful thinking, a somewhat loose understanding of the nature of defence, and an eye on the short-term political game.

That said, as recent events have shown, even his short-term political judgement is being questioned by his somewhat more seasoned peers in the Government.

 

Words from the RUSI speech provided via HM Government MOD press release. Some images thought to originate from BBC.

Comments on That RUSI Speech again: Mr Williamson’s vision of the future.

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