An afternoon of politician speak with Michael Fallon
The UK is less than a year away from a new defence review that will shape the purpose, capabilities and structure of the country’s armed forces for decades to come.
It’s not a simple task and requires hundreds of people across Whitehall to create. The only problem is that the most influential department in its formulation will be the Treasury and not, as you’d expect, the Ministry of Defence.
It’s for this reason that the MoD will require strong leadership in the next 12 months, someone who can battle it out with a Treasury that wants to squeeze the defence budget further. That leadership is not likely to come from the service chiefs, who are largely impotent when it comes to wrangling over budgets. So it’s down to the Secretary of State Michael Fallon, who only assumed the role in July.
Can Fallon provide some clear direction and forego the politician’s need to speak in generalities? On the face of his appearance at the Defence Select Committee on 17 December, the answer is no.
Speaking at the Select Defence Committee hearing on Future Force 2020, Fallon made it clear that budgetary considerations and capabilities will have ‘to be looked at together’, just like the previous SDSR in 2010. That could be an ominous sign that the 2015 review will, once again, be largely budget-driven rather than being defined by national strategic goals.
Asked by one MP whether the defence budget should be ‘ring-fenced’ – like the NHS budget, which is immune from cuts – Fallon said the MOD had enjoyed ‘relative protection’ from cuts.
‘Of course defence should have the priority that you accord to it,’ he told MPs, with the caveat: ‘But our constituents want to see public money spent on other things as well.’
So not a resounding show of force from the defence secretary for an increased, or protected, defence budget. On the UK’s commitment to spend 2% of its GDP on defence, Fallon could only guarantee it would remain in place for this financial year and the next (2015/16). A study by the Royal United Services Institute in September said the defence budget could fall to an estimated 1.88% of GDP in financial year 2015/16.
Fallon had a lacklustre afternoon alongside the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff Air Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier.
Fallon had to awkwardly flip through his notes to find information on planning assumptions for future deployments. As he stumbled through his answer, Labour’s Derek Twigg couldn’t help but take a dig: ‘You’re not sure?’
Committee member Dr Julian Lewis also grilled Fallon on the senior service, the Royal Navy, asking whether the number of frigates and destroyers would fall below 19 after the 2015 SDSR – let’s not forget the Royal Navy had 32 just over a decade ago.
Fallon, once again, didn’t make any commitments apart from saying he was ‘actively considering’ the Global Combat Ship (Type 26). A deal with BAE Systems was expected at the end of this year but affordability issues have postponed a contract – surprisingly that wasn’t brought up by any committee member.
And so it went on. Other issues Fallon wouldn’t make a commitment on included army redundancies while there was even an embarrassing point where the deputy chief of the defence staff didn’t know the number of jets per frontline Typhoon and Tornado squadron, which was made light of by one tabloid newspaper.
Not surprisingly it was an afternoon of dodging questions and frustrating politician speak.
Perhaps that’s understandable – many of the big decisions are still being negotiated and there is a lack of certainty around many areas. But when it comes to defence of the realm, maybe we should have greater clarity on these matters from the head honcho.
That lack of clarity also has a negative impact on the UK armed force’s morale, particularly when it comes to redundancies. Soldiers, sailors and airmen have the right to know what the future holds for them, while the British public have to understand the importance of the decisions being made in the next few months in terms of national security.
From witnessing just one appearance at the defence committee, I strongly have the impression that Fallon and the MoD are not providing those assurances and are obfuscating on several key areas like manpower, capabilities and future strategy.
The 2010 SDSR was seen as necessary to deal with the country’s ballooning deficit and the MoD’s equally expanding funding gap, that part most people agreed on.
But most analysts now also agree that its execution was flawed and did not properly address the capability gaps that were being created by cuts to personnel numbers, cancellation of projects and early retirement of platforms.
Has the MoD learned their lessons? I’m not so sure.