There has been quite a bit of coverage of defence issues in the media recently, ranging from the US/UK/France missile strikes on Syria via the Israeli-Iranian exchange of fire over the Golan Heights to the appearance of new and innovative military equipment at Russia’s annual May Day parade in Moscow.
All of these events, and many others, have spawned misinformation and disinformation in their wakes; did some of the missiles fail to fire from the French frigates in the Syria strikes? Did the Israelis hit all their intended targets as claimed, or did the Syrians shoot them all down as they have counter-claimed? And has Russia actually been using its newly displayed equipment on operations like it says, thus enabling the “combat proven” label so critical for export sales? It’s often said that in war the first casualty is truth, and that seems to be particularly apposite today.
Closer to home, however, the defence debate rotates around HM Treasury’s constraints on defence spending and whether the Ministry of Defence will ever be able to afford the equipment is has, or wants to, order for all three armed services. I suspect the current arguments here are more to do with Government and MoD confusion and incompetence than with any deliberate attempts to mislead, but I dare say we’ll all find out in the fullness of time.
Two startling examples of deliberate disinformation, though, can be found in matters relating to the Royal Navy. Leaving aside dubious claims from official sources that the RN is “growing”, which it manifestly obviously is not, the sagas of the UK’s newest aircraft carriers and the future procurement of three new Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels merits some illustration and comment.
Taking the aircraft carriers, and more specifically HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of the two, the populist criticism by those who seek to denigrate the RN and/or the Westminster government is that Britain has built at great cost a brand new aircraft carrier but “it has no aircraft to operate from it”.
This is patently and obviously a falsehood, as anybody with two minutes of spare time could easily discover. Firstly, within days of HMS Queen Elizabeth starting her sea trials in July 2017, aircraft in the form of Merlin helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron from Culdrose, had touched down on her flight deck. Since then she has hosted numerous helicopter takeoffs and landings, and was famously photographed entering Portsmouth harbour with both Merlin and Chinook aircraft on deck.
In addition, the UK has taken delivery of at least 15 of the 48 F-35B Lightning II fifth generation jet aircraft it has on order. These aircraft are currently based at Beaufort, South Carolina in the USA together with some 200 UK military personnel as the new aircraft is assimilated into UK service. Trials with this aircraft and HMS Queen Elizabeth are expected to start later this year prior to the carrier becoming operational after integration is complete. So it is quite clearly nonsense to state that the UK has an aircraft carrier but no aircraft to operate from it, and those doing so should – and in many cases I suspect do – know better.
Another example of deliberate information debasing UK military debate is the increasingly vexed issue of the procurement of three future RFA vessels, the Fleet Solid Support ships which will support RN warships in future operations. In line with the UK’s National Shipbuilding Strategy, these ships will be subject to an international tendering process, unlike RN warships proper which have always been built in UK yards (except in cases of national emergency like the Second World War, for example, when 50 destroyers were procured from the US for the RN under the lend-lease agreement).
This potential for them being built abroad has become a bit of a cause celebre in shipbuilding circles, with politicians of all hues and unions alike urging that they should be treated like warships and built in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn, no less, added his voice to the clamour when he travelled to Glasgow to give a speech on 11th May, stating publicly for the first time that all naval vessels should be built in the UK. He didn’t say Scotland specifically but the political message was quite clear.
The SNP has been much more direct, with Nicola Sturgeon declaring that the international tendering process was “a blatant betrayal of Scottish shipyards” and a reneging of promises made to the Clyde shipyards at the time of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Other SNP politicians have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, including Humza Yousaf MSP, Minister for Transport and representing a Glasgow constituency.
The problem with the “Clyde betrayal” theme is that it is just not based on the evidence. As outlined in the Glasgow-based UK Defence Journal, three main facts undermine the Nationalist argument. First, the Clyde is already at capacity building the Offshore Patrol Boats and Type 26 frigates that will keep it busy until at least 2030. There is no intention by the Clyde yards to bid for the work in any case. Second, the FSS ships, at a projected size of 40,000 tonnes each, just wouldn’t fit into the existing Clyde facilities. And third, the only “promise” that might possibly have been made relates to complex warships only, of which the Clyde currently has it fill.
So, where is all this nonsense about the aircraft carrier with no aircraft and the Clyde betrayal coming from, you may wonder. I don’t have a precise answer, I’m afraid, but both instances bear the hallmarks of deliberate campaigns of disinformation, often précised by the phrase “deny, distract, and blame”. Various forms of disinformation are practised by intelligence agencies around the globe, including our very own in the UK.
The Russians, however, are the masters of it, with their doctrine of maskirovka deeply embedded in their political, military, and diplomatic operations. But are the Russians pulling the strings here? I don’t know, but others will.
This article was written by Stuart Crawford, a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. During his military career he attended both the British and US staff colleges and undertook a Defence Fellowship at Glasgow University. He now works as a political, media, and defence and security consultant in Edinburgh and is a regular commentator on military and defence topics in the print and broadcast media.