With the general election results through the future of Defence, Security and Foreign Affairs is now much clearer, especially with a single party majority. The key points within the Conservative party’s Defence manifesto have been compared to the other ‘mainstream’ parties in my previous article. Though now the electorate has spoken in this general election it is time to explore this particular manifesto in greater depth as it is this manifesto which will be the one to strongly influence government policy for the coming five years.
To make it clear from the outset it seems the intention for our government is geared around a keen interest on enhancing our national Security and firming our international alliances both east of the map (as with the United States) and also west of the map (as with the remaining NATO countries), putting Britain firmly at the heart of international Defence and Security.
Page 11 of the 82 page manifesto which focuses on our home economy provides examples of how the government will boost employment. In here there is a clear statement of providing additional investment to the local cyber and security industry based within the South West of England, the home of organisations such as GCHQ. So we don’t have to read very far into their manifesto to stumble across the first strong hint of the governments strategic intentions. Further on, the manifesto goes on to express its continued support for the National Security Council, established by the previous coalition government to oversee and ensure the activities and decision making of national security is appropriate to government policy. Fittingly, one of the golden threads throughout this manifesto is Security, both home and abroad.
But why is there such a clear intention of a strong pursuit towards enhancing our national Security? The answer lies with the governments interests in international affairs closely linked with national (home) security; intelligence. In the article covering the mainstream parties Defence manifesto’ we clearly alluded to the Conservative party’s approach to Defence was going to be very ‘business as usual’ if they were to succeed in the (now concluded) 2015 general election. Once of the influential factors behind this is the adoption of a much clearer intent to dedicate resources to uphold and maintain our current position and enhance our capabilities in intelligence gathering and management of the information gathered. So why have the government adopted an approach which takes a strong stance on enhancing our intelligence capabilities and not so a stance with our Defence capabilities? The answer may reside within the current attitude in Western government that prevention is better than cure – if we can identify, measure and monitor the activities, likelihood and impact of our national and international threats we provide ourselves with an ‘intelligent’ means of managing those threats before they pose significant harm to our nation and / or our international interests. Therefore, the current attitude of prevention being better than cure results in an approach of insuring ourselves by investing in the infrastructure and means of being able to identify, measure and monitor existing and potential threats more efficiently and effectively. Some people I know think of this as an ‘insurance policy’, but insurance policies such as this aren’t cheap and easily managed. However, in this day and age they are unavoidable in the Western world as it is inevitable with such rapid progression of technology and the enhanced capabilities provided in the last 15 or so years that technology and communication would be the keys to safeguarding our national and international interests in the future. One of the impacts of this is less of a focus on Defence.
However, there is still a clear need to ensure we maintain our composure with Defence as (for example) deploying our armed forces on peacekeeping missions has been a long-standing and proven preventative approach to safeguarding our international interests and preventing the escalation of potential conflict. Further to this we must also be able to both project national status and power along with maintain a credible ability to take physical measures which enable us to intervene and protect where necessary. This is where a strong and capable armed forces are absolutely vital to our national security and international interests just as much as Security is too.
It is on this point of the subject which is where the governments manifesto gets interesting and it is worth us spending a little time not only acknowledging what it states, but also understanding why such an attitude and approach to Defence has been adopted. The first pledge is to not reduce the size of our regular armed forces below the current 82’000 along with maintaining our submarine based nuclear deterrent by building four new Successor to replace the existing Tridents. Further, the government has promised to maintain spending 20% of the Defence budget on major equipment which will buffer the costs of introducing the second QE Class aircraft carrier, along with new armoured vehicles and attack helicopters.
However, unlike other governments whose intentions were to ‘radicalise’ defence in some way (ether reducing of increasing resources), this elected government clearly intends to maintain a level of ‘stability’. The question is why the government have taken such an approach to defence? The answer here begun some five years ago with the outcome of the Strategic Defence and Security Review where it was decided the armed forces and MOD were to be downsized to reduce spending to plug a large financial gap but also maintain a level of operational capability identified in the SDSR. The cuts felt to the armed forces were described by many as being ‘deep’ and also ‘harsh’ to the many levels which make up the organisation of the armed forces and the UK defence industry (suppliers). To highlight this we can point out that some of the reduction targets to be met by the end of the five year change programme were not far off completion only three years in.
So why have the government opted to neither ‘do less’ nor ‘do more’ by decreasing or increasing defence resources? The answer is a strategic one: the government needs to establish a period of stability for the armed forces and MOD, because any organisation that goes through such rapid change needs a period of stability to ‘re-group’ and be able to refocus on its tasking with the revised level of capability it possesses resulting from the change they have been through. Therefore, neither further cutbacks nor significant growth in spending (resulting in greater amounts of personnel, equipment, organisational structure etc.) would provide significant benefit to warrant further investment at such a short time after the end of a major change programme being completed. However, without letting anybody off the hook: what the government needs to do is maintain their commitment to supporting the armed forces and MOD in being able to do their job post the change programme. Such commitment needs to consider factors such as being realistic of their expectation from the armed forces and not applying overdue pressure on the resources they have. Therefore, the government may need to consider its international commitments very wisely in the next few years.
This brings us onto the issue of Foreign Affairs and international relations. The government makes their view that (both global and home) economics and security go hand in hand which is highlighted on page 75 of their manifesto. This seems to compliment the aforementioned intentions of enhancing our security and maintaining our defence capabilities to help ensure the country can continue to actively trade and invest with minimal disruptions, and further encourage foreign investment in British companies and services. However, the ‘elephants in the room’ and possible disruption to these intentions for foreign affairs are Russia and Islamic State – the government have clearly stated their opposition to both Russia’ ‘aggressive’ activity and IS’ ‘extremism’ and further stated their intention of utilising allies to apply pressure to stop further Russian activity. Not only this, the government have clearly stated their intention of actively taking measures to stop IS influence from spreading.
Therefore, we come to a conclusion the next five years will see a lot of emphasis on Security from the government as the need to arm themselves with intelligent information to help decision making has become more apparent in the current world. In terms of Defence: the government seems as though they intend to maintain steady by neither doing anything radical either way of increasing or decreasing resources. At certain points in the coming few years where Defence will be a hot topic this approach is likely to result in an opinion and view of ‘doing or done nothing’. Though when put into a longer-term strategic context; enabling a period of stabilisation is a passive way of doing something. Further to this, we can identify clear intent of significant effort into enhancing our Security (intelligence) capabilities, though this is something we will hear very little about for obvious reasons. The last point I wish to make is to revisit my previous statement that one of the most vital things the government must do for the coming few years is to be realistic with their requirements upon the capability of our armed forces and MOD which can be complimented by being realistic to our international commitments abroad. As the Royal Navy used to say; “Steady around the gear”.