'FLEXIBLE DEFENCES – THE VITAL KEY'

By Julian Lewis MP

Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee

Sunday Express – 22 November 2015  (Published in slightly shortened form.)

With the spectre of international terrorism in the forefront of everyone’s mind, tomorrow’s publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is timely.  Yet, the dangers posed by terrorism are only part of a threat spectrum which could confront us in the next few years.  Parliament’s Defence Committee has drawn up a list of 11 threat areas and general vulnerabilities facing our country.

These certainly include extremism and unconventional threats; but there are more traditional dangers which could re-emerge.  Thus, Russian behaviour in Europe could lead to a crisis and confrontation with NATO.  Conversely, we might find ourselves working in co-operation with Russia to face the common danger posed by ISIL and al-Qaeda.  The point is that, although we can identify credible threats, we can seldom predict an actual crisis until it is almost upon us. 

The Defence Committee’s new report – Flexible response? An SDSR checklist of potential threats and vulnerabilities – therefore concludes that our Armed Forces must be designed for maximum versatility, in order to adapt to dangers which we will face with little or no warning.  That means avoiding the mistake of the 2010 Review when entire capabilities were lost on the basis of unreliable predictions. 

One striking example was the decision to scrap the Harrier fleet and thus do away with our aircraft carriers for a period of years until the new ones became operational.  It was predicted that these carriers would not be needed in the meantime.  Yet, only a few months later came the 2011 conflict in Libya.  What was the first military asset sent to the Eastern Mediterranean by our French allies?  Their aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle

The truth is that we may face threats ranging from nuclear blackmail at one end of the scale, through a new Cold War-style confrontation in Europe, to ‘sub-conventional’ attacks by the use of cyber warfare and the intensification of the current terrorist campaign.  New submarines for Trident are likely to be approved but remain controversial. There is growing awareness of the need to plug conventional equipment gaps and manpower shortages.  And, our security and intelligence services – already heavily engaged in counter-terrorism and cyberspace – are due to be allocated still more resources. 

We must be able to cope with a wide range of potential dangers, rather than guessing (usually wrongly) which will actually arise.  If that requires more money for defence, then so be it.