By Julian Lewis
Parliamentary Brief – 29 October 2010
A capability saved
Early next year (please excuse the self-promotion) my biography of the Great War air ace Samuel Kinkead is due to be published. It will bear the official logo ‘FLY NAVY 100’, because 2011 marks the centenary of the first four RN officers – including a Royal Marine – being taught to fly. Their successors are giving, at best, two cheers for the outcome of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, as it could have been so very much worse. The maintenance of fixed-wing flying skills in the Fleet Air Arm until the Joint Strike Fighter arrives will pose extremely serious problems; but, one way or another, naval aviation will survive.
Some have mocked a situation where it is costlier to cancel an aircraft carrier than to complete it. This is represented as a contract-drafting fiasco. From the Admirals’ point of view, however, it is a triumph. As former Governments learned the hard way, the Royal Navy will stop at nothing to retain a carrier strike capability – and we should be grateful for such perseverance. The last time a Future Aircraft Carrier was cancelled, short-take-off-and-vertical-landing Harriers saved the day in combination with three ‘through-deck cruisers’. These later became the carriers Ark Royal, Illustrious and Invincible. So, do not expect the second of the forthcoming Queen Elizabeth-class vessels to be sold off any time soon. Our Admirals are cannier than that, and their wisdom will be vindicated the next time we need to project air power from the sea, in some far-flung theatre, as so often in the past.
In the SDSR, the Government have been forced to do the right thing (retaining carrier strike and fleet air defence) for the wrong reason (to avoid huge wasted expenditure). It was precisely because the Royal Navy suspected that strategic need would be sacrificed to financial calculation that the contracts were drawn up as tightly as they were. This ensured that the point of no return was well-and-truly passed. If only the same were true of Trident ...
A promise broken
The nuclear deterrent was specifically excluded from the Review both before and after the General Election. Time and again, the Liberal Democrats demanded its inclusion, only to be brusquely rebuffed. It is not in dispute that, when Conservative MPs met at Westminster to endorse the proposed Coalition, we were categorically assured that the Liberals would have to accept the Trident Successor programme. As David Cameron gave this guarantee, George Osborne nodded in confirmation. Unfortunately, all these assurances have since been disregarded.
Delaying the ‘main gate’ decision until after the next General Election illustrates the worst aspects of coalition politics. It sends signals to the ever-present minority of one-sided nuclear disarmers to strain every sinew to turn postponement into cancellation. Foremost among these are the Liberal Democrats, whose true colours were gloriously exposed in their conference debate on Trident. It was indistinguishable from a CND revivalist rally, with barely a mention of the supposed ‘alternative’ of nuclear cruise missiles on Astute-class submarines – the fig-leaf used in Parliament for opposing the Trident successor system – just nuclear unilateralism in all its naked naivety.
When nuclear cruise missiles really had a role, the Liberals were desperate to oppose them: “Cruise is the front end of the whole anti-nuclear struggle,” Paddy Ashdown told CND’s largest-ever rally on 22 October 1983. “It is the weapon we HAVE to stop.” Fortunately, the country took no notice and NATO’s cruise deployment paved the way for the Intermediate Nuclear Forces deal (based on Reagan’s ‘Zero Option’) just four years later – a key contribution to ending the Cold War. Now cruise deployment is advocated by Liberals, supposedly as their ‘alternative’ to renewing Trident, but really in order to sabotage it.
A deterrent at risk
Such tactics might actually work, though the Prime Minister does not seem to think so. Here is an extract from his reply to me during the 19 October Statement on the SDSR: “... I am not as lacking in confidence as [you are] that there will be plenty of supporters of Britain’s strong and independent nuclear deterrent in the next Parliament.” Yet, the presence of such supporters provides no guarantee at all.
Imagine a General Election result in 2015 which yields another hung Parliament. When this happened in 2010 – as we now know – Liberal Democrats misled the Conservatives by inventing a tale that Labour had made them an offer to force through the Alternative Vote without a referendum. As Conservative MPs, many of us felt we had little choice but to accept a Liberal-Conservative deal, in order to avoid that outcome. Later, Nick Clegg admitted that Labour had never suggested any such concession.
How might coalition-building tactics work out in 2015? One can easily envisage the Liberals offering to join with Labour, if only Mr Miliband agreed to cancel Trident – something (one presumes) Mr Cameron would never do. If Labour were tempted, the deterrent would be doomed. No manifesto commitment could save it. It would be scrapped at the behest of the Liberal Democrats, irrespective of any undertakings given by the two main parties at the General Election. Coalitions are fundamentally corrosive of democracy: they enable the emergence of policy ‘compromises’ agreed by the parties for reasons of their own, irrespective of what the electorate want or what they were promised.
A doctrine awry
Equipment decisions taken today will determine the shape and capabilities of UK Armed Forces decades ahead. The planned deployment dates for the next generation of the nuclear deterrent were to have been 2025 to 2055 – and several years must now be added to those. Similarly, the carriers, when constructed, will have at least a 40-year lifespan, in the context of which the long wait for the Joint Strike Fighters will eventually seem insignificant.
It ought to be obvious that conflicts arising over such lengthy time-scales will be no more predictable in the future than they have been in the past. Yet, time and again, we hear the facile refrain that complex modern weapons systems are “legacy programmes, irrelevant to the threats we face now”. Anyone who supports warships able to defend our sea-lanes, aircraft able to defend our airspace and military vehicles able to fight a well-armed hostile state, is denounced by such pundits (all too many from an Army background) as “living 25 years in the past”.
In reality, it is this sort of critic who suffers from a blinkered perspective: the assumption that the threat in 25–45 years’ time will be the same as that facing us today has no more validity than a belief 25 years ago that the Cold War would never end. Senior Army officers, perhaps for tribal reasons in an age of scarce resources, have allowed themselves to become wedded to the fallacy that ‘boots-on-the-ground counter-insurgencies’ will remain the cornerstone of British military operations and that serious threats from hostile states need no longer be expected.
A battle is developing for the ear of the Prime Minister. The rise of General Richards, shows which side is winning. The next Chief of the Defence Staff is one of the most consistent advocates of preparing for what he terms “the wars” of today, rather than for “a war” in the future with a well-armed modern state. It was, frankly, disturbing to hear David Cameron’s response, when asked about ‘stabilisation’ operations, that: “If we are to have more of what have been called ‘wars among the people’, we must make sure that we are properly equipped to deal with them.” This seems to accept as axiomatic the Afghanistan model of campaigning – a model of infantry-intensive attritional warfare doomed to fail if not radically altered.
The dangers we face from terrorist movements are certainly serious; but they should not divert long-term resources from the far greater potential threats posed by hostile states. These could arise with no more warning in future than we usually received in the past. Until this is faced, and remedial action is taken, the United Kingdom will not have a strategy worthy of the name.
Dr Lewis was Shadow Armed Forces Minister between 2002 and 2010. He is now a member of the Intelligence & Security Committee, though writing here in a personal capacity. For an examination of the military arguments for Trident, see his essay: ‘Nuclear Disarmament versus Peace in the 21st Century’, published by the Royal United Services Institute and available via the internet.