UK’s future security uncertain

Posted on 5 Jul 2011 by The Manufacturer

Round-table discussion shows defence policy lacks appreciation of industry input and that short-termism will threaten national security

A round-table event held today concluded in a depressing outlook for defence services and industry in the UK.

The Libya Dimension: Implications for UK Defence Policy and Support from Industry, was a debate opportunity, held in Whitehall this morning, for representatives from government, the armed forces and the UK defence industry, to table concerns and lessons learnt from Britain’s ongoing military operations in Libya.

Discussion points were considered in the context of the current economic climate but while there was an acknowledgement that times are hard there was also a consensus among those gathered in Whitehall that inconsistent, short sighted policy is undermining British security in years to come.

Professor Gwyn Prins of the London School for Economics, opened proceedings at the ADS sponsored round-table with the statement “The Strategic Defence and Security Review was the fastest strategic failure in history.” He went on to damn government policy to enforce reductions in military operations, likening their tactics to the act encouraging a person not to play football by breaking their legs.

While other attendees at this morning’s debate were less dramatic in their language, all agreed that military operations in Libya should now be serving as a wake-up call to government that it cannot apply the traditional 10 year rule to decision making with regards to defence. ‘Unknown unknowns’, like the sudden unrest in Libya, will pose an increasing threat now that, as Brigadier Rory Maxwell put it, “the fat of the Cold War has been consumed” and capability to respond quickly to emerging events is reduced.

For Britain’s 900+ companies in the aerospace and defence supply chain today’s discussion showed that a disappointing lack of alignment still exists between industrial support for defence activities and the actions of foreign policy makers and military leaders. Acknowledgements of the need for a clear industrial defence strategy were vague.

Speaking on behalf of the UK defence industry this morning, Sir Ian Godden, chairman of trade organisation ADS, was pessimistic.

Sir Ian went on to clarify that although job losses in the defence sector, which employs some 300,000 people in the UK, could be mitigated through transferring skilled expertise to booming civil aerospace and automotive industries, that the economic impact of ‘strategic shrinkage’ would be significant.

The ADS chairman also stated that “off-the shelf” defence procurement from abroad, as is favoured in some quarters, was not a substitute for a strong defence base in the UK for either economic or operational efficiency reasons. He ruefully admitted that he had “given up” trying to represent the contribution that the defence sector makes to GDP in government circles. “They do not listen,” he said.

Today’s discussion took place ahead of the release, on July 14, of a new bilateral White Paper on defence and security. ADS is calling for this paper to provide clarity on forthcoming reforms to the Ministry of Defence (which it welcomes), facilitation of defence exports and better support for defence technology development in line with a defined strategic direction.

Despite a general dejection at this round-table discussion as to the prospects for UK defence and security, positive conclusions included the acknowledgement of industry skills in enabling military capability.

Brigadier Maxwell, head of defence logistic operations at the MoD, pointed out that both military and political leaders have, in the past, fixated falsely on the number of fleets, jets and other assets. He said: “I don’t care how many fast jets we’ve got – how are we going to make them fly, how are we going to maintain them, how many bombs can they drop?.” Brig Maxwell also explained that, in a world of 18-24 month lead times, “retrospective money” was of little help.

Maxwell’s comments formed part of a wider, though still sadly understated, appreciation that industry is integral to military capability and, furthermore that industrial input now goes far beyond the manufacture of assets and munitions.

An associated and growing challenge in this area will be the ability of the defence industry to retain skilled engineers of platforms due for termination, such as the Sentinel, a ground surveillance aircraft due to be discontinued.