Defence of the realm is the first job of Government. Historically, the Conservative Party has been the party of the forces. However, in recent years, they have been overseeing the decline of people and technology. Labour made great inroads into being the party that invested in and looked after people in the forces, but they have now come under severe scrutiny for a fundamental lack of conviction that they would make difficult decisions of deployment. Having worked in the defence sector for over 20 years, it’s clear to me that the UK Military needs reforming to make it fit for purpose and supportive of the people who serve.
The defence budget (2.1% of GDP) remains opaque. Billions are spent, but for the vast majority, it’s not always clear where the funds go. In order for defence spending to be used effectively, I believe we should be considering a few key things.
Our most immediate threat is not a physical one, it is a virtual one. It is the cyber war that is already well underway. It is the battle of confidence and trust, through state sponsored activity but denied - not too dissimilar to the Cold War. This is perhaps where the UK is now most vulnerable. Where we have been pouring money into very physical programmes, - aircraft, tanks, warships and submarines- other countries without the same resources have poured theirs into cyber capability.
Personnel are the backbone, the essential element of our armed forces. But, too frequently, we to forget about their welfare. We pour money into big ticket equipment (a Challenger 2 tank is approx. £4m each, Eurofighter Typhoon around £68m each, and T45 Destroyer is £1b). Yet we expect our personnel to live in accommodation that is in serious need of repair. Some quarters have been reported with untreated mould and a whole host of other problems. With all the money we spend on equipment, surely we should be spending the money to ensure that the people we expect to operate this equipment are fit to do so.
The other, often overlooked aspect, is the drive that defence puts into engineering and technology development. This has two aspects, the technology development element and the engineering production. There are whole communities that are built upon the development of major engineering elements. For example, Barrow-in-Furness, the place where our Submarines are built and have been for over 100 years. Over 80% of the employees live within 40 miles, and therefore the pay that they receive goes directly into the local community. The submarine builder, BAE Systems is supplied by a supplier network that ranges from companies that produce pieces of plant and machinery, complex control systems, all the way to contractors who bring in specialist expertise. If the submarine fleet were to stop being produced, then it would not only harm our defensive capability, but it would destroy a well-established town.
It’s important to recognise that the defence industry is not simply about war. Very few people want to fight for the sake of it, however there are people in the world that do, and we have a duty to protect our people. But underpinning that is a complex network that pervades many different facets of our lives and our communities.
We should be willing to ask ourselves difficult questions such as:
• Should we be using soldiers on ceremonial duties in guarding the palace? In effect, they are a tourist attraction.
• Should we be outsourcing so much supplier capability when the contracts don’t necessarily delivery the standards we require?
• There are very few theatres where the army, navy and air force work in isolation, they have overlapping capability and, in many cases, replicate capability – should we learn from other countries and have a single defence force?
Defence policy spans multiple different lines of UK infrastructure- health, education, technology development, R&D. Having such a siloed approach means we cannot fill the gaps. We need policy that brings all this together. We must acknowledge the threat, ensuring that technological solutions are coordinated around people and making the forces fit for tomorrow’s threat instead of yesterday’s war.
Fundamentally, military personnel are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for us. We need to ensure that they are supported, both during their time serving their country, as well as afterwards as they live with the consequences.
Barry Kirby the Managing Director of a Human Science Research and Human Factors Consultancy which delivers into all areas of UK Defence. He was a Labour candidate in the 2017 General election, Labour Police Commissioner Candidate in 2016 and was formerly Deputy Leader of Gloucestershire Labour Group.
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