The policy announcements on Defence announced by Mike Hookem at Conference were popular, but restricted themselves to enhancing the way in which we regard and care for the members, and ex-members, of our armed forces. Other than Ray Finch announcing additional fishery protection vessels to support our Fisheries policies, no announcements were made with respect to how a UKIP government would meet the threats ranged against us.
During the Cold War it was fairly easy to identify the threat (the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact), quantify that threat, determine the required defending capability, and then build and maintain military equipment and units to execute that defence… if needed.
When the Cold War ended in 1990 there was some initial inertia. Equipment projects to meet Cold War requirements, such as Eurofighter, continued apace: politicians and the military continued assuming the same threat, although slowly considering alternative threats.
9/11 (2001) was the watershed moment when the world realised there was another significant threat – that of Islamic fundamentalism, although that threat was seen through the lens of individual terrorists and countries. To that end, we entered Iraq and Afghanistan on the basis they were breeding grounds for terrorists who might threaten our own shores. This article is not going to try and dissect how effective those campaigns were or otherwise, but we can now see that other countries have bred Islamic fundamentalists that might threaten us: Nigeria, Libya, Somalia, Syria to name a few. What is our stance on them?
On top of that, we have Iran possibly developing nuclear weapons, although they are now making dove-like noises to us, and it is clear that as a largest predominantly Shia nation, they have their work cut out facing off the predominantly Sunni threats surrounding them.
In the meantime, the USA has been nervously watching the Pacific Rim. China is growing its armed forces, North Korea remains belligerent with a de facto nuclear delivery capability, albeit immature, and there is even the potential for Islamic fundamentalism brewing in Indonesia. It is a fact the Americans are transferring a large percentage of the US Navy from the Atlantic to the Pacific, matched by Land and Air re-deployments.
The threats against us in the UK are in fairly well-defined following the National Security Risk Assessment in 2010. What was flawed was the solution to that threat, which was clearly driven by a “New Tory” agenda of reducing defence spending, and neutering our capability to continue operating as an independent nation in terms of defence, becoming yet more reliant on the Americans (who are reducing their support for Europe) and more notably the Europeans.
So, what should a UKIP government do in terms of defence provision? As Nigel Farage has rather publically said, the 2010 Manifesto was not the best manifesto in the world by a long chalk, and the section on Defence was highly flawed with a statement that “we will increase defence spending by 40%”. That is exactly the same kind of thinking that led Labour to spend more on Health and Education, while failing to extract any extra capability out of the systems.
Now, while I have served my country in our armed forces for 21 years, I am no expert on Defence Strategy, and I am not going to be so bold as to attempt to outline a defence solution. I trust no other UKIP member feels so uniquely qualified to do that. The particular problem with defence is the massive time and cost lag between defining a requirement and getting the eventual solution (hardware, software and “liveware”) fully implemented. For example, it took 14 years for the Nimrod replacement programme to very nearly deliver a working solution (from when the requirement was first released to industry – I remember it well, I was there on the BAE Systems bid team, and watched the completed pre-production aircraft flight-tested through my office window at Warton 14 years later)
To a large extent, a party should be totally reliant on the advice of the Chiefs of Staff, their advisors and independent think tanks. However, outside of government one only has easy access to the latter, albeit opposition Ministers and MPs may be able to have some dialogue with Service chiefs and visits to units.
So, I believe the best course of action is that UKIP should have a dialogue with the two main defence think tanks. They are:
- Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (website under development)
- Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies
Perhaps this already happening: it would be illuminating to find out. In my opinion, the process should be to ask them to:
- Validate the 2010 threat assessment with any omissions, errors or updates.
- Ask for an outline proposal of our defence needs to effectively meet that threat, without budget limitation.
- Having obtained an outline cost for the ideal, then to decide how much a UKIP government would be prepared to spend on Defence, and ask for cheaper in-budget options.
Then, and only then, should we offer specific proposals to the electorate for any increase in our defence capability. If we can’t do that before the next election, then we should just commit to a process similar to the one I have outlined, albeit conferring with the Service chiefs as well.