Tag Archives: politics

Serious questions for Defence Secretary

Liam Fox, British Conservative politician.

Can he out-Fox this one? (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m sure you’ve all seen the furore regarding the Defence Secretary‘s murky relationship with his former flatmate/best man/adviser (delete as appropriate). Apart from the point of view of the ministerial code and integrity in public life, there are very serious concerns for those of us interested in British Defence issues.

The Defence Secretary is supposed to be advised by the Chief of Defence Staff, the service chiefs (First Sea Lord, Chief of the General Staff and Chief of the Air Staff), and the relevant other senior personnel and civilians in the armed forces and the MOD. The MOD has plenty of departments, dealing with things such as policy, plans, procurement, anything and everything. There can hardly be a lack of capability there.

If the Defence Secretary really feels the need to be ‘advised’ by anyone who is outside the MOD chain, there are a number of learned, credible institutions such as the RUSI, which possess a wealth of knowledge and experience around Defence and Security issues. People who have actually paid their dues, either serving or studying military history.

All of which should suggest that at face value, the Defence Secretary shouldn’t really be in need of a special adviser. OK, in reality most Cabinet ministers have staff who advise on spin – how stories are presented, the politics of the issue, etc. But Mr Werrity has been described as a ‘Defence lobbyist’. Funnily enough, when Liam Fox was Shadow Health Secretary, Werrity was a ‘Health lobbyist’. Interesting, no? And surely if a Cabinet Minister cannot do his job without a poorly qualified siamese twin, doesn’t that cast judgement on his ability full stop?

Interestingly, Adam Werrity is, at 33, only five years older than myself. He gained a 2:2 degree in public policy – whatever that is – from the University of Edinburgh. Apparently he also stayed rent-free at Fox’s London apartment between 2003 and 2005, all of which hardly makes for a professional relationship.

It all makes you wonder what ‘advice’ exactly is being sought and offered. I’ve never liked the thought of special advisors who are outside the foodchain – it is completely unaccountable and open to all kind of abuse. What kind of influences are being brought to bear on these middle-men, say from commercial interests? There is absolutely no oversight, no accountability, and no control. Nobody elected him, based on a manifesto, and nobody selected him after an interview process.

This isn’t, for me, a red vs. blue/yellow political issue – all politicians have questions to answer about ‘lobbyists’, and who influences them and their decision making. The Defence of the Realm is far too important to be left to the Defence Secretary’s mini-me. But, as a high-profile Defence blog put it so succinctly, once again the British armed forces have become a political football, and the servicemen and women of the country are hardly likely to be winners.

33 Comments

Filed under Army, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

Reports that RAF requested a carrier for Libya

Today’s Portsmouth News contains a report that the RAF has asked the Ministry of Defence to reinstate one of the Royal Navy’s axed Aircraft Carriers, along with the Harrier GR9 aircraft to fly from them.

According to defence analyst Francis Tusa, senior officers in the RAF asked for an aircraft carrier to help enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, but the request was turned down by 10 Downing Street for political reasons:

“I’ve been told by grade A1 sources that the RAF wanted a flat-top but Number 10 simply wouldn’t allow it. I think they’d rather cut their own fingers off before that happened”

Mr Tusa goes on to explain that the Tornado jets flying missions to Libya are costing £35,000 per hour to fly, and that Italy is also charging allies ‘eye-watering’ costs for using its bases. Again, these figures are believable. It just goes to show what those with more than half a brain cell have known all along – aircraft carriers are the best value  piece of Defence equipment for what they can do. Not limited to friendly bases or overflight restrictions, aircraft carriers can go anywhere – what genius! The concept was only invented back in 1918….

Bringing back an Aircraft Carrier and the Harriers would be hugely embarassing to the Government, so soon after the Strategic Defence and Security Review decided that we could do without carrier-borne air cover for 10 years. The RAF, apparently, had argued that they could provide air cover from any land bases, thus making the carriers un-necessary. Less than 6 months later – if these reports are true – the RAF has basically admitted that its argument was ill-founded, and therefore based on self-preservation rather than British defence interests.

Sadly, the only carrier that could be brought back – Ark Royal – has been decomissioned, and largely gutted while tied up in Portsmouth dockyard. All of the living accomodation has been removed, and no doubt they will soon start on the plant and electronics. I suspect this has been done quickly to make it impossible to bring her back and spare any embarrasment. You only have to look at how quickly the Nimrod’s were butchered to see that axed Defence equipment is being shredded with un-nerving haste.

Of course a Downing Street spokesman has denied that any request has been made, but we only have to look at the fate of John Nott’s political career after the Falklands War to see what backtracking on defence reviews can do to the frocks. Sadly, while in 1982 Admirals Lewin, Leach and Fieldhouse were able to save the Navy’s future and liberate the Falkland Islanders, as the Nott cuts had not yet taken full effect.

I have to say I would not be suprised if it was true. And if so, it must call into serious question the ignorance of politicians, the apparently devious advice given by Air Marshals during the Defence Review, and once again the Royal Navy’s inability to fight its corner.

40 Comments

Filed under Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

Only Revolutions

I’ve never written much about international politics. Apart from long ago wanting to work as a Diplomat for the Foreign Office, my sole experience of international diplomacy is taking part in a couple of model UN debates when I was 16. But then again, I write mainly about two things – defence, and history. And isn’t it pretty impossible to separate politics, defence and history? Each affects the other. And of course at the forefront of my thoughts are the events unfolding right now in Egypt.

History underpins what happens in international politics. Egypt has traditionally been a US bulwark against communism and then extremism in the Middle East, and Israel’s closest friend in the region (although admittedly that’s not saying much). Hence leaders such as Mubarak have been able to stay in power for a long time, and their abuses of power have been overlooked, as long as they present a front against Islamic extremism. Pan-Arabism also broadly unites the region, particularly against Israel. I didn’t realise just how many regimes in the Middle East are the same – so many leaders have been in power for donkey’s years, and in some cases their fathers before them. I guess once President’s become established in office, the longer they are there the harder they have to be dragged kicking and screaming. Whatever that is, its not democracy. And if people on the streets are tearing themselves apart, then there is no meaningful Government of leadership in any case – thats a vacuum, and out of vacuums comes uncertainty. Iraq post-Invasion taught us that.

Countless times we have read about the role of the Army. Egypt has a sizeable military – the third largest in the Middle East after Turkey and Iran – and if it wanted to wade in on the side of either Mubarak of the opposition, that would probably prove decisive. Yet the Army seems unwilling to take a side, and doesn’t even seem willing to separate the two factions. This is probably down to experience, as the Egyptian Army may not be skilled at riot control. Tellingly, it says something about a regime if the Army – usually a representative cross section of society – is not willing to back the President. The military’s role in politics is extremely delicate indeed. An Army can deliver a coup-de-grace to a failing regime, but then it strays into the territory of becoming a military dictatorship. But at the other end of the scale, if the Army cannot intervene internally, then its influence is effectively neutered. Imagine if the British Army had not been able to intervene in Northern Ireland… it would have been a laughing stock.

Hanging over all of these events are the outcomes of previous revolutions. The current upheaval in Egypt was prompted by a similar wave of protest in Tunisia. And we only have to look back to the downfall of Communism in 1989 and 1990 to see how a small protest in one state can provide a tipping point across the region. The downfall of Communism had its roots in the Solidarity movement in Poland in the early 1980’s, and culminated in peaceful revolutions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. The lesson from 1989 seems to be that once the people have turned against a regime and are on the streets, it’s in everyones interests for change to take place. History tells us that once the people are on the streets, you can either go on your own terms, or against your will.

Are we looking at a domino effect in the Middle East? Only time will tell. The only fear has to be what might come afterwards.

(oh, and apologies to Biffy Clyro for stealing their album title!)

7 Comments

Filed under defence, News, politics, Uncategorized

Tory peer: benefits make the poor ‘breed’

Carrying on with my theme of Consverative politicians showing breathtaking lack of understanding, the newly ennobled Lord Flight (love the name!) has apologised after stating in an interview that child benefit encourages poor people to ‘breed’.

Flight also used class language in his interview with the London Evening Standard, by arguing that middle class people would be discouraged from having children. One wonders if Flight thinks that poor people should be sterilised so the middle classes can go forth and populate?

Howard Flight’s opinions are like something from late Nineteenth Century Social Darwinism. Talk about the urban poor being like monkeys and animals should have gone out with the end of the Victorian era. It’s that kind of talk that gave rise to the eugenics movement, the Nazi’s theories of selective breeding and racial genocide. Not only that, but the disdain is clear to see, by referring to poor people like animals, exactly like how a farmer would refer to their cows or sheep ‘breeding’.

Barely a day goes by without yet another astonishing gaffe from a Tory politician, showing just how out of touch and aloof they are. Once again, David Cameron selected this man to receive a peerage. Make what you will of that judgement.

19 Comments

Filed under News, politics

Government advisor resigns after recession remarks

Literally hours on from my previous post about class in British society and its effect on the recession, a Government advisor resigned after making inappopriate remarks about the current economic downturn.

Lord Young, a businessman, former Thatcher Government minister and Tory peer, echoed Harold Macmillan’s famous remarks from the 1950’s that Briton’s had ‘never had it so good’. He also referred to the recent downturn as a ‘so-called recession’. Amusingly, his wikipedia entry states that he has ‘not yet’ resigned from his position as Government enterprise advisor. We can only wait and hope.

Lord Young went on to say:

“So, you know, I have a feeling and a hope that when this goes through, people will wonder what all the fuss was about… Of course, there will be people who complain, but these are people who think they have a right for the state to support them.”

These kind of comments show just how removed some sections of society are from reality. The funny thing is, I can sense what Lord Young was trying to say, but he went completely the wrong way about it. They are insulting to people who are struggling, and even more so coming from somebody who quite clearly does not have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, or whether he is going to be laid off. It’s up there with Barbara Bush saying ‘this has worked out quite well for some people’ after Hurricane Katrina, or even Marie Antoinette’s ‘let them eat cake’.

What’s worse for me is that Cameron hired somebody like Young in the first place, it shows either a breathtaking lack of judgement, or it belies the fact that maybe deep down our Dave agrees with Young. It’s all very well for Young to say that he should have chosen his words better, but this is a smokescreen – these are the fundamental thoughts of a whole section of society and the party that represent it. Even if he hadn’t said it, its still what he was thinking deep down. And this naivetey, snobbery and selfishness is what the programme of cuts are based on.

13 Comments

Filed under debate, News, politics, Uncategorized

HMS Ark Royal to be scrapped – Defence Review

It’s emerged this morning that the Royal Navy’s Flagship and only operational Aircraft Carrier, HMS Ark Royal, is to be scrapped ‘almost immediately’. The original plan had been to retain Ark Royal And her sister ship HMS Illustrious in service until the new Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers reached service. The news is bound to spark outrage, with Ark Royal being such a famous name.

My guess is that Ark Royal will be decomissioned as soon as Illustrious leaves refit, which she is currently undergoing. Bearing in mind that the other Aircraft Carrier, HMS Invincible, is rusting in Portsmouth Harbour and completely useless for operations, this will leave Britain with one Aircraft Carrier for some years. And who knows if Illustrious will survive that long anyway?

The Harrier is due to leave service early, and the Joint Strike Fighter is due (this may slip) to enter service in around 2019, which means that for almost 10 years the Royal Navy will not fly fast jets off their aircraft carriers. This gap in service is very serious – it means that a lot of the skills connected with naval aviation, whilst not completely lost, will be by no means as sharp as they could be, and it will take some time to regain that effectiveness.

And with a sizeable gap with no aircraft carrier available, the Royal Navy will not be able to provide air cover for its own operations, especially vulnberable amphibious operations which depend on air superiority. Which effectively means that Britain cannot mount independent naval operations. As my mum – hardly a defence analyst – said watching the news this morning, “we’d might as well tell the Argies to walk in the front door”. If I were a Falkland Islander waking up today, I would be feeling ever so slightly let down by a Government whose first duty it is to protect its citizens.

On the whole, the RAF seems to have done rather well out of the Review. Retiring the Harrier early is not a huge loss for the junior service, and retaining ‘some’ Tornado Squadrons – even when it is in the process of being replaced by Eurofighter Typhoon – is bizarre in the least. The best solution would be to retain at least some Harrier presence until the pilots can begin transferring to the Joint Strike Fighter, and to retire the Tornado early as the UK has the Eurofighter coming onstream in the fast air interceptor role.

The Army seems to have done OK, with stern lobbying resulting in only low level cuts in numbers of troops, but cuts to many armoured and artillery units – capabilities that are being described as ‘cold war’. But at least a grain of capability is being kept – its easier to expand a tank force, for example, if there is even just a basic capability and experience, than it is to raise one from scratch. Flying US and French jets from British Carriers is pie in the sky stuff – it would be hostage to all kinds of political and diplomatic considerations, and in any case would the French and US Navies have enough jets spare to do it more than once or twice a year?

It might have made more sense, from a naval point of view, to scrap HMS Ocean, which was built to commercial standards as a stop-gap is apparently falling to bits. Then Ark Royal and Illustrious could have been retained with one acting as a Helicopter Carrier if need be. The run-down of Aircraft Carrier capability is also bad news for Portsmouth as the home of Royal Navy Aircraft Carriers. Especially for anyone who saw the considerable report from Plymouth on the BBC News this morning, complete with schoolchildren writing letters to the Prime Minister along the lines of  ‘please save my Daddy’s job’. The BBC’s line seemed to be that Portsmouth can take a hit much more easily than Plymouth could. Which may be true, but still painful none the less.

Other reports suggest that the Royal Navy’s escort fleet – Destroyers and Frigates – will be cut from 24 to 19. My guess is that this will mean the loss of the four Type 22 Frigates (Cornwall, Chatham, Cumberland, Campbeltown) and the remaining Batch 2 Type 42 Destroyer (Liverpool). Or, alternatively, if any of the Type 23 Frigates are due for expensive refits then they might be retired early and flogged off.

An even more unbelievable report suggests that while both new carriers will enter service, the first – Queen Elizabeth – may be mothballed and sold after three years in order to recoup the costs of building the thing. The indignity of the Royal Navy selling one of the largest warships that it has ever built, named after the Queen, is fairly evident to even those with a weak grasp of defence politics.

All in all, its a balls up and its wrong of the politicians to insult our intelligence by suggesting anything otherwise. I suppose we shouldn’t have expected anything different from a Defence Review that was completed in five months, headed by the Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor and largely cut out the Ministry of Defence and Service Chiefs, who now have to pick up the pieces and work with whats left.

58 Comments

Filed under Army, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

Review of the MoD – welcome news?

Credit where credit’s due, I find it hard to argue with Liam Fox’s announcement yesterday regarding reforming the MoD. And I never thought I would find myself agreeing with a Conservative Defence Secretary!

It’s long been one of the worst kept secrets in Britain that the MoD has become a bit of a monster – employing thousands of people, multiplying all the time in terms of managers, departments and committees, losing track of its own finances, making a hash of procurement and generally losing sight of what its there for. Its noticeable that during the many Defence Review’s over the past 50 or so years, the armed forces themselves have been hammered repeatedly, while the Ministry itself has sat untouchable on a pedestal.

Working in local government, I can kind of see what the problem is, only my experience is obviously on a much smaller scale. I get the feeling that the response to any problem over the past few years has been to appoint another manager, ending up with layer upon layer of ‘non-jobs’, people who are there building their own little empires but adding very little value to the bigger picture.

Its my opinion that if you work for any public sector organisation, you need to never lose sight of why you are there. In the MoD’s case, it is to equip and support our armed services. But there are plenty of cases of MoD mandarins losing the plot with senior officers because their decisions did not fit in with their precious process management. The dog should wag the tail, not the other way round. When you add in a New-Labour style obsession with publicity and Stalinist control, its no wonder that the MoD has become so unfit for purpose.

Stories abound of the MoD spending millions on swanky new officers and modern art installations, while servicemen’s barracks are in a dilapidated state and men were going to war with inadequate equipment. OK so its an oft-quoted cliche, but that sort of thing should be anathema to the MoD. The culture of the organisation needs to change – civil servants are there to serve the country (the clue is in the name), and in the MoD, they can best do that by supporting the forces, not treating them as an inconvenience that mucks up their nice neat plans.

The intention with scrapping the old Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry back in the 1960’s was to bring Defence and the armed forces together, kicking and screaming into the modern age. However after the initial forming of the MoD – which was traumatic enough – it seems that no-one had the stomach to push for further reforms. Although there has been a growth of jointery in recent years as the result of cost-cutting, there is still a feeling of the three services always squabbling against each other, and the Treasury happily shafting everyone.

Dr Fox also mentioned the possibility of reforming command structures within the armed forces themselves. If units are to be cut and equipment is going to be scrapped, and even the MoD itself is going to be reformed, it is hard to see how the senior officers can escape. I’ve thought for a while that the armed forces do seem a little top heavy with Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals – isn’t it slightly strange how we have more Admiral’s than major surface warships, for example? While the forces themselves have shrunk since the end of the Cold War, command structures and senior posts have largely remained the same.

The thing is, the heads of the individual services are so disempowered nowadays, as all spending and decision making is made by the MoD and the politicians, that they are effectively just advisors. Operations come directly under the Chief of Defence Staff, through the Permanent Joint Headquarters. Each service also has a Commander-in-Chief just below the overall Chief, so with the expected shrinkage of the forces we might see these two levels of post merge. And how many senior officers do we have who are in posts such as ‘Vice Deputy Chief of Procurement (Shoelaces)?

It might just makes the forces more efficient – less people, less links in the chain, less complicated. The idea of reforming the MoD into three pillars – policy and strategy, armed forces and procurement and estates – does seem to me to be a step forward from what at present is a grossly untidy situation. I know a lot of people will deride these reforms as cuts, and of course they are, but root-and-branch overhaul has to be better than salami slicing.

21 Comments

Filed under defence, News, politics