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A Liberal Democrat View of UK Defence Policy

Commentary, 18 March 2010
Defence Policy, Europe
Ahead of the election Paul Keetch outlines the Liberal Democrat policies on defence

Changing the International Security Environment
Today, the United Kingdom faces a complex array of defence and security challenges. Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War and it is obvious that the world is an unpredictable and perilous place. It is also obvious that the peace dividend we so eagerly sought in the West was an illusion.
With the recent events that have unfolded before us, it is clear that we face new and evolving threats such as global terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the dangers caused by failed and failing states.
At the same time, threats of a more ‘traditional’ nature have not vanished from our radar – and inter and intra-state conflict now exist alongside new destabilizing factors such as environmental crises on a global scale, civil strife and pandemics.
Simply put, the lines between security and defence have blurred, if not in some cases disappeared altogether. Today’s front line stretches from the streets of Baghdad, to the rail lines of Madrid, to cities across our very own land.
And this is having a fundamental impact on how we approach our domestic and continental security, our relations with our closest allies and partners, and on how we protect – and project – our interests and values abroad.

High Operational Pace
The increased volatility of the international security environment has also produced greater demands on British Forces. The statistics are well-known but telling: since the end of the Cold War, the number of operations in which our military has participated has increased three-fold compared to the period between 1945 and 1989. At the same time, British Forces have been called upon here at home on an unprecedented number of occasions over the past decade.

We know this unforeseen demand has had an impact on the men and women of the British Armed Forces and their families.

What is less obvious to the casual observer is the impact it has had on the broader degree of organization: on our ability to train personnel, to provide equipment, and on our capacity to deploy troops domestically and internationally.

Changing Nature of Operations
As we all know, international operations are not only increasing in number but they are also changing in nature.

The days when peacekeeping operations meant deploying static observers along a cease-fire line have, for the most part, passed.

As a nation, we can – and should – be very proud of the role our country played in developing, and putting into practice, this traditional form of peacekeeping.

But equally, as a nation, we must be prepared to play a leadership role in the next generation of peace support and enforcement operations that have become more common over the past decade.

Today's operations are more dangerous and demanding, frequently taking place in regions where tensions are still strong or where there is little peace to keep.

Today's operations are also more complex. In the grey zone between war and peace, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between friend and foe; and new tactics are required to deal with terrorists and suicide bombers, who are increasingly sophisticated.

Our militaries often find themselves working alongside international organizations, humanitarian workers, the media and NGOs, and are often called upon to fulfil a much wider array of responsibilities.

And I am proud to say that, with the experience and skills they've acquired throughout the years, the men and women of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces are better at this than anyone in the world.

NATO and the Common European Defence Policy
Instability in regions such as North Africa, the Caucasus, South-Eastern Europe, the Middle East and beyond can affect stability and security of Europe. Terrorism and international crime pose an increasing security concern. Responding to these threats will require an effective military capability, conflict prevention investment, defence diplomacy policies and enhanced intelligence gathering, with a higher level of inter-state co-ordination.

The Liberal Democrats have long argued that the development of a European Security and Defence Identity would be best served by the institution of a co-ordinated and comprehensive ‘European Defence Review ; a kind of European SDR. Such a review would assess the capacity of EU Forces to fulfil the peace support and other operations required by the Petersberg Tasks incorporated in the Amsterdam Treaty.

In 1999, NATO members agreed to address many of their deficiencies through the Defence Capabilities Initiative (DCI). The following year, the EU at Helsinki agreed on a set of military capability goals which could improve its ability to act. Many of the areas of weakness are common to both the NATO DCI and to the EU Helsinki Headline Goal processes. Progress on the DCI has been disappointing and does not bode well for parallel EU progress.

The Liberal Democrats want to maintain a strong NATO which can address future international security challenges. This will require further support for the transformation process already underway, to generate more deployable, responsive forces. 

The possible development of a Comprehensive Political Guidance currently under discussion at NATO, which aims to build on the strategic concept, presents an important opportunity to secure the future of the organization. Equally, NATO must seek to expand its potential for dialogue on political and security affairs, and to enhance its co-ordination with the European Union, which extends little beyond the Berlin Plus arrangements.

At the same time, European nations must be prepared to take on a fairer share of the security burden, particularly in their own region. Both of these requirements argue strongly for support not only for the immediate Helsinki Headline Goal of a deployable force of up to 60,000 operational personnel from member states but also for longer term approaches to improving European contributions to NATO and the UN.

Improving EU Military Effectiveness
In total, the 25 members of the EU spend some 150 billion euros each year on their military capabilities. While this is around half the US defence budget, it has to meet a much more limited regional range of tasks. Nevertheless, the EU population of 450 million is 40 per cent larger than the USA, and the GDPs of both are virtually the same.

Yet duplication of headquarters, training, research, military hardware and logistics means that overall EU military effectiveness is substantially lower than that which should be expected from such a level of financial investment.

Put simply, we do not get enough bang for our buck. Or as I would like to say, enough bang for our Euro.

The Liberal Democrats believe that the institutions for developing Common Foreign and Security Policy within the EU are still in an early stage of development. But there are a number of areas where sharing or pooling of capabilities could be done without risk, to considerable advantage in effectiveness, but which would not impinge or impair the sovereign power and prerogative of the UK government to determine its foreign policies.

The Liberal Democrats also believe that there is a need for European co-ordination where nations decide to change their force composition. While it may be some years before EU members feel confident enough to go down the route of military role specialization, there is a degree of unco-ordinated specialization by default taking place as nations give up capabilities under resource pressures. EU members should discuss their future defence planning options early enough to achieve a more coherent approach.

The transformation of European security arrangements has begun. Liberal Democrats believe that there is still much to be done. The UK should take a lead in developing proposals for the long term, whilst maintaining a strong UK commitment to NATO, which without doubt remains the foundation of our collective defence.

Restructuring of the Armed Forces
While I have focussed my remarks thus far on Britain's role and contribution internationally, I should like to say a few words about the recently announced restructuring of the Army. 

There is no doubt that to achieve a strong, fast and effective army, capable of fighting simultaneous and diverse operations at distance, reform is required. 

The creation of a new light brigade and, in the Infantry, a reallocation of support personnel from divisional to brigade level, as well the acquisition and development of advanced weaponry and communications systems, are welcome moves towards the achievement of greater force flexibility and capability. 

The creation of a tri-service ranger unit, dedicated to Special Forces will complement these moves, although the precise implications of the plan are at present unclear.      

Liberal Democrats believe that the phasing out of the Infantry Arms Plot system, which involves the geographical and functional rotation of battalions, is also welcome.  In terms of operational deployability, role continuity, career development and, significantly, family stability, the new system will be advantageous.  

The Government has of course also proposed a major reshaping of the regimental system, which will involve the disbanding of four Regular battalions and the amalgamation of six centuries-old regiments of Scotland into one new Scottish regiment. Over 1,500 personnel will be lost; indeed, 400 soldiers from throughout the Army will soon be made redundant – predominantly, as I understand it, those with over 12 years service, many of whom will have served in Iraq.

We believe that these proposals are profoundly unwise. The Scottish regiment reforms will sweep away centuries of tradition and esprit de corps, and could rupture deep-rooted connections between regiments and their communities.  As regards cuts in manpower, the Army is already overstretched, given its very high number of overseas commitments. (The target of 24 month intervals between operational tours is now wishful thinking.) 

As several former Chiefs of Defence Staff have agreed, the changes will leave our Army dangerously small. The scaling down of our presence in Northern Ireland has been used to justify the cuts but the peace there is far from secure; violence is ongoing in Iraq, and more and more countries are withdrawing their troops; Afghanistan remains unstable; and the peace in Kosovo is uncertain. Only last week, we sent 500 extra troops to Kosovo.

Further demands may arise in trouble-spots like Darfur, where the violence is unabated. Indeed, in the context of increasing international interdependency, military support or intervention may be required in a greater number of circumstances in which UK interests are not directly threatened.

The Liberal Democrats believe that overstretch undermines morale, impairs operational effectiveness and reduces response capability. 

This is no time to be making cuts. 

High-tech weaponry and network enabled capability can never replace soldiers on the ground. We must adapt our forces so that they are better able to respond to new and emerging threats to UK and international security, especially from weak and failing states, international terrorism and the proliferation of WMD. 

But this must not be at the expense of manpower. 

As Iraq has demonstrated, future operations, especially peacekeeping, peace-enforcement or reconstruction support roles will be manpower-intensive. 

I say again, Liberal Democrats believe that this is not the time to be making cuts in manpower.

As a priority, the Liberal Democrats believe that we should be supporting our troops, whose dedication and professionalism is, with very few exceptions, respected throughout the world. We need to ensure that they are properly trained, highly motivated and well equipped. 

Equally, Liberal Democrats believe that the issues of job security, pay, pensions, accommodation and family concerns are of fundamental importance if the Army is to improve recruitment and retention rates. 

We all know that our commitments have far exceeded the levels envisaged by the Strategic Defence Review, and our front-line forces are now under-resourced and overstretched. These proposed cuts can only make the situation worse, whilst severely impairing our ability to respond to new or unexpected demands. 

Set against major reductions in the number of Royal Navy warships and massive cuts in the RAF, very serious questions must now be asked about the coherence, wisdom and effectiveness of this Labour Government policy.  

Nuclear Forces

The UK has reduced its nuclear forces to those deployed in four Trident missile submarines. All tactical nuclear weapon systems have been taken out of service including freefall bombs and depth charges. Compared with other nuclear powers, the UK now has fewer operational warheads than the USA, Russia, France and China. It may even have fewer than Israel. The major procurement costs of Trident (£13 billion) have been spent. The basic annual cost of the nuclear force is some £687 million or about 3% of the defence budget.

We live in an unstable world where threats to our security can arise quickly and unpredictably. The technology in the production of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, continues to advance and to proliferate around the globe. Against this background, the Liberal Democrats would retain Britain’s nuclear deterrent until real progress can be made for the multilateral elimination of nuclear weapons.

However, we accept that for nuclear non-proliferation and weapons reduction to be achieved, nuclear armed countries such as Britain, must be willing to participate in any disarmament process. Britain must seek to achieve multinational engagement in this process.

Liberal Democrats believe that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty remains at the heart of nuclear weapons control: without sustained efforts to ensure international adherence to its provision, the Treaty itself could be placed in jeopardy. The Review Conference to take place this May is of enormous importance. 

The Trident system has been designed for a 30-year deployment. A decision on any replacement deterrent system will not have to be made until the end of the decade.

Liberal Democrats remain to be persuaded that any life-extension to the Trident force will be justified. And Liberal Democrats believe that any decision to commit any research or other funding for the preparation of any successor to Trident that may be required must be first approved by Parliament.

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Procurement

The MOD’s recent failures in procurement, for both weapons and equipment, have been deeply regrettable – poor performance, cost-overruns and delays appear to be endemic, as successive hard-hitting select committee reports have testified. Virtually very major project, not currently under contract, has been delayed. 

As many of you already know, the Liberal Democrats have already announced that we would scrap the third tranche of the Eurofighter programme. Not only is the residual Eurofighter programme an extravagant and outdated commitment, but scrapping it could save the UK some £2 billion of defence spending.

The facts are that the order for the second tranche of 236 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft was signed on 14th December 2004 of which 89 are for the UK. Deliveries of this second tranche do not start until 2008. With an 'in service' life of 25 years, with all which that means for servicing, upgrading and general support, this is not about job losses. Given the changes in the strategic environment from when the Eurofighter was first conceived in the 1970s, and the future changes in air defence capabilities, which no one can predict with certainty, and the project’s very high cost, it would be grossly irresponsible for any government not to review the need for the third tranche.

Yesterday in the House of Commons, we asked Geoff Hoon if there would be enough pilots to crew all the Typhoons that he planned to buy – he would not answer us.

Yesterday also, he once again claimed that we would scrap the two new carriers. Let me let you into a little secret – as a boy I wanted to be in the Royal Navy – to fly fast jets off carriers. It was because Denis Healy scrapped CVA01 that I never joined the Navy.

The Carriers are safe with us – we remain committed to building them, and so long as I speak for us on Defence that commitment stays.

Continue to Look After Our People
Regardless of the sophistication of modern military equipment, we will not be able to meet our commitments if we cannot count on quality people. Our people – military and civilian alike – remain our most valuable resource.

They are the best piece of kit in the British Armed Forces.

And ensuring we take care of them is a priority for me and my fellow Liberal Democrats.

It is for this reason that I was personally incensed to hear of the degree of sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and bullying in the RAF earlier this year. It is deeply disturbing that nearly half of all women in the service have experienced sexual harassment.

Other cases, which have been well publicised, raise concerns about the level of bullying and abuse that takes place in the Army. This is, at any level, simply unacceptable. 

As I have mentioned, we believe that fundamental reform of the complaints system is required, which is profoundly inadequate. As complaints are handled within the chain of command, individuals who complain risk jeopardising their career, and often those who consider complaints have an interest in the outcome.

We propose a comprehensive review to consider the establishment of an independent Complaints Commission within the MOD. Military personnel would have the option either to pursue a complaint with their immediate superior or commanding officer within their own units, or to lodge the complaint with the Commission. 

So we welcome that part of the Defence Select Committee report yesterday. But it is also right for an independent element to be included in any future complaints body – for an issue that will not go away. 

A Liberal Democrat Government would institute a full independent enquiry into events at Deepcut Barracks – nothing short will do.

And as for the age of recruiting – yes, 16 and 17 year- olds should not be sent to fight – yes, they should not guard bases with loaded rifles, but to stop them joining the Armed Forces could block our greatest source of recruitment. We would not do it.

Let me be clear, I propose these reforms in the interests of our military. It is in recognition of the contribution, commitment and sacrifice to our country of our servicemen and women that drives me in my role as the Liberal Democrats Shadow Defence Secretary.

 

Iraq
So let me say a word about the dominant issue of this Parliament – Iraq.

With regard to the war itself, our views of course are well known. We took a stand in Parliament against the war. The Conservatives backed Tony Blair.

We believe that Tony Blair took us to war in Iraq on the basis of the supposed threat of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Mere weeks before the war the Prime Minister was still telling Parliament "I detest his regime...but even now, he could save it."

Now, because it has been shown that there were no weapons of mass destruction, the Prime Minister says that the removal of Saddam justifies the war in itself – not what he was saying just before it. And today - if he is so confident of his case - why will he not allow the Attorney General's legal advice to be published, as the Liberal Democrats have consistently demanded?

The Prime Minister wants us to move on - but we cannot until we know the full facts. He should publish - and if necessary be damned.

Of course Britain should honour its legal and moral responsibilities with regard to the situation in Iraq: to maintain stability in the Southern sector, to further train and enhance Iraqi security forces, who should incrementally take on more responsibility, and to support the reconstruction process, and restoration of public services.

But we now need to focus on a proper exit strategy - as we warned at the outset. That should mean adopting the objective of a phased withdrawal of British forces by the expiry of the United Nations mandate at the end of this year.

It was not easy to vote against a Government on the eve of war - and we were roundly criticized for it by some.  One Tory Defence spokesman shouted at me in the House - "You should trust our Prime Minister - he knows what he is talking about". I wonder if that Conservative still believes that now.

But it is precisely on the issue of war and peace that the Opposition should exercise the highest degree of scrutiny of Government policy. As history shows, the role of Parliament at such times is of enormous significance; look at 1940.

So to the future. We believe there is now a balance to be struck in our military expenditure between high tech equipment that is often over budget and behind schedule - and the more mundane personal equipment that troops need on a day to day basis.

I am proud that it was the Liberal Democrats who discovered before the Iraq War that US troops were calling our troops "The Borrowers". That expose led to yet further Urgent Operational Requirement orders being placed - some of them just in time.

I am proud that it was the Liberal Democrats who fought for the rights of individual service men and women - against discrimination and bulling, and for equal rights.

It was the campaign we raged for Anna Homsi, whose partner Brad Tinnion was killed in Sierra Leone, that forced the MoD to change the rules to allow partners to be treated as spouses when our soldiers pay the ultimate price. That change was opposed by the Tories - tell that to the partners of at least a dozen men killed in Iraq, who now benefit from what we did.

And I am proud of the part we played in that tremendous victory for the Gurkhas when they were finally granted citizenship rights. For years, the Government had refused to listen, producing endless excuses as a substitute for action. Never in the history of this Labour Government has a Liberal Democrat policy been adopted so quickly. Only 9 days after this issue was debated at our Party conference, the Prime Minister finally saw sense. But citizenship should not be something that former Gurkhas should have to apply for. It should be granted to them as a right.

As you know, the high operational pace of modern operations and very high level of overseas commitments is placing considerable strain on our men and women in uniform and their families. Our troops must be properly trained, equipped and commanded, but equally, as I have said before, they need – and deserve – proper treatment.

Their welfare is of enormous importance to the Liberal Democrats. Although our Armed Forces have always delivered when called upon, we are committed to doing a better job in balancing operational deployments with family life, rest, training and welfare needs.

Conclusion
I am proud that the Liberal Democrats have placed Defence at the forefront of its agenda. 

I can think of no portfolio whose challenges are of such significance to Britain and the British people, and I recognize the challenges and responsibilities that this job entails. And for that reason, I am proud to be here today.

 

PAUL KEETCH
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After joining the Liberal Party in 1975, Paul Keetch became Chair of Hereford Young Liberals and the West Midlands Young Liberals. Paul won a council election in 1983 in the Holmer ward of Hereford City Council, and at the age of 21 was the youngest person ever to be elected to the council. In the General Election of 1983, Paul was the agent for the Liberal/SDP Alliance candidate in Hereford. When he moved to London for business reasons, Paul began working for Simon Hughes MP and helped Simon’s campaign in Southwark and Bermondsey in the 1987 and 1992 General Elections.

Paul has been called upon to act as an observer in foreign elections, travelling to Albania, Lithuania and Ireland on behalf of organizations such as Electoral Reform International Services. He was selected as the Liberal Democrat PPC for Hereford in October 1993. On entering Parliament in May 1997, Paul was appointed to the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Health Team and had responsibilities for patients’ and community health council issues, dental, ophthalmic and pharmaceutical services and alternative therapies. In September 1997 he switched to being spokesperson for Employment and Training. He held this post until October 1999 when, in Charles Kennedy's first reshuffle, Paul became spokesman for Defence.

 

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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