Changing of the guard: Grant Shapps arrives at 10 Downing Street to be appointed the UK's new defence secretary on 31 August 2023. Image: ZUMA Press / Alamy
With the departure of Ben Wallace as defence secretary, his successor has some considerable boots to fill. As challenges to the UK’s security show no sign of diminishing, what should be at the top of Grant Shapps’s agenda?
Grant Shapps’s appointment as defence secretary comes at a critical time for UK defence. Ben Wallace has left a strong legacy, both in relation to support for Ukraine and in his vision for the future of UK defence. But there remains much to do, and this will require a defence secretary who is relentlessly focused on the national interest.
While some political posturing is inevitable as the next general election draws nearer, maintaining the cross-party consensus on support for Ukraine – which has not been matched in the US, France or Germany – should be one of the new defence secretary’s core objectives.
Over the last two years, with the high rate of turnover in other senior positions, Wallace has ensured continuity in UK Ukraine policy. He knew that influencing Washington sometimes required the UK to differentiate itself from the US. He ensured that the UK promised critical equipment to Ukraine – anti-tank missiles, tanks, long-range missiles – before the US and Germany were willing to do so. The UK also made a massive commitment of cyber security, intelligence and training capabilities in support of Ukraine’s effort to defend its very existence. The UK military, led by Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) Sir Tony Radakin, is – as a result – well-respected and trusted by its Ukrainian counterpart.
But military support is not enough. And, with the US’s own cross-party consensus on Ukraine fracturing, the UK's political leadership in NATO will become even more important. It is not clear who will lead this effort after Wallace’s departure. Rishi Sunak does not come across as a leader who gives a high priority to foreign and defence policy. His decision not to attend the UN General Assembly – an important opportunity for Ukraine-related diplomacy – is revealing in this regard. The tendency for governments to look inwards as elections approach – responding to the lack of public interest in foreign affairs – could intensify this trend.
The new defence secretary has a key role in defence diplomacy more broadly. The UK’s position as an active middle military power gives it considerable influence. But this rests on its ability to work closely with key partners, in Europe and elsewhere. Much personal effort is needed to get this right, fostering relationships through joint procurement and training, and using defence relations to promote broader political and economic partnerships.
The new defence secretary will need to be remorseless in keeping the Department focused on his strategic priorities, making difficult – and at times unpopular – calls
Inevitably, the next year will see a succession of new security crises in Africa, the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere. When these occur, questions will be raised as to what contribution the UK should make to any international response. The CDS can provide advice to the National Security Council on what military options are available. But it will be up to the political leaders to decide where the UK's interests lie, and to take responsibility for the consequences of action – or inaction.
Strong and clear political leadership will also be key in driving forward the transformation of the armed forces. This means investing in those capabilities – such as replenished munition stocks – that are needed to be ready to fight now, while also preparing for the 2030s. It means providing political support for those driving innovative new capabilities, even when these threaten existing platforms or deep-rooted service cultures.
None of this can be managed on political autopilot. The new defence secretary will need to be remorseless in keeping the Department focused on his strategic priorities, making difficult – and at times unpopular – calls. Most of all, this means keeping a grip on the forward defence programme. As Shapps knows only too well from his three years as transport secretary, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is not unique in having problems in delivering large and complex capital programmes on time and within budget.
Ben Wallace was resistant to making multiple new commitments which the MoD could not fund, as was the experience after the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. But he was greatly helped in this regard by his success in convincing former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak, to approve a 56% increase in capital spending between 2019/20 and 2023/24. Such an increase is not going to be repeated any time soon, and the MoD must now plan – at least until after the election – on the basis that the approved budget is all that it is going to get.
The new defence secretary will need to pay just as much attention to personnel as he does to kit. The increase in capital spending has been funded, in part, by real-terms cuts in day-to-day spending, including on armed forces pay. But the steep reductions in inflation-adjusted military pay levels since 2010, together with the continuing problems with service housing, have made it more difficult to recruit and retain service personnel.
The new defence secretary has an opportunity to drive forward the Defence Command Paper Refresh commitment to a radically new employment offer for the armed forces
Towards the end of his time in office, and in response to these problems, Wallace persuaded the Treasury to shift £500 million from the capital budget to pay for the 2023 Armed Forces Pay Review Body’s recommendations. More is likely to be needed to finance the 2024 pay review round, which will report only months before the next election.
But more money is not enough. The new defence secretary also has an opportunity to drive forward the Defence Command Paper Refresh commitment to a radically new employment offer for the armed forces, creating the new career opportunities that will be needed to attract the very best of UK talent to the defence workforce.
With the next general election no more than 16 months away, Shapps is unlikely to surpass Wallace’s record as the longest-serving Conservative defence secretary. But he can use his time in this role – likely the summit of his career – to make a real difference at a critical moment for the UK's defences.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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