Rules for Modernising UK Defence: Enough of the Negativity

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A briefing ahead of the Modernising Defence Programme's publication, offering a parliamentarian's perspective on what is needed for UK defence and how to go about achieving it.

The Speech

Thank you also to RUSI – to Peter and all the others here who have facilitated this event today. 

I have, over the last week, thought at length over what I was going to say today. I am enormously grateful to be given the chance by RUSI to speak in detail on the Rules for Defence in 2018. I find the nature of speeches in the House rather confrontational – which is fine when discussing the clear political differences of the day. But I do not see Defence as a wholly political issue in the same sense. There are some terrific politicians from both sides of the aisle who have done much to try and shift the dial on Military matters in that place, and I and many others are grateful to them.

I think most would agree with me that politicians talk a good game on Defence. It is a clear advantage for any politician to speak in very deliberate and well-meaning tones about those who protect the freedoms and privileges that we enjoy. Britain in my experiences is rightly proud of our Armed Forces – we have not suffered the sort of generational and societal shame some of our Allies have faced after periods of unpopular conflicts – such as the United States Vietnam generation. Although I must confess to being uncomfortable with the general ‘heroic’ status afforded to all who have served in recent years – I understand it; I understand why it exists, and I understand the benefits of this culture – even if I don’t necessarily agree with it. 

I do think it can go too far. I often feel a little less sympathy, and a little more empathy would go a long way. We as a modern veterans community have not always helped ourselves – I accept that. I spoke recently of the culture of victimhood that pervades modern society, and how we veterans do not need to join those ranks. 

But yes, on the whole, politicians talk a good game when it comes to the UK’s Armed Forces. What we have suffered from tremendously over the last fifteen to twenty years – even further back, is that when that comes to doing more than that – actually proving that people are indeed our finest asset through policy; actually showing that as a Minister or a Chief of the Defence Staff – we are not content to simply manage ever-reducing empires and instead take the brave and contemporary decisions required to resource our ambition correctly – we seem to have fallen tragically short. 

And I say tragically for good reason. Because I am afraid I come from that cohort, who was asked to fight through a lot of this policy and the consequences of it are burned into my generation’s consciences. The desire to over-commit and under-resource has fundamentally changed what the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces are all about in the eyes of both our adversaries and our allies, and our standing internationally is no doubt the poorer for it. 

The situation we see granulating before our eyes in UK Defence over the last few weeks is not a result of one of a single placeholder in either Number 10 or in the Ministry of Defence over the last couple of decades. 

It has arrived as a culture; a culture of our Government’s relationship with her Military that is starting to become deeply uncomfortable for me. 

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were defined by under-resourcing. The week before last I invited Des Feely in to the House of Commons to watch Prime Minister’s Questions. On Father’s day that week it was the ten-year anniversary of the death of his only daughter, and I wanted him to meet the Prime Minister – he had never met any Prime Minister or Secretary of State for Defence before. 

Sarah Bryant, a Corporal in the Intelligence Corps died alongside three members of the Special Air Service. She took the full force of an Improvised Explosive device that detonated under her Snatch Land-Rover, and could only be identified by her DNA. That was all that was left of her for Des to bury. 

This was 2008 - the debate about Snatch had raged for years; coroners had castigated the MoD for equipment shortages and delays that were directly responsible for losing lives. Speak to Des about how under-resourcing is just an abstract problem – the ‘doing more with less’ that every politician talks about. Speak to Des how it gets easier with the passing years, and he will laugh at your naivety.

And this is the problem with Defence. There is nothing abstract in its results. This country’s finest, the true patriots, those who believe so much in this country that they aren’t prepared to go on a march for their rights or make a speech standing up for their country – both worthy endeavours – but they are actually prepared to go and sacrifice everything for the cause. 

They are an example to all of us who consider ourselves true patriots, especially hose of us who wrestle with what it means to be British in 2018 following an inevitable BREXIT that is clearly redefining this Country. They are the true patriots and we should take them as our examples. This country only exists because generations of young men and women are prepared to sign up and fight for it. 

I am not the first to say this, Pericles in 450BC said of those who fight: “Take these men for your example. Like them, remember that prosperity can only be for the free, that freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.” 

There is no other public service like it, and it’s time the Government that they serve – of whatever colour or flavour – fully and truthfully recognised this fact. 

I remain comfortable that there is no better career on offer to the young people of this country today – or indeed not so young people, with the advent of new domains such as Cyber – than joining one of our three remaining great National institutions – the British Army, the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force. But there can be no doubt that the offer we make as a civilian Government in exchange for Military service to the Nation has changed significantly, and is perhaps worsening now at a faster rate than it ever has done before.

I do think that within today’s Military there is a general understanding that was not there fifteen or twenty years ago about why we must maintain the offer to our young men and women of Service life, about what makes them serve, about what makes them fight. 

The idea that the standards of family accommodation or the ability to conduct adventurous training leads to a happy, motivated workforce, or indeed how you will be looked after should you become injured in body or mind, that any of these ‘softer’ concepts would have no effect on your chances of success on operations? I am content that idea has been cast into the dustbin of history within the Military. 

It is however not the case outside the Military. I remember reading a tweet last year from a prominent Defence journalist something along the lines of “If I was the British Army I wouldn’t be tweeting about soldiers having a great time doing adventure training in Bavaria”. 

And it is not the case in Government either. The process ushering through prosecutions of our servicemen and women, as is currently happening, is simply intolerable. Presenting such an inarguable case last February to the previous Defence Secretary of the moral failure of the Iraq Historical Allegations Team, that it had to be shut down pretty much overnight, is one of the very few things of which I am proud of during my time to date in Parliament. 

I therefore cannot adequately express how angry I am with this current Government’s inability to seize that exposure as an opportunity to grip this utter betrayal of those who agreed to defend our Government’s interest’s or political decisions. I do think David Cameron got this. I do think, to a lesser extent, Michael Fallon got this. I do not think any of the current place-holders genuinely get the outrageous moral failure of this process, enough anyway to move beyond words and actually do something about it in short order. I look forward to being proved wrong. 

So the current debate on Defence Spending is extremely important for me and hundreds of thousands of other people across this country in the wider Defence community. Many are working hard to put together a credible case of why the simple concept of increasing threats must in some shape or form lead to increasing resources for an already dangerously under-funded military. 

But the cacophony of newspaper beadlines, blackmail and bullying around Defence Spending is in danger of pushing an extremely serious subject into the absurd. To state that a lie has been propagated on the British people in the form of the SDSR in 2015 is simply not credible, particularly from individuals intimately involved in the process who were in a direct position to speak out at the time. Was it ambitious? Yes. Dangerously over-ambitious? Perhaps. But to suggest it was a lie – by extension a deliberate act – is I am afraid absurd and a disservice to those involved in it. 

We have undoubtedly not met the commitments laid out in that review. The detail of it is that almost none of the ‘efficiencies’ have been truly realised – these were the investments that were supposed to signal a bright future as part of things like Army 2020 and the Better Defence Estates strategy. But the cash has not been forthcoming and, to put it simply, whilst set on a course to realise some of the exciting changes in that review, we have simply run out of money. That is the honest view of what has happened; it was not a lie. 

This presents a huge challenge politically. One that we see being played out almost daily in the run into the NATO Summit next week and the results of the Modernising Defence Review. And so we are where we are today, and like many of you, like many of our Allies at the NATO summit next week who rely on us, I am looking forward to the results. 

But what do we actually want to see? 

Let me be absolutely clear from the start. This is about our Country, about our National Interest. What is nowhere near to being in our National Interest is a change of Prime Minister at this time. The way some of this has been played out in the public domain has been entirely misinformed, dangerously undermining of any logical and opinion forming strategy that could win support for more funding across Government, and frankly, at times, I’ve been embarrassed. 

This serious debate needs to be had by serious people making serious contributions to a serious matter. The way it has been infantalised is self-defeating. The Military prides itself on its values – most particularly those of loyalty, discipline and selfless endeavour. This must be reflected at all times in civilian control of the Military. 

Let’s deal with this Tier one argument that I rather unhelpfully contributed to last week in Prime Minister’s Questions: it is an almost uniquely useless way of measuring this country’s Military capability. I only asked the Prime Minister that question last week because I thought she was going to answer in the affirmative and put this issue to bed. For what would that have committed her to in reality? Well, nobody really knows. 

I can offer a starter for ten: a Tier One Military Nation has a full spectrum of military capabilities, including an independent nuclear deterrent and a navy, army and air force capable of being deployed anywhere in the world, having enough capability to remain a credible P5 nation, and able to demonstrate leadership in all domains. 

But the truth is it is an almost pointless debate. It is either an official term with an official meaning or it is not. At the moment, it is not. Therefore of course we are a Tier One military Nation if this fixation is going to continue, and the last time I spoke to the Prime Minister she had absolutely no intention whatsoever of changing this within these broad terms. 

But the criticism of her questioning of this term led to a chorus of commentary last week that in my view was entirely wrong, and again extremely revealing for me. I won’t comment on how this subject arrived in the media from a private meeting between her, the Chancellor and the Defence Secretary. Safe to say, it was not as it has been presented. She was entirely correct and entirely proper to ask what this term actually means, whether or not it was an appropriate metric to measure our capabilities by, and ask the MoD to do a little more work in that area. 

But the reaction was indicative; indicative of a debate fixed on terms it does not really understand, with a firm handle on history and not enough focus on the future. 

And this to be honest is the nub of the problem. The ability, and the desire to embrace change. Again this weekend there were graphs in the newspapers being used to demonstrate military decline in this country purely based on numbers. We have fewer ships so we must be less of a Navy. We have fewer members of the Army so we must be weaker as a result.

This idea, that the advancement of technology can reduce human involvement whilst simultaneously massively increasing capability – that you can actually do more with less, has been embraced in every other sector in this Country except Defence. Yes, we had many more ships when the Falklands happened, but have you spoken to anyone who worked on them? There was more rust than paint on some of them; half the guns didn’t work; those that did humped unguided shells of high explosive in the general direction of the enemy. 

These were very important at the time – they saved lives and won the conflict – the people operating them were true heroes fighting in a bloody and difficult campaign. But please don’t equate them to the firepower or strategic influence of one of our Type 23’s, yet alone the new Type 26’s that the Ministerial Defence team I’m sure are about to announce will be base-ported as a whole in the great City of Plymouth.  

We have lost the ability to advocate in politics – this skill of bringing people with us, of winning an argument and defining a vision. Are the British public aware that just one of the much-maligned new F-35 Lightening aircraft will be able to do more than what would have required an entire air package of aircraft just twelve years ago – when I first served in Afghanistan? Of course they are not. Are they aware of the strategic reach of our Special Forces, or the multiple deployments into chaotic countries around the globe of our brilliant Specialist Infantry Battalions having a longer lasting - more positive effect greater than any ground-dominating, short and un-committed deployment the likes of which we have seen in Libya? 

Do the British People in cities like Plymouth recognise the opportunites afforded by changing our Amphibious Capabilities into Littoral Strike Groups that would be a truly modern, effective and exciting capability that this Country does not currently posess? I can tell you the answer because unfortunately for them I have knocked on most of their doors – and they don’t. There has been no vision sold, just more and more reductions in Defence or at least threats of reductions in their communities. And they are fed up of it. 

The Better Defence Estates review is the latest – a huge programme announced by the Government in 2016 looking at rebasing thousands of Service families that I have tried to seek clarity on from the MOD, but which if I was being kind I would say no-one knew anything about it. If I was being honest I would say they didn’t really care about the impact this was having on many of our service familes, where they lived, or what school their children might attend. “Our people are our finest asset” they say? Then I say “prove it”. 

And the trouble with all this unnecessary negativity brought on by a lack of effort to engage, to advocate, to bring the British People with us, to get things right as we try and meet the threats against this country in 2018, is that it creates a huge gap between reality and rhetoric, and muddies the water as to what we actually need more resources in Defence for. 

We possess as a Nation world-class capabilities – to pretend otherwise is delusional. But we have to have an educated, honest and forward-looking debate unhindered by an eye on the past. 

We simply must embrace reform in a much more positive manner. The recuiting vieo furore last year is another prime example. If we are going to criticise the military for not being truly representative of the society from which they are drawn – specifically on the levels of those from a BME background, or women – let them get on with what they need to do to correct that. You can’t credibly ask the Military to conduct evidence based recruiting – focus on key areas of under-recuitment or why too many young people leave too early, and then hammer them relentlessly for doing just that because we don’t like the outcome, or the recruiting wasn’t to our personal tastes. 

So here we go – I have three key rules for UK Defence in 2018 if we are to truly meet the hugely challenging catalogue of threats out there to the United Kingdom today, and ultimately get to where we all want to be – a sensibly funded, sensibly equipped, seriously capable and ‘winning’ (as CGS defined it last week from this very lectern) United Kingdom’s Armed Forces. 

Firstly is honesty. Honesty with our people, and integrity in the process of arguing for more. The Military must be honest with the Government about itself. Defence is an inherently inefficient organisation – contingency planning is by its very nature inefficient. Does this mean we ignore blatant inefficiencies across the Services, of course not, but it does not also propagate the myths of efficiencies that simply cannot be made, such as within SDSR 2015. 

For the great and proud military supporter in this country – in the media, in the establishment, in our retired veteran community – the honesty applies here as much as anywhere. We know in our hearts that equipment and capabilities are now far superior than they have ever been before. We also know they require fewer people, and must be paid for somehow, and the Military should not just be a jobs club for people it doesn’t need. This honesty is vital in this process – politicans (and you’ll be shocked here) Politicians are fickle beasts. If you scream outrage at any proposed changes to the Military they will react accordingly and promise foolish things! 

To scream against a changing tide anyway is pointless. Defence is changing; the threat is changing; we must change. We must never go too far; there is an argument that mass has a quality all of its own; that we will never lose the need for the man with the bayonet or the pilot in the machine – these are as true as they ever have been – that is the nature of warfare, it is a uniquely human endeavour. But to not give an inch on numbers or mass is self-defeating. 138 F35s that are going to bankrupt us and we can’t afford ot maintain, or 60-70 that we can keep at high readiness and actually use? A much more capable, better equipped Army of say 60-70,000 where we treat, house, look after them properly that are far more capable with better equipment? We need to have those conversations. 

Finally, on honesty, I shouldn’t have to say this but I will – the Government must be honest too. It is not credible to state that our people in Defence are our finest asset and then treat them in the way that we currently do. These Defence reductions since 2010 have been a challenge for our commanders, and a challenge for our Ministers – I accept that. But they have not been simply “a challenge” for most of our Servicemen and Women. They have seen their quality of life dramatically change in recent times. It is their families that are asked to live in sub-standard accommodation. It is their families who are asked to be separated for far longer than they need to be to meet the commitments rotation from the MoD; it is their children who experience the uncertainty of a Better Defence Estates Strategy that is increasingly becoming a work of fiction. 

A Prime Minister must be aware it is simply not credible to shower adulation on our Armed Forces from the despatch box or the lectern outside No.10, and usher through the Iraq Historical Allegations Team. If we are truly about our people – if we truly accept that our wars are fought and won by our junior commanders and officers, if we truly accept that without their deep and lasting commitment to the flag we are nothing, this has to change, and this change cannot come soon enough. 

Honesty and integrity are where it starts – on all sides. And from that platform of honesty we can start to credibly meet the huge challenges Britian faces in 2018. Not involving the Royal Family; not threatening to topple the Prime Minister; but carefully and logically encouraging the Government to meet the challenges of the day, primarily of course the Defence of our nation and its people, without which we won’t have any other Government functions to worry about anyway.  

Yes the threats are multiplying and diversifying – we are genuinely facing a more dangerous world than we were three years ago. If we are to develop capabilities to meet these threats whilst not running down others, we must have more resource in Defence at this time – it is plain and simple; let’s not pretend any other outcome from this Government woud be credible at this moment in our history than to put more money into Defence. 

My second rule is a relentless embrace of change. People misunderstand this; it is not the denying of traditions and qualities upon which our history has been built. Quite the reverse, some of our proudest achievements as an Armed Forces Community have been borne out of change: the Royal Air Force 100 years ago this year; the Commandos in World War 2; the ability to finally protect the mobility of our troops in Afghanistan fundamentally changed what we could accomplish there. Having been blown up three times myself in roadside bombs, I have a personal vested interest in this area. I would not be here today if we didn’t accept our procurement had not worked and bought vehicles like the MASTIFF off-the-shelf. I also accept that some people perhaps wish that I were not!

My third rule concerns negativity; I want to see an end to it. Morale in the Armed Forces is created and maintained in many different ways. Yes, the vast majority of the responsibility lies internally within the Department, of course it does. But to ignore the effect of a relentless negativity from outside of the Military is naïve. Some of it is absolutely well placed, once again the historical allegations issue; the equipment in the 2000’s that we were being asked to fight with, that negativity actually brought about positive change. But a relentless negativity about all matters concerning UK MoD is not helpful. I am one of the MoD’s most notorious critics; not so long ago I mentioned that symptoms like the Iraq Historical Allegations Team represented a ‘rotten core’ within the MoD that had been there too long. 

But my criticism is targeted. It is not an area weapon. I can still go to any city in this Country, look any eighteen-year-old in the eye and tell them that joining the Military is still the single best thing you can do as a young person in Britain today. The offer has declined, but the basics are still there. 

And that is why I intervene now because I worry that those basics are changing. I worry we are in danger of going too far; that the chasm between the Military and their political masters, and by extension the country, my country, is becoming too wide. 

My final points today are for the Government. I want to be very clear. Fail to fund existing commitments off the back of SDSR 2015, which was sensible and realistic in ambition but requires money to meet the over ambitious part of it, i.e. the efficiency savings in the first three years, and you are failing in your inherent responsibility that all of your predecessors ultimately – in the end – grasped: that whilst honest questions, rigorous questions, about Defence reform are absolutely critical today more than ever, ultimately if you want a world-class Military for a Global Britain, you have to pay for it. It really is that simple. 

If you have no confidence that what you are being told on Defence is correct or balanced, then seek help elsewhere. From the other side of the fence I can entirely see that military advice is sometimes confusing, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes baffling; how can only 10% of the military’s troops be available for action at any one time? Then get better advice. There are enough people in Defence and this country as a whole who have learnt enough painful and bloody lessons over the last twenty years that will give you honest advice. Those of us who fought through the policy in sweat and blood in places like Afghanistan have as deeply a held scepticism of our own seniors in uniform, as anyone else does. 

A defence of “that’s what the Generals told me” is old and thin, and ultimately not good enough. You are the Prime Minister; you are the Defence Secretary. If you employ Special Advisers with no specialist advice to dispense, or Generals more focussed on leaving the difficult decisions and conversations to the next man in his shoes, it is your show. It is your personal responsibility; it will reflect on you, and so it should. Remember Des Feely and Cpl Sarah Bryant.

The Modernising Defence Review must be embraced – it is the Military’s efforts to keep you safe and you in power – see it as a friendly voice, a fundamental part of your work and not a commitment that needs to be managed. Find the money to make it work – it can be done, it just requires difficult choices and honest, honest conversations with the British people and our parliamentary colleagues.

And in all this remember what really matters. No matter your office, no matter your standing; no matter what is written about your future, no matter your personal ambition. We are all temporary here. 

The ‘arc of human progress’, as Obama put it, will carry on regardless. You get a finite period of time where you can bend that arc. Defence was here before you, and Defence will be here after you. What are you going to do with your influence? What is the mark you are going to leave on your great office of state when you move on? To fail now will have a permanent effect on that epitomy of human endeavour in this country – our Military. You can choose in the next few days and weeks what effect you will have. Will you embrace the Modernising Defence Review, or will you see it as a Government ‘outgoing’ that needs to be managed? 

We stand at a pivotal crossroads. I return to my first rule – honesty. The people of this country are not stupid; on the contrary they are sensible, thoughtful, committed to Defence and will genuinely listen to an argument honestly made. A serious and far wider problem in this country is honesty from politicians to the people who elected us, strategic honesty about what is and isn’t possible, what can or cannot be done without paying significantly more – I’m not going to go into all of that today. 

But all contributing to this debate must bring people with you; politics is not an individual sport – no-one ever achieved anything worthwhile in life on their own. I do not accept we cannot solve this challenge of funding and forming a modern UK Defence. Generations before us have managed to; I look forward to us matching them. This Nation and defending it will outlast us all. We have a duty to get it right, and I hope my comments today are taken in the spirit in which they are intended. 

Thank you very much.


Johnny Mercer MP entered the House of Commons after winning what was considered the most unlikely of seats for the Conservative Party, in his home city of Plymouth. Johnny served in the UK Armed Forces from 2002 through to 2014. He was a Joint Fires specialist, leading small teams on the ground directing the terminal control of all indirect weapons systems in combat.

Johnny served in Afghanistan in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010, experience some of the heaviest fighting of the campaign. He worked on tactical ground-holding, as well as strategic man-hunting for a variety of specialist units. His profound disquiet with how the UK treats her Armed Forces personnel propelled him to resigning his commission and seeking election to public office in 2014. Johnny's book on his time in service, We Were Warriors, was published in 2017 and entered the Sunday Times Best Seller list.

Johnny has, since being in Parliament, stamped his mark on a number of issues: the Defence Select Committee; the Health Select Committee; and a number of campaigns but perhaps most notably his relentless pursuit of the Iraq Historical Allegations Team resulting in their closure in February 2016.

Johnny lives on the moor near Plymouth, with his wife Felicity and their two children.

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