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Soames: A Conservative Party view of UK defence policy

Speech at the RUSI

I am very pleased to have this opportunity of speaking at RUSI.

It is impossible to start any speech on defence without paying the warmest tribute to our servicemen and women and also to their families of whom so much is asked a today and who keep the homefires burning.

Today's servicemen and women, like their forebears, have a reputation for excellence that is unrivalled throughout the world.

The Armed Forces have never let Britain down. In the last few years, quite apart from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have quite literally saved Sierra Leone from certain self-destruction; they helped to secure peace and good order in East Timor; and they brought freedom to Kosovo.

At home they bailed out the Government from its endless incompetence in dealing with foot and mouth and the fire strikes.

But quite apart from the national importance of defence, it is, of course, a massive enterprise.

We assess there to be:

• A Defence Constituency of around a million people;

• There are about 450,000 regular personnel and dependants;

• A Regular Reserve of 50,000;

• A Volunteer reserve of 50,000; there are 130,000 cadets;

• The MoD is one of the largest landowners in the UK;

• The services are the largest training organisation in Europe;

• They are the largest consumer of UK industry;

• They recruit from and return to the community 30,000 people each year.

Defence is a truly enormous undertaking and needs to be treated as such.

The post-Cold War shift from traditional threats of conflict among states to local, regional and internal conflicts plagued the 1990s. However although different from Cold War security issues, these conflicts were variants of traditional wars waged by conventional methods.

Today's threats and the threats to come are indeed different.

For as we have seen over the last few years, the nature of the 21st century threat is not nearly as clear. Geographic distance today grants no protection to our country. The threat is indeed global in extent … organised in nature … directed straight at us and manifesting sustained capability.

Globalization has created new opportunities but also serious vulnerabilities that failing and failed states as well as non state actors could and will exploit.

Indeed the most serious current security threats today stem from problems that defy borders. September the 11th provided a warning of future dangers.

Thus today, more than ever, it is vital that we ensure that our Armed Forces, the main pillar of our nation's security and defence, are properly equipped, properly trained and thoroughly sustained in every way.

I regret to say that this Government, in our judgement, has failed and continues to fail our Armed Forces in almost every significant respect.

There has never been a period in the modern history of the MoD when the department has been so frequently and bitterly criticised in the House of Commons; by the Labour dominated Defence Select Committee and by the National Audit Office in such harsh and authoritative terms :

• Report after report has laid bare the serious mistakes in procurement;

• Of the reduction of personnel;

• Of the abysmal and unforgivable failure to adequately equip our Armed Forces for operations in Iraq;

• Of the availability of desert clothing and boots during combat operations in Iraq,

• Of the unbelievable and unforgivable lack of chemical and NBC protection equipment in the face of a clear threat;

• Of the lack of a coherent plan for post conflict Iraq with all its attendant consequences.

• Of the shortfall in battlefield helicopter lift capability

• And most recently over further emerging capability gaps and the whole question of the Duty of Care.

The list is endless, it is shameful and it represents a picture of the unacceptable management of defence.

With all the operations that the Armed Forces are undertaking, with all the deployments required of them, they are today significantly and severely undermanned, severely overstretched, and in some areas inadequately equipped for the task they face.

But despite all the Government's failings, on every occasion our truly exceptional troops at all ranks and in all three services have managed to bridge the gap between this Government's wishful thinking and the realities on the ground.

And there are profound and proper concerns:

• The capability gap is clearly getting wider;

• The cuts are becoming more damaging to effectiveness, to critical mass, and to service activity.

• The procurement programme is genuinely in crisis.

With the last of the Sea Harriers taken out of service soon, the Royal Navy will have no close air defence until 2015; the Joint Strike Fighter is now two years behind schedule and shows every likelihood of being even later. The Type 45 destroyers do not enter service until late 2009.

Incidentally, by that time we will have only five attack submarines - half the number that we have now.

The early withdrawal of the RAF Jaguars by 2007 will also leave a capability gap before Typhoon enters full operational service at the end of the decade.

And now at a time of increased threat the Government plans to further cut our already overstretched and undermanned Armed Forces:

They plan to take four front-line infantry battalions out of the line at time when they have never been busier. These men are urgently required for operations.

They are taking six warships from the Royal Navy, when there are already fewer ships of the line than the Task force we sent to the Falklands. The Government seem to have forgotten that Britain is still a maritime power with substantial global trading and strategic interests and a declared need to be able to project power and influence.

They also plan to cut aircraft and manpower from an already depleted RAF.

This government's record on defence procurement is lamentable. The sums wasted on cost overruns are staggering;

Despite the launch of the Smart Procurement initiative in July 1998 under the mantra of 'faster, cheaper, better', there has been little evidence of success.

Ministers claimed that Smart Acquisition would save £2 billion from the equipment programme in the ten year period 1998 to 2008. After seven years, the evidence of these alleged improvements is yet to be produced.

The National Audit Office's Major Project Report 2004 was devastating in its criticism, finding that the Ministry of Defence's 20 largest projects recorded a further £1.7 billion cost increase over the previous year and were delayed by another five years.

We agree with the Defence Committee's damning verdict that "…our armed forces have been let down by the organisation tasked with equipping them".

At the same time the MoD remains a cumbersome labyrinth, with too many non operational headquarters; an incompatible and incorrect balance between a vast bureaucracy and a depleted front line, and the abiding impression that it is a department lacking in agility.

An incoming Conservative government plans to get to grips with the management of defence, and do more to ensure that the Government is better coordinated to deal more coherently with military, industrial, social and economic issues.

We will merge the Defence Procurement Agency and the procurement elements of the Defence Logistics Organisation. Only by making sure that those procuring equipment are also responsible for the costs of maintaining it can whole-life costs be managed effectively. The remaining elements of the DLO will form the basis of a defence logistics command, focused on supporting deployed forces.

We will instigate the process to undertake a Quadrennial Defence Review covering goals, tasks, methods and resources of the Armed Forces, in other words an outlook, output and capability based review every four years, to make sure we are on the right path and to encourage continuous and better new thinking.

There has been a great deal of misinformation from the Labour Party about Conservative defence expenditure plans and I am grateful for this opportunity to put the record straight. My party is committed to spending £2.7 billion in cash more than the present government on frontline defence.

The James Review has identified an additional £1.6 billion of efficiency savings over and above those identified in the Gershon Review and the Shadow Chancellor has agreed to reallocate a further £1.1 billion to defence from James Review savings in other departments.

I recognise the James target is an extremely challenging one and the MoD has indeed laboured under continuing efficiency initiatives since the end of the Cold War so I am pleased to confirm that an incoming Conservative government has no plans for further departmental-wide efficiency exercises once the James Review concludes in 2007/08.

Our increases in frontline spending will see to it that our forces are better equipped, better trained, and better protected and will thus help with recruitment, retention and morale.

Shamefully, under this Government too many of our servicemen and women now feel taken for granted and undervalued.

To that end we shall resolutely oppose any cuts in Infantry numbers - we cannot support the reduction of the size of the Army and in particular the number of infantrymen, who are the very people we need for current and future operations.

We do agree that there is a need for our Armed Forces to be more usable.

We accept that the Arms Plot is disruptive to families and to the operational needs of the Army and we approve of the big basing concept.

But we cannot accept further cuts in infantry numbers and we will therefore reverse the decision to cut the regiments.

We shall retain 3 out of the 6 RN frigates marked for disposal and thus ensure and thus better ensure that the Royal Navy is able to carry out its onerous and demanding duties far from our shores.

Since the Strategic Defence Review our Armed Forces have effectively been conducting continual concurrent operations, deploying further afield, to more places, more frequently and with a greater variety of missions than was ever assumed.

We still have our obligations in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and Cyprus. And the Government's own White Paper anticipates that around the world these obligations will increase.

Even as we speak our soldiers on operations in Iraq, where they are expected to remain for some time. We may well need to increase our commitment to Afghanistan and possibly elsewhere.

To meet some of these burdens since 1999 approximately 30% of the TA have been mobilised to support the regular Army on operations overseas. But the Volunteer Reserve Forces who have incidentally covered themselves in glory are not an infinite resource and cannot be treated as such.

There is therefore a serious military case for more infantry, not less. We will expand the TA where we can and where it is deemed to be most effective and we will vigorously support and encourage the Cadets.

As the CGS recently said "I would much prefer increasing the size of the Army but that's simply not on offer.

Indeed, what on Earth has happened since 1998 to convince this highly interventionist Government not only to reverse the SDR plans but to introduce further cuts? Has the threat decreased since then? Are our Armed Forces experiencing a smaller and less frequent range of operational demands than they did in the 1990s? Has the average interval of 24 months between tours for the infantry been achieved?

We shall continue with our commitment to the nuclear deterrent

We shall review military law as it applies to military operations, and the conduct of soldiers on operations short of war. When soldiers are undertaking these kinds of operations we must ensure that the legal position recognises the operational realities on the ground.

The forthcoming Tri-Service Armed Forces Discipline Bill represents an opportunity for corrective action which must not be missed.

We shall restore a dangerously depleted training programme across the three services and reinstate service activity.

We will introduce a Service's Families Charter and we will also investigate the possibility of establishing, in partnership with the private sector the creation of an armed forces housing trust to give further stability and opportunity to hard working service families.

We will vigorously support the development of our defence industry and our extremely successful scientific base. The defence industry has given us a great degree of independence, sovereignty, technical expertise and huge wealth creation. We must not let it decline.

In the light of the very unfortunate events at Deepcut and of the Defence Committee report, I want to say a few words about training and discipline which, I hope, will give a hint of the whole direction of our thinking on defence matters and our determination above all to put the Armed Forces first.

It is not an idle boast that the British Armed forces are man for man the best fighting force in the world. In the Falklands, in the Gulf and most recently in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq both their enemies and their allies have been profoundly impressed at their determination, their courage and their professionalism. The question is, why they are so good?

The answer is simple and not, I suspect, well understood much outside the Armed Forces. In no other Army in the world can a soldier depend on the men around him in the way they can in the British Army. From Waterloo to El Alamein, from Goose Green to the Euphrates, from Kosovo to Basra, British servicemen and women in all the three services have proved their worth time and again in the most difficult and dangerous of circumstances.

It is therefore a matter of the first importance that the system that produces the young men and women of this calibre must not be altered in such a way that it will produce pale imitations of what is required.

By all means take longer to produce the finished article but don't interfere with the material … Of course the training must be humane and be seen to be fair. I know that the Services take their obligations in this regard very seriously. It is therefore all the more shocking and indeed unforgivable when it goes wrong and the services need take all necessary steps to prevent such failings in the future.

But Ministers must not drag the Armed forces into being a mirror image of the society they serve. For the services have a totally different ethos: one of discipline and service, and Ministers must realise that however disagreeable it may be to contemplate, the whole essence of military training is to prepare soldiers to fight in a bloody, frightening and exhausting war.

Servicemen and women may need to call on all their reserves of physical and mental stamina.

They therefore require intense and rigorous training and discipline.

Some will not be able to take it and will leave - that has always happened. And it always will happen but amongst those who remain will be those who will be able to cope with the exceptional demands of modern combat.

We truly believe that the Armed Forces desperately need a Government that understands that health and safety regulations should never be elevated over combat readiness; a Government that understands the importance of primacy and essential nature of military discipline and the chain of command; and a Government that puts the frontline first.

For the serviceman and woman of today, the fundamental character and nature of war and all that they have to train for will remain unchanged.

These young men and women may have to take part in a terrifying contest of wills, which inevitably can lead to death, terror, bloodshed and destruction.

For the servicemen of today, and tomorrow, as for their formidable forebears, warfare will continue to represent the ultimate physical and mental challenge.

They will encounter a combination of extreme danger in rapidly changing circumstances, amid conditions of chaos and uncertainty.

Their skills: the quality of their leadership, of their weapons and equipment, would be very severely tested indeed.

Ministers must understand that as Lord Wavell said in his lecture on Generalship, that in the last resort, the end of all military training, the settling of all policy, the ordering of all weaponry and all that goes into the makings of the Armed Forces is that the deciding factor in battle will always be this: that sooner or later, private so-and-so will, of his own free will and in the face of great danger, and chaos, have to advance to his front in the face of the enemy.

If all that goes wrong, after all the training, the intensive preparation and expenditure, the system has failed.

It has never failed so far, but the present Government are taking unnecessary and unwise risks in this vital area and we intend to set this right in every respect.

The bitter divisions over Iraq led to one of the worst periods of transatlantic relations over the past 60 years. As we try to get the relationship back on track, the question we need to address is whether those divisions were simply another family disagreement, or whether they indicate deeper challenges in our relationship that will continue.

With the Soviet threat - the traditional glue for the sporadic transatlantic cracks - now gone, the centre of focus attention has shifted from the stabilization of Europe to so-called "out of area" crises - challenges beyond Europe.

Following recent profound disagreements it is, of course, unclear how soon the transatlantic partners will be able to finally overcome their differences and to fully and practically reaffirm their basic common interests. There is clearly some way to go but many reasons to persevere.

The years since the Cold War have marked one of the most intense periods of transatlantic economic integration ever. Our mutual stake in each other's prosperity and success has grown dramatically since the end of the Cold War. The economic relationship between the United States and Europe is the deepest and broadest between any two continents in history.

All the European partners, the allies and the friends, need to think very carefully and honestly as to the vital importance of the transatlantic link as an essential, workable and proven part of our security.

Is it really sensible for our future to be one of strategic rivalry? Do we want to create a counterweight or do we want strategic cooperation? Is our future to be one of competitive blocks or is it one of strategic cooperation?

Today European nations working through NATO have an unprecedented chance to prove their military credibility. Europe should be able to do much more, and I welcome the EU's defence efforts under NATO auspices.

But the truth remains that many continental forces have only the most basic, logistics and communications capabilities and can hardly operate at all, at any distance from home.

Few can sustain operations credibly and in almost every respect these forces have to rely almost entirely on the United States for intelligence, strategic support and military muscle.

It is therefore essential that our European partners make real and swift progress in dealing with the questions of operational capability and effectiveness within their force structures.

I am convinced that the creation of duplicate structures would dilute NATO and profound changes of thinking in America could eventually decouple the United States from the defence of Europe.

Indeed it possible that this may have already started.

Neither Europe nor America can afford the loosening of these bonds.

The danger of weakening NATO at a time when it needs to provide readily available, well trained and interoperable forces for Afghanistan and Iraq is obvious. NATO has a vital ongoing role to play which must not be diluted by the EU on the one hand, or rendered irrelevant by the US, on the other.

We wholeheartedly support increasing European defence capability but emphatically not at the expense of NATO.

Without national security which defence capability provides, plans to secure long term economic growth, to improve health care and our children's education, rest on sand. These are objectives which can only be pursued in peace and freedom.

In conclusion I want to say only this of the men and women of our Armed Forces:

By their bravery, by their steadiness in the most difficult and hostile circumstances, by their determination and above all by their humanity, they have proved yet again how irreplaceable and important they are in our national life and for our international interests.

Thus it will be for us an article of faith that when we come to power again, as surely we will, we will reaffirm by our actions that our Party regards the defence of the realm as the first duty of Government and that we will do right by our superb Armed Forces.

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