UK Government

Ministry Of Defence: Defence in a Changed World – Flexible Thinking, Flexible Forces

News   •   Jan 20, 2010 11:17 GMT

Speech as delivered by Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, the First Sea Lord to the Berwin, Leighton and Paisner Defence Breakfast on Tue 19 Jan 10.

I am here to tell you why I think that we need a properly informed debate in this country about the security strategy we aspire to, and, against that context, the sort of Defence policy and Armed Forces we need, and therefore ought to consider paying for.

The forthcoming Defence Review is something which I very much welcome and it is with the aim of informing the debate that I am speaking to you this morning from 2 perspectives - as a member of the Defence Board, and as the First Sea Lord.

I applaud Berwin Leighton Paisner’s foresight in sponsoring this series of Defence breakfasts, extremely timely as this is an important period to have a debate because I passionately believe there are few more fundamentally important issues for discussion than the defence and security of this country and the protection of its global interests.  I appreciate the invitation to speak and I thank you for making time to join me this morning.

I need to start by explaining what Defence does for you.  You in the City know far better than I that hedging against an uncertain future is sensible, especially when, as we all know, past performance is no guarantee of future results.  But Defence is not just the UK’s national insurance policy.  It is intimately tied to Britain’s wider position of influence in the world and its dependence on the international market place.  It is far more than simply a means of insuring against future crises; it can prevent them from arising.

To fully understand the scope of this business, we need to assess in strategic terms how we use the Armed Services for the overall benefit of the Taxpayer.  The Royal Navy contributes significantly to the overall business of Defence across the globe.  Most of you will instinctively understand the benefits of taking a strategic view of things, and those who do think at such levels intuitively, I believe, understand the case for continuing investment in Defence.

But such an intuitive understanding does not mean that the taxpayer should be writing blank cheques to the MOD.  We are all very aware of the public funding challenge and the truth is that even if Defence spending holds its value in real terms, something we would love to see, we will be significantly stretched to prioritise and manage our resources over the next few years.

The challenge for Defence is this.  For now, Afghanistan remains our Main Effort.  But at the same time, the world is an uncertain place, characterised by a variety of current and future trends that can quickly generate new threats to our security and the UK’s wider national interests.  We must, I would contend, always be prepared to deal with those challenges and protect our interests, wherever we can.

To resolve this conundrum we must have a defence strategy that is flexible enough to deliver security today, whilst at the same time, preparing us to address the security challenges of an uncertain tomorrow.  We have no choice but to look again at where our country’s security interests lie and then in that context, we must be prepared to look afresh at Defence:-
What it does, where and how it does it, but also who and what it does it with.

As globalisation exacerbates the competition for resources, our national prosperity and freedoms are increasingly vulnerable to events across the globe.  Energy security is but one example.  The protection of our vital national interests cannot be separated from the security and stability of the international system upon which we rely.  The UK’s wealth, health and safety are founded upon, and continue to be enhanced by, our outward-facing participation in a stable, rules-based, global system.  Equally, we are a proud nation with clear national values - in humanity, the rule of law and democratic principles.  We would, I profess, wish to preserve and promote these values, as we have always done and build trust, transparency and common ground with others.

Alongside others, the military therefore has an important role to play in helping deliver the security upon which the global system rests.  This primarily requires us to actively contribute, today, to enhancing the prospects of global stability in that uncertain future.

We need to ensure that we, as a nation, have the strategic flexibility to deal not just with Afghanistan, but also the broad range of other threats and challenges to our national interests today and in the future.  As I said at Chatham House in November, important as it certainly is, and I have to give credit at this point to our sailors, royal marines, soldiers and airmen, who put their lives on the line on a daily basis in Afghanistan, it is not the only game in town.  We must look beyond Afghanistan.

And we must remain prepared for surprises and strategic shocks.  You will all recall that when Harold MacMillan was asked what would determine his Government’s policy, he famously replied:  “Events dear boy events”.   The Falklands War was such an event.  It came in from left field.  For me as a Defence Board member, the implication of that is the need to consider the likelihood of crises developing  in the near term and to ensure that we are ready to respond at short-notice to the unexpected but not unforeseen.

All the time, we must be cognisant of the truism that prevention is better than cure and that early engagement, both diplomatic and military, to help influence events and reduce or deter escalation, will always be preferable to conflict.

We in the military must work actively to support the other levers of national power - such as the diplomatic and the economic – in countering threats to the peace and the stability of the international order upon which the UK’s national interests and strategic aims rely and prosper.

The Armed Forces, as a so-called “soft power” influence, have long-recognised the wider utility of the Military instrument at the strategic level.

Be it Defence Attaches in nations across the world, building trust and ensuring a shared understanding through daily engagement, be it hurricane support in the Caribbean, a peace support mission in Africa, or support to the local community in this country, or a Frigate providing diplomatic engagement through a visit in the Far East at a significant time, or the Red Arrows at the Dubai air show demonstrating the excellence and utility of UK equipment and airmanship, the Military do far more for this country than fight for it.  They are of much wider utility to this country’s interests.

But, and I hope it goes without saying, these soft power activities and the benefits that accrue from them, depend on the underpinning credibility of our Armed Forces through success on operations and their ability to fight and wage and win wars. This is measured in our ability to deliver “hard power.”  It is this credibility argument that, I strongly believe, makes the importance of measurable success in Afghanistan so significant to ensure we are well-placed for future contingencies.

My argument is that strategic flexibility is not a free good that comes simply by possessing military forces.  Those forces need to be used.  It is only through persistent military activity in support of other levers of national power that we achieve the effects that can make a real difference to protecting the UK’s interests.  Recognition of the strategic importance of this wider utility needs more work.

It also follows that our Armed Forces also need to be shaped and equipped to deliver this wider utility.  Through their training, culture, ethos and values, they should have the flexibility to be used in circumstances and areas of responsibility well outside their core competences.

Alongside a greater understanding of the strategic effect of using our forces more widely, we must also recognise that in an uncertain future where we can’t afford everything we might need,  we must instead strive for forces that are flexible - and able, between them, to adapt to operate successfully across the entire spectrum of tasks that might be demanded of them.

Flexible forces offer real choice to Government in deciding how they might wish to respond to developing crises and, if engagement is early enough, hopefully also to provide the influence needed to prevent crises from flaring up in the first place.

We have in the past made very good use of flexible forces.

As I said earlier, the Falklands was a near-term crisis out of the blue which demanded an immediate response.   Back in 1982, after the ‘81 Defence Review, with the structure of the UK’s armed forces still balanced for the Cold War, it was helpful that at that time we retained just sufficient forces of the scale and capability needed to alone adapt quickly to fight and win a maritime expeditionary conflict 8,000 miles from the UK.  We were lucky.  Our ability to respond was not without its problems, and we learned a great many valuable lessons in the course of recapturing the Islands, but enough capabilities were there to use and adapt in the first place across the 3 services.

Whilst I do not raise the Falklands as an example of today’s needs, the lesson learnt is very relevant today.  We will always require our forces to be flexible and you have to invest in them, plan and build that flexibility into your people and your platforms right from the start.

A good illustration of flexibility over the longer term are our operations over the last 30 years in the Arabian Gulf.  You may not know that the Royal Navy has been operating in the Arabian Gulf, ashore, afloat, in the skies and beneath the waters since 1979, in all the guises of prevention, deterrence, containment, confrontation and conflict and in doing so, has demonstrated that flexibility about which I speak and the utility of maritime power in an area crucial to our economic prosperity.  Equally important, we have also provided reassurance to our many allies and friends in the region.

During the Tanker War of the mid-1980s, we were there providing reassurance in the form of escort protection to see tankers laden with oil safely through the Straits of Hormuz while the Iran-Iraq war was being waged around us.  We were still there for the first Gulf War, when our ships and aircraft alongside our allies rapidly defeated Sadaam’s Navy.  We stayed to enforce the UN’s economic sanctions against the regime before supplying and landing the amphibious forces that took control of the Al Faw peninsula, the gateway to Basrah in 2003.

And while you will have heard much about the draw down of UK Armed Forces from Iraq, the Royal Navy is still there, continuing operations to protect the vital offshore energy infrastructure and deterring the illegal and damaging smuggling of weapons and drugs in the region, as well as piracy.  While we’re at it, we are capacity building, training the fledgling Iraqi Navy and Marines, and working alongside and leading numerous regional partners to deliver maritime security from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.

Our continuing commitment in that region is a clear indication of where the UK national intent lies.  It is a catalyst for developing trust with our partners in the region.  There, the utility and effectiveness of the RN is giving the UK government choice in peace-time and options in crisis, preserving the flow of oil and adding to our understanding and knowledge of events in the wider Middle East.  That will continue, as long as we maintain an effective maritime presence there and it is what strategic influence is all about.  It is a good illustration of what Defence can and should deliver for the UK and the international community.

I think that the Royal Navy’s range of capabilities and force structures today, along with those planned for the future, exemplify what can be achieved with forces that are constructed and manned to be flexible, thereby maximising their utility as military instruments.

What are our naval forces doing today?

As I speak, the Navy’s commitment to Afghanistan endures with many of my sailors, airmen and marines in that theatre supporting 11 Brigade .  The future deployment there of 40 Commando Royal Marines later this year and of the remainder of 3 Commando Brigade during 2011, underscores the Navy’s continued commitment to this NATO campaign.

But we are doing much more besides.  Naval ships, submarines, aircraft and personnel are currently deployed worldwide, conducting national and multi-national operations which support the UK, promote its values and protect its interests and economic prosperity.  I have already exposed the continuation of our mission in the Gulf and Arabian Sea.    Maritime security operations in the Mediterranean and off the Horn of Africa continue to intercept illegal activity and reassure legitimate users of the high seas, enabling global trade to continue, less hindered by pirates, traffickers and other criminals.  Naval units are permanently deployed in the South Atlantic in support of the Government’s responsibilities to protect the Falkland Islands and our interests in Antarctica.

At the same time, Royal Navy ships and aircraft continue to safeguard the integrity of UK Territorial Waters and Airspace, to provide counter terrorism support to the Home Office, to protect shipping, ports and offshore energy platforms, undertake inspection and enforcement action on behalf of the Marine and Fisheries Agency and conduct Search and Rescue.

The demands on us are high – but so they should be, and the demand is set to continue and, I would advocate, increase. With fewer assets, we must remember that we can’t be in 2 places at once.

Finally, our submarine-based strategic nuclear deterrent, now deployed without a break for 41 years, continues to deliver the ultimate security guarantee of our nation.

This need for flexibility, the ability to change readily to meet new circumstances, is something well understood by my fellow Service Chiefs as they review their own capabilities and force structures.   The investment in protected mobility for our ground forces, helicopters, unmanned drones and strategic air transport are all examples that illustrate more fundamental work across Defence to deliver agile forces in all environments, able to wage war, but also of wider utility outside of combat operations.   

[off script statement]

Much of what General Richards said last night resonates with what I’m saying today. He speaks about a hi-tech future and the need for cyber defence, I absolutely support that. That is a battleground this nation needs to be ready to be engaged in in the future far more effectively than we are today. He speaks of flexibility, hybrid warfare and this business of high intensity warfare being a mixture of old style force on force and hybrid underplaying of activity. Yes, absolutely right. We can’t go out there and expect two ships to engage in the way they used to in the Battle of Jutland. We have got to move way beyond that and look of examples of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers and the mass swarm attacks that form a part of their sea battle and will undoubtedly form part of warfare in the future that we as a maritime force will have be engaged with. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need hi-tech weapons with it or highly capable platforms to deal with it. He talks about the need for a wider debate – that’s why I am here, to stimulate a wider debate and discussion. He advocates a clear understanding within that debate on how much we can afford to put into defence, I absolutely agree. So whilst there is a desire to show a split between us and feed a frenzy of “the chiefs are again at loggerheads” – we are not. We are trying to pursue a clear, well articulated debate on what defence means. Yes, there is going to have to be differences, his prioritisation is going to be different to mine. The effects that I am trying to advocate and the effects that he is trying to advocate are slightly different in terms of where we spend our money and what we are going to do. My business, and where I am pushing harder maybe than he is - I’m about using armed force to be a preventative deterrent mechanism to try and prevent the engagement ashore. But if engagement ashore is what is required and it is what the nation decides is important, then we need to make sure we can do that properly. [end of off script statement]

A continued emphasis on further developing joint engagement, by which I mean land sea and air elements, and operations that involve and maximise the contributions of military forces with other agencies and countries, will be increasingly important in a globalised world.  In defence itself we know that jointness works – for example in Joint Force Harrier and the Joint Helicopter Command, where the sum of the parts is greater than their individual effectiveness.  We must however have an eye on how just how joint we can become.

[off script statement] At this juncture, let me say a few words about carriers. I would advocate that carriers are about joint effect and are platforms for defence. People that keep turning around and talking about the Navy’s carriers have missed the point entirely. The carriers are about supporting effect ashore, not protecting the fleet, as at Jutland. We have got to be clear that the requirement for carriers is a joint requirement for Defence as a whole and the effect they provide is a joint effect, not a maritime effect in isolation.[end of off script statement]

In conclusion, I believe that the Defence Review needs to consider focusing on UK Armed Forces, whether maritime, air or land, which are able to be configured to deliver the necessary combat power, but have utility to be able to support the protection and promotion of the national interest more widely.

We have to be able to respond directly to crises in the short term, of course, but our forces also need the means to act over the longer term in establishing and maintaining the conditions for stability in order to forestall crisis.  The absence of turmoil is often as much about preventing conflict and the misery and costs that follow, as it is about delivering combat power should that prove unavoidable.  Our forces should therefore also be able to be deployed globally and engage in long-term reassurance, stabilisation, training and prevention missions. 
And they must also have the means to work alongside others – international partners, government departments, civilian agencies and the civilian population.  Such forces can do good for the taxpayer on a daily basis.

And for me as First Sea Lord, the “so what?” is this.

Within the Royal Navy, I must retain and develop the quality to deliver success across the full spectrum of defence activity up to and including high intensity warfare.  At the same time, I also need to preserve the appropriate capacity to be out on the beat every day, across the globe - as the Naval prayer so appositely states – as a security for “such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions; that the inhabitants of the commonwealth may in peace and quietness serve.”  Words from another age, but as relevant today to maritime nation that still trades across the world, is made prosperous by engaging across the world and to do so relies on access to the sea.

I look forward to your questions.

Note to Editors - Speech as delivered by Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, the First Sea Lord to the Berwin, Leighton and Paisner Defence Breakfast on Tue 19 Jan 10.

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