Fabian Society article – Defining Labour on defence

Fabian Society article – Defining Labour on defence

This article appeared in the Fabian Review, the journal of the Fabian Society, in April.

Peter Apps is a global affairs columnist for Reuters news agency. He is also a member of the British Army Reserve and the Labour party.

By the time the next Labour government takes power, the United Kingdom may well be facing the most complex defence, military and security challenges at any point in recent memory.

International tensions are rising and the future of some of the most basic international structures and assumptions – the EU, NATO, a United States heavily invested in the rest of the world – is being thrown into question. Meanwhile, changing technology and growing social strains across the world are generating new, deeply unpredictable dangers.

This kind of volatility isn’t new. When it was elected in 1997, few in the Blair government would have foreseen how much it would come to be defined by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Cameron government was confronted by the Arab spring and war in Libya within a year of taking office.

What is needed above all else, then, is not just flexibility but a worldview and degree of sophistication that allows the UK to deal with a wide range of possible scenarios.

In doing so, however, we should remain fundamentally true to Labour’s core values: defending not just territory and peoples but liberties and principles. Military service is a risky occupation, and those who take it on accept that. Still, their welfare – as well as that of the rest of the nation – must be a driving concern, whether in taking action overseas or making spending decisions at home.

A significant portion of the party has often viewed Britain’s military and its activities with a healthy degree of scepticism. Their views should not be discounted – not least because in recent history, they have more than once been proved right. Our forces and the population of the Middle East would have been better served if we had listened to those who marched against the Iraq war.

Priorities, though, are important.

Deterring a catastrophic attack has been at the heart of British defence policy since the days of the cold war. It will continue to be so: tensions are going to keep rising with Russia and perhaps also with China. North Korea might have a missile that can reach the United Kingdom within a decade or so. We shouldn’t delude ourselves that Trident – and the replacement Dreadnought class submarines that will carry it – protect us against all dangers. But they are the only line of protection we have ever found against that kind of existential threat.

Beyond that, planning becomes ever more complicated, not least because the time it takes to construct some of the more sophisticated military platforms is growing ever longer. The first plans for building Britain’s Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers were announced in the strategic defence review of 1998. The ships themselves will only enter service at the end of this decade, finding themselves in a rather different world from anything anticipated in the late 20th century.

They will also, like just about every other piece of military equipment, have proved dramatically more expensive than initially anticipated.

In recent decades, British governments have tended to try to use military procurement to shore up a relatively small defence industrial base. There’s no doubt that that’s helped ensure that some companies remain big employers. But where possible, defence procurement decisions should also be aimed at growing broader, peacetime industries. That is already the case, at least up to a point, in aerospace. It hasn’t been in shipbuilding. Any future Labour government needs a much more comprehensive plan for this than any which has preceded it.

At its heart, however, defence is about people and it is those who serve who have ensured that Britain’s armed forces remain amongst the best in the world.

If you talk to members of those services today – particularly in the ranks – they are pretty underwhelmed at how successive governments, of whichever political persuasion, have treated them. There’s a feeling that they have been used – and in some cases, suffered serious casualties – without sufficient planning. But also a clear sentiment that there has been far too little attention paid to what military life is really like.

That’s somewhere where the Labour party could really be upping its game. With Nia Griffith as shadow defence secretary, there are signs it is beginning to do so. Labour is beginning to make much more noise on substandard accommodation, better career structures and lifestyles.

At the end of February, we relaunched Labour Friends of the Forces, which we hope will be at the heart of this campaigning.

In some respects, what the electorate wants from defence is not so different from what it expects from the welfare state and social welfare net. Individuals have a reasonably good idea of some of the situations they will be in and services they will require – education for their children, social care for their relatives as they age. But they also want protection against the unexpected – catastrophic ill health, redundancy, violent crime or natural disaster. With defence too, we need to be ready for the dangers we can’t predict as well as those we can.

That means having a plan, staying within budget and valuing those who actually provide the services the country needs. Getting that right in a complex century is going to be a challenge – but it’s one we have to meet.


The Trident Alternatives Review hasn’t changed our minds: it is right for the UK to maintain a continuous at sea deterrence- Kevan Jones MP

Kevan Jones, Shadow Armed Forces Minister, in LabourList said:

It has taken over two years for the Government to publish its Trident Alternatives Review, the fudge agreed to as part of the Coalition Agreement. The deterrent had become a plaything of government, but we were assured it would be worth the wait. In January of this year, Danny Alexander briefed that his review would contain a “compelling” set of alternatives, hailing that the Liberal Democrats had forged a “significant moment” in the nuclear deterrent debate.

What then has the Liberal Democrat review this week concluded? Put simply, nothing. This is the Alternatives Review which rejects all of the alternatives, concluding that none of the other options offer “the same degree of resilience as the current posture of Continuous at Sea Deterrence [CASD]”. The Liberal Democrats have spent thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money and wasted over two years merely to discredit their own policies.

So what now for the Lib Dems’ nuclear deterrent policy? Documents obtained by the press shows their master plan is to send two unarmed submarines out to sea on an irregular basis, an option so ludicrous that it was not even considered worthy of study for the Alternatives Review.

This would end the UK’s continuous-at-sea deterrence posture, which since 1968 has ensured that one nuclear-armed submarine has been on patrol at any one time. This frankly bizarre Liberal Democrat policy would leave the UK open to nuclear blackmail, makes the submarines vulnerable to first-strike attacks, and would be significantly escalatory if the UK ever were to arm the submarines during a crisis. And we’ve since found out that the cost savings from this would be relatively negligible and potentially non-existent.

As Jim Murphy—the Shadow Defence Secretary—argued in the Commons this week, the Lib Dem plan is to put unarmed submarines out to sea is like installing a burglar alarm with no batteries on your house and placing a sign in the window asking burglars to ‘come in’. They want to take us to a nuclear no man’s land: unable to ensure the nation’s security; unable to reduce proportionate costs; and unable to meaningfully contribute to the global disarmament agenda.

We live in increasingly uncertain times. As Barack Obama argued in his landmark 2009 Prague speech, “the Cold War has disappeared but thousands of those [nuclear] weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up”. In a less stable world there can be no justification for either unilaterally disarming or for decreasing the capabilities of the UK’s deterrent.

The Labour Party has rightly waited until the release of the Government’s Alternatives Review before passing judgement, and we have also undertaken rigorous work of our own on the subject, talking to industry, academics and our major international partners. Labour has maintained that we are committed to the minimum credible nuclear deterrent, and it would have taken a substantial body of evidence for us to conclude that there was a posture that fulfilled our criteria of capability and cost more than CASD. There is nothing we have seen from the Alternatives Review or from our own extensive research that convinces us otherwise.

That is why Labour is committed to maintaining a continuous at sea deterrent. It is the only posture which ensures that our submarines are invulnerable to pre-emptive attack and that, therefore, the UK is able to possess significant second-strike capabilities. It is this which is the cornerstone of a minimum effective deterrent, offering a constant and credible guarantee. If we want to avoid the potential for the UK being subject to nuclear blackmail and causing escalation at a time of crisis, whilst ensuring best value for money and a credible deterrence, a CASD-Trident posture is the only serious option.

However, we will continue to explore ways in which this can be delivered most efficiently, aiming to drive savings throughout the Successor programme relating to submarine design and greater co-operation with our allies.

And Labour would keep momentum on our disarmament efforts, looking at further reductions of missiles and warheads on deployed vessels, as well as taking a lead internationally to push the agenda of global non-proliferation. The best way to advance our ultimate goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is to work on a multilateral basis, encouraging other nations to sign the pledges that we ourselves would make and making proportionate cuts in warhead holdings with other nuclear states.

It is right that the Labour Party has pledged its support for a ballistic missile-armed submarine platform based on continuous-at-sea deterrence. A part-time deterrent of the ilk being put forward by the Liberal Democrats is one that would make the world a more dangerous place, a price not worth paying for the dubious savings it would yield.

Reform of defence procurement is one of the major challenges facing UK defence – Jim Murphy

Jim Murphy MP, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, responding to the Government’s Statement on Defence Acquisition in the House of Commons, today said:


“Reform of defence procurement is one of the major challenges facing UK defence. All sides of this House will want to see reforms which deal with overspends and over-runs and ensure world class equipment is delivered when and where our Forces need it.

“For too long good intentions of successive administrations haven’t delivered sufficient reform in defence procurement. However, just as some of the responsibility can be shared, our resolve to learn the right lessons and deliver far-reaching reform must also be collective.

“We therefore welcome much of today’s statement.

“Mr Speaker, future procurement systems must provide value for money within financial constraints. Better performance will come from greater professional project management, faster decision-making, fuller accountability for outcomes and a more considered use of military expertise.

“Labour supports reform. The Bernard Gray report on which today’s White Paper is based was commissioned by the last Government. We have proposed a new budgetary discipline whereby deferred decisions that increase cost are accounted for within a rolling ten year cycle and increased certainty for industry over sovereign and off-the-shelf capabilities.

“We on this side are open-minded about how this is achieved, but I wish to be clear that welcoming this process isn’t the same thing as supporting a GoCo. There needs to be rigorous examination of all the possible options and a robust comparison between the two options of a GoCo model and ‘DE&S+’.

“This comparison should rest on the principles of ensuring value for money within programmes; industry adhering to new targets on time and cost; maintaining Parliamentary accountability; enhancing a culture of consequence for decision-makers; and military involvement based on tri-service working, not single service rivalry.

“Reform must extend across the MoD. Too often scope creep has led to systems exceeding identified need and major decisions have been pushed to the right to save in the short term at the expense of a longer term budgetary bow wave. Today’s challenge for Ministers is not just to determine a management model but to demonstrate that decades-long entrenched behaviours are being corrected.

“Turning to the specifics of today’s announcement, Mr Speaker.

“On the Assessment Phase, could the Secretary of State pledge to publish the findings of the two value for money studies and allow for consideration by this House prior to a final decision being made? It is essential that Parliament, industry and our Armed Forces have full confidence that strategic affordability is the determining factor in this process.

“On costs, could the Secretary of State say whether the new management team of either model would re-cost the baseline of the Core Equipment Programme or would the figures as published earlier this year remain? Further, in light of NAO criticising the MoD’s assessment of risk as ‘not statistically viable’, would new management be able to reform the current method of risk assessment?

“On staffing, the MoD has said that current reductions will not affect outputs. Would either management model be able to make decisions over staffing independently from the Secretary of State? And could he confirm that trade unions will be consulted throughout the Assessment Phase?

“Mr Speaker, it is essential to maximise military expertise, so could the Secretary of State say whether he considers it preferable to change the current ratio of military to civilian numbers in procurement?

“Specifically on the GoCo, could the Secretary of State pledge that senior officials currently working on defence procurement within the MoD will be unable to work for the GoCo consortium without a prolonged period of purdah?

“Many in the country will be concerned about the extent of a private entity’s potential reach over public policy. Under these plans would a GoCo model cover the whole Equipment Programme, including the nuclear deterrent? And what is the timescale for the implementation of a GoCo, as this will enable us to judge when efficiencies may begin to accrue?

“Finally, one of the biggest uncertainties surrounding a GoCo is on the ownership of risk and whether the GoCo could generate private profit while financial risk remains in public hands. As an example, can he say whether the liability for the £468 million cost over-run which was noted in the NAO 2012 Major Project Report would have rested with the taxpayer or the GoCo had it then been established?

“On the Single Source Regulations Office, we welcome the proposal in principle and will examine this closely. It is essential to drive down costs where possible in single sourcing. Could he say who will appoint its members and whether its new regulations will be subject to the ‘one-in-one-out’ rule, and if so what will be removed?

“Mr Speaker, it is essential that we get this right.

“We will support what we hope is a genuine competition. We will scrutinise this process carefully because efficient and effective defence procurement is essential not just for the MoD bottom line, but for the remarkable men and women of our Armed Forces who we place in harm’s way to serve on the frontline.”

Response to NAO report ‘Carrier Strike’ from Jim Murphy MP

Jim Murphy MP, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, responding to the National Audit Office report, “Carrier Strike: The 2012 reversion decision”, published today, said:

“This lays bare this government’s incompetence.

“Flawed Ministerial decisions have wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money at a time of mass service sackings and cuts to pensions and allowances.

“The aircraft carrier programme is essential to national security as it provides a floating mobile sovereign presence anywhere in the world. It is now clear that this was put at risk by Ministerial mistakes.

“This report reveals that despite Government claims to have balanced the equipment budget part of the carrier capability remains unfunded and risk remains in the programme. There are real gaps in the Government’s budget and equipment plans.

“There must now be changes to risk assessment and decision-making processes within the Department and real lessons learnt for future major project procurements.”

The full report can be found here.

Response to the Defence Select Committee’s report on Defence Acquisition – Jim Murphy

Jim Murphy MP, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, responding to the Defence Select Committee’s report on Defence Acquisition, said:

“This is another blow to the country’s confidence in the Government’s competence on defence.

“Days after confusion and contradiction on defence spending the chaos of the aircraft carrier decision is laid bare. This wasted time and money, led to a serious capability gap and exposed lacking knowledge of defence procurement. The UK has paid at least an extra £100m to have no aircraft to fly from an aircraft carrier for years.

“This is an important report. Industry have warned that without a defence industrial strategy tens of thousands of jobs are at risk and now influential experts outline the damage and competitive disadvantage brought by its absence. There is a loss of skills, contradictions in export policy, worries over investment in science and no strategy to support sovereign capabilities.

“A new industrial strategy must improve the speed of procurement, share the burden of risk with industry, support small businesses and strengthen collaboration between companies, the Department and the military.

“Labour has consistently called for a defence industrial strategy and our procurement review chimes with this report’s analysis. Ministers must respond, listen to these arguments and change course.”

The report can be read in full here.

Questions Cameron must answer on Aircraft Carriers and Joint Strike Fighter

Jim Murphy, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, today released a letter he has sent to David Cameron demanding answers to serious questions about Britain’s future defence capability:

‪ Text of Letter below:

‪Dear Prime Minister,

‪The aircraft carrier programme is one of the most strategically important elements of national defence. Having the ability to deploy jets from carriers at sea enables Britain, a proud maritime nation, to project power and defend our interests. The Government’s handling of the carrier programme has, regrettably, been shambolic and has downgraded our nation’s power. Continue reading “Questions Cameron must answer on Aircraft Carriers and Joint Strike Fighter”