Tuesday, 2 March 2021

British defence posture: An interview with Tobias Ellwood MP

In this interview, James Rogers talks to The Rt. Hon. Tobias Ellwood, Member of Parliament for Bournemouth East, and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, about the future of the British Armed Forces and defence posture..

JR: In an article you had published in The Times you argued that British defence spending should be increased to around 3% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Why is it important that the United Kingdom (UK) invests more in defence at the present time?

TE: I have been making the case that our defence posture is critical for who we are as a nation. 80 years ago we stepped forward and lead other countries to face diversity and it is still in our DNA to do exactly the same, but the world is changing around us. We face more danger than at any other time since the Cold War and, therefore, the nation has a big question to ask as to what role it wishes to play. Today we talk about the rules-based system, but someone must step forward to prevent it from being undermined. I think given our global reach, our understanding of the world, the connections that we have, our reputation, and our existing hard power capability, we are well placed to lead that endeavour – and bring our allies with us. So that is why, but we can only do that if the nation itself is willing to be part of this; to recognise that is the case.

JR: What would you say to those Britons who argue that any extra money should be spent on the National Health Service, extra police, better schools, or more international development? Why should defence be prioritised?

TE: I hear that argument, and it is a powerful one. But ultimately the nation’s prosperity is absolutely tied in to the nation’s security. I think the nation, if the world is getting more dangerous, if access to markets is being curtailed, if, and particularly, the post-Brexit environment is uncertain, we have to seek and leverage new opportunities and we can only do that if there is stability. Therefore, it is in everybody’s interest to ensure that we play our role in that changing world. Otherwise, our own prosperity and economic position will change and there will be less money for all government departments, not just defence.

JR: Increasing defence spending by 0.8% of GDP – to reach 3% of GDP – would amount to around £15 billion per year extra for defence. Where do you think the extra money should be invested (and why)?

TE: Well, if the defence budget was suddenly increased, the Ministry of Defence would not be able to respond. Because if you want more aircraft, you have to procure them – and that would require more pilots, it would require air bases to expand. Therefore, it could only be over the course of a parliament that we could increase investment in defence. But essentially it is not just about improving our surface fleet and our subsurface naval fleet, for example. We need extra money to fund our nuclear deterrent, because we have extended the life of the Trident submarines. It has cost more money because we have had to replace the reactors, which we were not intending to do. So that has taken more funding out of the defence budget. 

Our military welfare budget must also be increased: the only reason why we are haemorrhaging people is because of how we train them and how we equip them. It is about how we look after them with their families when they are back in the barracks. It is not about how we treat them on the battlefield. So if we are to compete with other environments – you can pick up a degree at university and get a nice, cosy job inside an office – we need to be competitive. Why would you want to sign up and be shouted at by a sergeant major on a parade ground at Sandhurst when there are more attractive jobs to be had? So there is pay and a whole plethora of issues that we need to improve. 

But ultimately, I would also like to see investment in two further areas of warfare. The character of warfare is complex and is changing and we need to be prepared. We need to invest more in our cyber and space capabilities, with more money.

JR: Two weeks ago, missile boats from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard tried to intercept a British oil tanker, with the attempt only being thwarted after a frigate from the Royal Navy trained its guns on them. Do you think the Royal Navy is becoming too small for the tasks it is now facing?

TE: I would agree with that. I mean again it goes back to my point on increasing defence spending: we purchased two new aircraft carriers but we did not really change the naval budget. You cannot procure excellent surface capabilities such as our carriers and not expect an impact on the rest of the fleet if you do not change the budget. Therefore, the number of platforms we now have is worryingly low. So this is diminishing the capability of each ship. The Type 26 frigates are coming on board – they are going to be excellent – but each one costs around £1 billion. They’re expensive – as are the Type 45 destroyers. But we do need to have the ability to project power, to deter our adversaries, so I hope that we can invest in the super Type 31 platform.

How do we afford this? It is also about making more products, which we can actually sell. We do not do enough of this. We have some complicated systems such as the Typhoon, and the Tornado. In the air we do this, and also on land-based systems. In the sea, we are only just starting to pick this up. We have got the Type 26 frigate – they have not even come online yet – but they show that we are starting to do things with Australia and Canada. But that should be the ball, that should be the starting point – that whenever we do anything now we should do it in collaboration with our allies.

JR: Last December, Gavin Williamson, the former Defence Secretary, said that Britain was looking to boost its military footprint in South-East Asia and the Carribean, with the building of new or upgraded military facilities. What would the purpose of these facilities be?

TE: I do not know because I was not privy to that conversation. I think it was his intention to show that we have moved ‘East of Suez’. We have developed stronger relationships; we have basing and temporary ports; and we have access around the world. One form of permanent access is HMS Juffair in Bahrain. But if we want to have a maritime presence we have to have the ability to replace, dock, and change crews and so on, so we do need to think about that in the longer term. 

JR: In the Baltic states, Poland, Romania and the Nordic region, Britain’s role in the defence of Europe is widely appreciated. What should Britain do to enhance regional security in the years ahead, particularly if the United States is drawn away into underpinning the security of East Asia?

TE: I think the first thing to stress is that we need to include the Americans and make them recognise that their security – underpinned by the North Atlantic Treaty – is the bedrock of our security. But America’s frustration is recognised because they still provide 70% of European security in terms of burden sharing and European nations need to pull their socks up and spend what they committed to spend (2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence). This is what we expect them to do. When that starts to happen I think America will be a bit more relaxed and less frustrated with NATO.

Further, we have a wider challenge as to the difference between what NATO does and what the EU does. It is important to rectify coordination between these two huge organisations. When they do not coordinate with one another, and get caught in a political bun fight, it is unhelpful. Take the Galileo satellite system: forcing us to purchase our own capability will cost us £15 billion, which we should really spend elsewhere. The only country that will benefit from European countries building two satellite navigation systems is China. To defend their values, Western partners really have to stand together and work out their differences.

JR: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions!

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