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The “to-do” list for an unlikely defence secretary

Once the controversy over the manner of his appointment dies down, Gavin Williamson will have to press ahead with his brief. What challenges will confront him at the MoD?

By John Louth  

New Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson with military personnel selling poppies. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images

Gavin Williamson, the new Secretary of State for Defence, has his hands full—which is not a sentence you’d want to utter about his predecessor. The latter fell on his sword last week after it became clear that Andrea Leadsom might walk out on the government if he stayed, reporting to the prime minister a number of sexist remarks made to her, or within her hearing, by Fallon.

Ignoring the claims of junior ministers with a proven pedigree in military affairs, such as Penny Mordant or Tobias Ellwood, May chose Chief Whip Gavin Williamson as the new Defence Secretary—a man with few known interests in the armed forces or national security. This seemed a little rum, of course, as Williamson had been part of the close group of advisers recommending to May that Fallon should go. But leaving aside these manoeuvres and counter moves, what is the “to do” list that the new Defence Secretary is faced with? This can be divided into three distinct ticket items.

The National Security Review

The change in the senior leadership at the MoD could not have come at a more inconvenient moment. The Department is embroiled in the National Security Council’s mini-review of 2015’s Strategic Defence and Security Review to decide whether the assumptions on force structures, capabilities and required military effects made just a few years ago were still appropriate. Brexit, the election of President Trump, a resurgent Russia and an increasingly ambitious China have caused a lack of confidence in the defence and security policy communities who are seeking to reaffirm the purposes of the military component and the intelligence and security agencies. Add to this challenges in the Middle East, the Korean peninsula and threats from cyberspace, questions have been posed around whether we are spending our large defence budget in the right places on the right capabilities and in the right manner. Williamson will be expected to have a formed a coherent view on all of these things—if he relies on his senior military and civilian officials he will find that he is offered multiple items of contradictory advice.

The Defence Budget

Not unrelated to the mini-defence and security review, the Defence budget is in a mess. The department has moved from a balanced budget in 2014-15—a remarkable achievement by Philip Hammond as Defence Secretary—to a situation where it needs at least £5 billion of immediate efficiencies and savings to have an affordable equipment and support plan. Some people, including the current permanent secretary Stephen Lovegrove, argue that the scale of savings might have to be nearer to £20 billion, or over half of the annual defence budget, if the department is to live within its means over the life of the ten-year equipment plan. We have ships that are in port due to the absence of trained crews. The new Queen Elizabeth carrier class with their exquisite next generation of stealth aircraft will consume a significant part of both the equipment plan and the operational costs of the armed forces. When we consider threats from cyberspace and the militarisation of space itself, the defence budget will have to be flexible and pliable over the years ahead to meet a range of risks and unknowns—where we are today appears to be a poor launch pad for such an endeavour. Consequently, what capabilities the new defence secretary decides to prioritise, what to put on the back burner and what to discard altogether, will be analysed to determine the state of the UK’s security, the nation’s geopolitical ambition and sense of place in the world. Regrettably for him, these decisions are imminent.

Top Gun

Michael Fallon was without doubt the most significant figure in UK defence. He was on top of his brief, knew the differences held between the defence tribes and had a strategic view of both the purposes the military could be put to and the reforms needed within the MoD and other elements of the defence ecosystem. The different uniformed factions and civilian entities were held together by Fallon within an uneasy alliance and it remains to be seen whether the new defence secretary will be as effective in managing the multiple and, often, legitimate demands placed on defence. Fallon was also hugely respected by the UK’s international partners, many of whom are astonished that he should fall in this manner at this critical time. Britain’s reputation for competent and efficient defence management could scarcely be lower.

So, Williamson has an enormous challenge facing him. It is hoped that his ambition and obvious abilities are up to the job. If he is found wanting, the consequences are literally life or death—though probably not for him. A sharpened carrot the defence brief is not.

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