Land Warfare Conference

Speech by Andrew Robathan, Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Andrew Robathan

Good afternoon.

It is a great pleasure to make my first speech in the UK as a Defence Minister of this new Government at the annual Land Warfare Conference.

The new government brings a great opportunity for change for the better.

And there are few areas of government where the need for change is as acute as in defence.

We all know we face major challenges.

We have to fulfil our operational commitments in Afghanistan, but we must adapt our armed forces to face the future, to face the changing international outlook and the changing character of conflict.

And after 12 years without a defence review, over a period where our armed forces have been worked hard (much harder than we expected), with a defence budget that is overheated and a terrible economic and financial situation, no one should pretend that this will be easy.

And, similarly, no-one should pretend that we can avoid tough decisions.

I hope we can use this as an opportunity for long overdue radical thinking and reform.

Paul Johnston has given us an insight into the new Government’s Foreign and Security Policy.

Paul will be leading the FCO’s contribution to the strategic defence and security review, the SDSR, and I think it’s fair to say that “hard-headed” and “practical” will be the watchwords of that contribution.

This afternoon I hope to set out the approach that will underpin the defence contribution to the overall security effort of this country.

I can sum up this approach in three words relevance, realism, and responsibility.

First, relevance, our posture and capabilities must be relevant to the challenges we now face and based on a realistic assessment of the threats we may face in the future, in the context of our national interest and alliance obligations.

Second, Realism, resources are tight for the country as a whole, the Prime Minister said as much yesterday and the Chancellor repeated again today.

Defence is no exception; this review must be anchored in the art of the possible.

We cannot insure against every imaginable risk so we will need to decide which risks we are willing to take.

Third, responsibility, as a nation, we have a responsibility to give the brave and capable men and women of our armed forces our full support in return for the selfless service and sacrifice they are prepared to make in our name.

We must ensure that they have what they need to do what we ask of them and they and their families are looked after properly during and after service.

We have a moral responsibility to our service personnel.

To start, let’s go back to first principles.

The first duty of government is the defence of the realm.

Many arms of government are directed towards or contribute to this aim, but the armed forces are clearly central to this effort.

Of course there are many things our armed forces can do.

They are dedicated, professional and highly capable people with access to equipment, logistics and know-how that can be directed towards dealing with many situations.

Resilience operations here in the UK.

Humanitarian missions abroad.

But let us not lose sight of their primary mission.

They do what no other arm of government can.

This has two aspects, and together they combine to provide political decision makers with the widest possible range of choices when making strategic decisions.

First, they protect our citizens and territory by deterring and containing threats.

In other words, the threat of lethal force - broadly, deterrence.

Second, as a last resort, when diplomacy is exhausted as Clausewitz might say, to protect our citizens and interests with the legitimate means at their disposal.

This is the use of lethal force.

These two reasons are why we have armed forces.

They must be structured in the first instance to achieve this: first to deter, and second to deliver, the use of coercive force.

I do not need to set out for this audience all the instances why in our long history these two functions of our armed forces have been needed.

But it is worth setting out briefly why in the 21st century we call on them now and may call on them in the future.

First, Afghanistan

We are in Afghanistan out of necessity, not choice.

It was in Afghanistan that the attacks of 9/11 were planned.

We must not allow Afghanistan to be used again as a safe haven for terrorists or a launch pad for attacks on the UK, our interests or our allies.

Our mission in Afghanistan is vital for our national security, for the security of the region as a whole, and for global stability.

Were the international coalition to walk away now it would hand al-Qaeda a strategic victory.

We could face renewed risks of instability spreading across this volatile region, including Pakistan, and the increased possibility of terrorist attacks here on the streets of Britain.

Failure would also damage the credibility of NATO which has been the cornerstone of Britain’s defence for the last half century.

So we must succeed, and equip ourselves to succeed.

I would also like to take the opportunity to credit the contribution of the current us military leadership.

Men such as general David Petraeus and General Chiarelli defined a new strategic approach to our current conflicts, and then reshaped the US military effort to support this.

I’m pleased that British thinking helped inform this work.

But likewise we have learned much from this pioneering American effort.

Looking further than current operations, the breadth and uncertainty of the challenges we may face in the future will necessarily require a broad, flexible and integrated defence posture.

The international outlook we face is sobering, the environment challenging and the threats growing.

We must continue the campaign against international terrorism: keeping al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan is just one part of this.

In the Middle East, we should all be extremely concerned about the Iranian nuclear programme.

Is anyone not?

In other areas we see burgeoning piracy and kidnapping on the high seas, the challenge of energy security and the mounting danger of cyber attacks.

No single country acting alone can hope to meet these challenges, or promote national interest, or protect national security.

Today’s world is one of necessary partnership not optional isolation.

We must face this looking to the future not to the past.

The review of NATO’s strategic concept is one of the ways that is being done in the Euro-Atlantic area.

This must be reflected further in our bilateral and multilateral relationships.

We must build stronger, reinvigorated, and more structured ties with our allies.

Defence relations will play an important part in this, and that’s why I’m delighted to see so many of our partners from around the world at today’s conference.

Let me now set out how we will move forward.

This is a major reform agenda, informed by the pressure on resources, but driven by the changing world we live in and the nature of the threats we face.

Let me reassure you that the SDSR will be strategic, cross-government, and a comprehensive exercise overseen by the newly formed National Security Council, to provide a coherent approach to security, and informed by a new ‘National security strategy’.

This is necessary because today’s threats straddle departmental and territorial boundaries, and our response depends on properly organised rather than ad hoc cross-government action.

In conducting the SDSR we will of course be aware of resource constraints, but the review will be driven by policy: what we want to do in the world and how we want to do it.

The main aim for defence in the SDSR will be to ensure that Britain’s defence is based on a clear definition of our strategic interests, an assessment of our role in NATO and other partnerships, the threats we face, the military capabilities we need to protect our interests, and the programmes we need to deliver those capabilities.

The urgency of the challenges means we will conduct the review with all due speed, and we intend to publish our conclusions in a white paper by the end of the year.

We will have to look again from top to bottom at all that the Ministry of Defence currently does, including the organisation and structure of the department, each of the services, and support functions.

But let me be clear: change must come.

We must be prepared to take some tough decisions, not just to save money, but to reshape our armed forces for the future.

This may mean giving up some cherished but outdated capabilities in order to reinvest in new ones but the potential prize is great: modernised, well-supported armed forces, ready to defend and promote UK national interests.

What might this mean for the land environment?

General McChrystal is happy to be “nation blind” when it comes to conducting effective operations in Afghanistan.

I think the same holds here.

All too often, the land environment is equated in many people’s minds with the army.

The army is doing a magnificent job in Afghanistan, but let us not forget the crucial work being done in the air and on the ground by the RAF and Royal Navy, including the RAF Regiment and the Royal Marines.

The excellent medical support to our troops is truly a joint effort, and sustaining such deployed operations depends on moving people and materiel by air and sea as well as overland.

Let’s also remember that the military effort supports and is supported by a wider political, economic and reconstruction effort, and must be fully integrated with this.

This tri-service, multi-departmental and international approach is likely to be model for the future.

So the SDSR will be “environment blind”, instead looking at effect, scalability and flexibility, not the badge on a person’s uniform.

It is the only way to approach the questions of need and affordability.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am here today to listen as much as to inform.

In undertaking the review we will of course draw on current strong debate on defence policy, and views of outside experts.

I am mindful of the proud traditions and ethos of the armed forces.

Nothing we do should harm the position our armed forces hold in the life of this country, nor the respect the people of the UK have for the soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

And we must continue to attract and retain high quality people at all levels.

Ultimately the decisions, and the responsibility, will be for the government.

The people have given us a clear mandate for change.

As in other areas of public policy, this government is determined to set a clear direction for our defence policy in coming years.

This is our duty to the people of this country, to our allies, and to the men and women of the armed forces.

In this process we cannot hope to please all of the people all of the time.

That is the nature of the tough decisions ahead.

But we are not in the business of managing decline.

We intend to act in Britain’s national interest to shape the world, not just be shaped by it.

That means strong defence for a modern era.

And we will do it with the principles of relevance, realism, and responsibility to guide us.

Published 8 June 2010