NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT) industry day

Speech by Gerald Howarth, Minister for International Security Strategy.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Gerald Howarth

Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests, partners, on behalf of Her Majesty’s government, it’s a real pleasure to welcome you all to NATO’s Allied Command Transformation (ACT) industry day here in London.

I’d particularly like to welcome General Abrial [Supreme Allied Commander Transformation] and thank him for his kind introduction.

Also, let me add my welcome to the NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. We are grateful for your strong leadership in Afghanistan and Libya, and for working hard to make NATO’s strategic concept a reality. We are also hugely supportive of your efforts working with Baroness Ashton and Claude France-Arnauld to reduce the amount of duplication between NATO and the EU, as we must.

Finally, let me welcome Admiral Di Paola, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee. Admiral, you’ve said on many occasions that NATO is all about defending the shared values of friends, and preserving the vital link between North America and Europe. I could not agree more, and today’s trans-atlantic audience is testament to that.

Friends, we live in a volatile world where the pace of change is staggering. Some risks appear timeless: conflict born of competition between states, or of out and out aggression, has not been abolished. Nuclear proliferation continues to be a concern. The value of NATO as the ultimate guarantor of territorial defence remains undiminished.

But this new world requires us to continue to think and adapt to new threats and new pressures. A world in which competition for natural resources will increase. A world in which cyberspace requires us to think differently about how we defend ourselves. A world in which no nation can hope to meet all of its national security concerns acting on its own.

Who would have thought, as they were eating their Christmas turkey that within months Bin Laden would’ve been killed and Mladi? put on a trial, or a mass uprising across north Africa and elsewhere? And Libya is proof, if ever it were needed, that the pursuit of our national and collective security cannot be confined to the Euro-Atlantic area. All this as the international community continues to support the Afghan government, while bringing the transition of security responsibility to the Afghans ever closer.

This era has been called the age of uncertainty’, with the relative certainties of the cold war far behind us. Already, it’s 20 years since the abortive coup in Moscow against President Gorbachev which would ultimately pave the way for the collapse of the USSR, a totemic moment. At the time, Gorbachev was under pressure from his hardliners to be more conservative and aggressive militarily. And he was under pressure economically as the weight of military spending eventually made the Soviet economy buckle.

As the current Prime Minister arrives in Mosocw it is perhaps appropriate to recount the British Prime Minister at the time, Sir John Major, who recalled Gorbachev wryly recounting a joke.

“There was a food shortage in Moscow and people were queuing for bread. They were queuing for a long time and they were getting very irritated. One man turned in the queue to his neighbour and said, ‘I’m fed up with this, I blame Gorbachev, I’m going to kill Gorbachev,’ and off he went. He came back two days later and the people still queuing said, ‘Did you kill Gorbachev?’ ‘No,’ he replied ‘The queue was just too long’.”

It’s a good story, but it also underscores a message which should resonate loud and clear at this conference today. A weak economy, as the Soviets discovered, is itself a threat to national security liability.

That truism has not been lost on the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen who said recently that, “Growing debt remains the single biggest threat to our national security.” That’s why here in Britain, as elsewhere, defence is having to play its part in tackling our national deficit. The US looks like following suit. Some painful yet essential decisions have been taken, and more may follow. At the same time, my colleague, Liam Fox, and I, are both hawks on fiscal rectitude and hawks on strong national defence. It’s a painful position to be in, but we are committed to strength in both.

We must also face up to some uncomfortable truths about our security architectures, not least the future of our most potent and cherished military alliance, NATO.

As it has for over 60 years, NATO continues to be the bedrock of our security. 20 years have passed since the original defining mission of NATO, defence against the Warsaw Pact, came to an end. But NATO has defied the sceptics who questioned, “Whither NATO?” at the end of the cold war. It’s perhaps best illustrated by the remarkable transformation NATO has undergone since that other totemic moment of our times, 9/11, whose 10th anniversary, we sombrely marked yesterday.

In the wake of 9/11, NATO invoked Article V for the first time in its history. It embarked on its first truly out of area mission in Afghanistan. In Libya, NATO has again proved that it is has adapted beyond all recognition from its cold war stance. It was to NATO that the UN turned to implement Resolution 1973. It was a NATO commanded operation which saved Benghazi from a brutal attack by Gaddafi’s forces. And NATO has been sufficiently agile to accommodate two Arab states and a neutral one, Sweden, in support of Libyan operations.

As an instrument of policy and security, NATO has proved its worth once more. But with 10 alliance members choosing to opt out of Libya, it reminds us that all is not well.

That’s why just before he retired in June, the former US Defence Secretary, Bob Gates, gave a forensic and discomforting analysis of the challenges facing the Alliance. He highlighted three areas where NATO must transform: finance, capability, and political will.

When the Soviet threat was at its height, the US spent roughly the same on defence as the rest of the alliance combined. Now, the US contribution heavily outweighs the rest. Furthermore, Secretary Gates was clear that the gaze of Congress is increasingly fixed on the emerging powers in Asia. And when the US, like many of us, faces the serious pressure of balancing budgets, it can no longer justify producing security for those who merely consume it. In 2001 US indebtedness to China stood at $78 billion; today, it is more than $1,100 billion.

But it’s not just about money. It’s about having meaningful capability, and the will to deploy it. For example, air-to-air refuelling for Libya is overwhelmingly provided by the United States, only 12 of 43 aircraft come from other aliance members.

Unless NATO members address the issues of finance, capability, and the political will to commit to missions of collective security we all agreed in the strategic concept, I am afraid that I agree with Bob Gates that a ‘dim and dismal future’ may fall upon it. Rectifying these deficiencies in the alliance is within our means. The question is, as I’ve said before, will NATO cross its Rubicon?

NATO rose to the challenge of assuming relevance in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I believe it can rise to this challenge again because it must.

Today’s conference is an important part of that process, because we simply have to find ways of sharing the burden of collective defence more equitably. We need innovative approaches to developing affordable capability.

This is where General Abrial’s organisation and all of you in industry have such a vital role to play. I’m delighted that so many of you could come from near and far, and I hope you will visit DSEi at the Docklands this week.

In some cases, this will mean allocating more, as we have done in Britain with an additional £650 million to strengthen our understanding, our resilience, and our defences in cyber space.

In some cases, this will mean spending differently. For example, some European countries have punched well above their weight by focusing on deployability or on assets which are of greatest utility to the alliance as well as their national defence. At the risk of singling out any one programme, the acquisition by the NATO Airlift Management Agency of Boeing’s C-17 aircraft is an excellent example of multinational pooling and sharing, with nations co-operating to deliver capability which they couldn’t individually afford.

In some cases, quite frankly, this will mean spending less on areas as we configure forces fit for the 21st century. The European Defence Agency should also have a role to play here, but it must do so in close co-operation with NATO. Talking up the EU as an alternative route and adding new institutional structures does not address diminishing defence budgets. As my colleague, Liam Fox, has said, “Double hatting doesn’t increase capacity or capability. It doesn’t create one more bullet, one more gun, one more plane.”

So the challenge facing NATO, and therefore industry, is how to generate and develop the capabilities necessary to meet contemporary and future tasks without breaking the bank.

Coherent and co-ordinated action will be required to address ‘common’ shortfalls, for example, in areas like counter-IED, medical support, and increasing the availability of heavy lift helicopters, as we in Britain have done recently with the purchase of 14 new Chinooks. I welcome NATO’s continuing efforts both to remove unnecessary duplication from allied inventories and highlight the worrying capability gaps across Europe which are being created as a result of budget reductions in almost every country, including, I accept, in the United Kingdom.

But many other questions need to be answered. For example, how can we do more with less? How can NATO and industry collaborate to deliver the Secretary General’s ‘Smart Defence’ initiative and fill these critical capability gaps? And how can we maximise the chances for you in industry to think outside the box?

Finally, I think General Abrial put his finger on perhaps the central issue earlier this year, interoperability. The perfect solution is always attractive. But as the General has said, “Sometimes the 80% solution is better because you can have it faster, because you can have it cheaper, and because you can share it [and, I would add, export it] better.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, in these austere times it is tempting to defer the cost, pass on the burden, and recoil from change. But our approach to NATO, on money, on capability, and political direction must change. Industry has a major role to play and as the world of defence comes to London to be part of one of the world’s largest defence exhibitions, DSEi, my challenge to you is this: seize the opportunity to put the principles we discuss today into practical effect.

And help NATO, the world’s greatest military alliance, to be the viable, powerful, and relevant force we all want, and need, it to be.

Published 12 September 2011