Air Power Conference 2015

Speech by General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the Defence Staff.

Good afternoon everyone and a particular welcome to the overseas guests. Can I say what a pleasure it is to be able to join you at this Air Power Conference. I cannot think of a more interesting time for air power professionals to gather together to examine the role that air and space environments will play in meeting our future security challenges.

These challenges are significant. Indeed many people rightly speak of potential existential challenges to our countries and to our ways of life.

75 years ago, this year, there was also such an existential threat. And it brought about a remarkable response, both from this country and its air power professionals. We celebrate this as the Battle of Britain.

More widely, as the Royal Air Force contemplates nearly 100 years of institutional history, one can reflect on a heritage which includes the invention of radar, the bouncing bomb and the jet engine. It is reassuring to reflect on that heritage and consider how we can re-apply that spirit of innovation to the modern era.

I thought that what I might do today by way of a conference opener is put air power in the context of the United Kingdom’s strategic defence and security review (SDSR). I want to allow some time for questions, particularly in the aftermath of last week’s very welcome budget announcement. The announcement that confirmed this government’s intention to commit to the 2% GDP spending pledge for the remainder of this decade. A commitment which presents defence with huge opportunities.

The review has only been formally underway for six weeks, but in truth, within the Ministry of Defence we have been thinking about this SDSR for a much longer period. So let me expose some of that thinking to you.

As we entered this SDSR the government was very clear that it recognised that the world had become a more dangerous place. From the outset of this parliament, therefore, they committed to a full review. In defence, we recognised that we faced a particular and quite fundamental challenge. Simply put we held the concern that many in the country, though not in Whitehall, no longer saw the essential link that exists between defence and security. What do I mean by that?

For much of the 20th Century, defence and security were largely synonymous. This was because the principal threats to the security of the UK and its people came from powerful, ideologically opposed powers on the continent of Europe: I refer to the Germany of Kaiser Willhelm and Hitler, and subsequently the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact. It was pretty obvious that defence and security meant the same thing.

All that ended in 1989, leading to a re-definition of national security and defence’s relation to it. We entered a period when defence was re-set to meet a broader and more outward facing set of missions. Defence’s role became more discretionary to national security. Interventions in the Balkans were part of this; as was the view of the armed forces as a force for good in the world.

And then, in the aftermath of 9/11, the UK government, along with many others, crystallised the view that the principal threat to national security was international terrorism. And the government of the day was also clear that this threat was best addressed at source: in the ungoverned spaces that provided sanctuary for terrorist groups.

The subsequent period, I sometimes fear, has not been easy for defence or for society’s understanding of its importance. Military intervention to stabilise ungoverned space has had mixed consequences. The view that there is no direct military threat to the United Kingdom in a classic symmetrical sense has taken firm hold. As has the view that defence is inherently expensive and inefficient.

All of this reinforced 2 views: first, that much of the capability that defence generates no longer has relevance; and, second, that the government would get a better return on its investment in relation to national security by switching expenditure from defence to the security agencies, the Border Force and the police: all of which appear to have leaner cost bases and are more readily useable.

So for 25 years the United Kingdom, together with much of the Western world and most of our NATO Allies, has been investing less in our capacity to conduct serious war fighting.

But, I would offer the view that this course of action has been a mistaken one. I say this because it derives from an assumption that defence is fundamentally about operations; an assumption which defence has somewhat carelessly fuelled over recent years. Such an assumption I believe is wrong. defence has always been built on a paradox: our business is primarily about avoiding war rather than fighting it.

Classically there are 2 reasons why countries have armed forces: to project power and to deter potential adversaries. We have spent the last 2 decades doing lots of the former and have rather obscured the importance of the latter.

The United Kingdom is a remarkable place. Bluntly put it comprises of a small, relatively overcrowded set of islands in a rather inhospitable part of the planet. Its weather is challenging, its natural resources heavily depleted and its empire long gone. And yet it remains one of the world’s largest economies and still enjoys a remarkably high geo-political status. It is also an enviable place to live. But why is this so?

The fundamental reason is that the UK derives significant benefit from the international rules based order that has developed since 1945 and was reinforced after 1989. The UK and its NATO allies have held themselves and others to the post-World War 2 convention that state boundaries should not be changed by force. Our prosperity has grown on the back of free trade, the import of cheap consumer goods and, increasingly, the provision of financial services. The City of London is a global force.

The fundamental importance to the United Kingdom of the post 1945 international rules based order should be a starting point for any strategic review of our defence and security. But, worryingly, there has been something of a presumption that such an order is a free good, one that sustains itself as a result of the collective self interest of countries, companies and individuals, assisted by vigorous diplomacy.

But this cannot be true. As history tells us any system of order is subject to stresses and strains that threaten to tear it apart. What has sustained the current international rules based order is power, principally US power, but also that of NATO.

Worryingly, however, this situation is changing. It has changed quite dramatically over just the last 5 years. In a global context the United States and Western Europe are in relative decline. The United States in particular is just starting to feel the finite nature of her own ability to be the external security guarantor to Europe, the Middle East and the Asia Pacific.

Meanwhile, alongside the emergence of a range of more diffuse threats, such as cyber, it is becoming increasingly clear that the international rules based order is being deliberately challenged by revisionist powers. We have moved from an age of uncertainty into a far more competitive world. One in which our national development into one of the world’s most open societies, particularly in terms of foreign investment in our national infrastructure, has made us potentially quite vulnerable.

But the international rules based order is also being challenged by something else: radical, very violent, and mostly Islamic extremism. In its current form of Da’esh, the long standing phenomenon of Islamic terrorism has been conflated with a cross-border insurgency and an ideology fuelled by social media, which risks achieving a global reach.

And so the current global security context is one of revisionist powers, ideological extremism and a much more competitive world. All the result of a strong sense amongst many, whether a country or a religion, that the current rules based international order denies them a sense of their historic entitlement.

No one would seriously suggest that we could attempt to meet the challenges of this world by solely non-military means. Diplomacy, the soft power of development, education and media, and the economic tool of sanctions. We would rightly question whether those tools suffice on their own. The economic interdependence of modern states of itself places some limits on the utility of sanctions.

Moreover certain countries, for example Russia, seem determined to use the full suite of hard and soft power to advance their international objectives. In the context of Ukraine this has ranged from snap, large scale exercises designed to intimidate; to the denied deployment of troops across national borders; to the arming of proxies; to sabotage, cyber attacks and massive disinformation.

We and our allies sometimes appear to lack the capacity to manage all the manifestations of these challenges. In strong part this is because as status quo powers we do not hold the initiative; our institutional bandwidth is limited and our decision making, in relative terms, is slow.

So, the government’s and my strongly held view is that we cannot sustain the world order, the one from which we derive our relative prosperity, open society and advantageous geo-political position, by non-military means alone. However well resourced and well managed our intelligence agencies, border force and police services are (and they absolutely need to be) they cannot deploy force in a way that counts in a competitive world which abounds with aggressive states and non-state actors.

The questions to be answered in an SDSR from a defence perspective, therefore, are how much hard power do you need, what sort of hard power do you need and how and where should it be employed. The UK government, as a result of last week’s budget announcement, has presented us with the opportunity of choice in answering these questions.

Let me say a few words on the MOD’s current thinking on each of them.

First on how much hard power. No country can sustain global security on its own, so collective security remains an essential feature of how global security is sustained. That is why NATO remains at the heart of UK defence. But certain countries are expected to do more than others. The United Kingdom is one such country because we have so much to benefit in terms of security and prosperity from the retention of the rules based international order and our place within it.

The United Kingdom also retains considerable ambition. We see it as our natural role in the world to lead rather than follow events; to shape the world in which we live not be shaped by it. Few people in this country can recognise the mentality of a government that does not want to retain our ambition as a nation. It is one of the things that defines us. So in terms of resources 2% of GDP is an appropriate national contribution. defence’s job is to ensure the money we are given is efficiently spent and on the right things.

The question of what sort of hard power we need is also, to an extent, a reflection of our global ambition and our desire for international strategic authority. Such capabilities as ‘Continuous at sea deterrence and carrier enabled power projection’ speak to the language of strategic authority.

But our capabilities must also meet the deterrent standards of warfighting resilience. And we should also retain a military ambition to have those capabilities that make us a natural framework nation for others to rally around in coalition.

And other capabilities must meet the separate challenges of some of the more dynamic and proximate threats of the age, principally countering terrorism through sophisticated intelligence, surveillance, strike and special forces assets.

The final question of how we employ our armed forces is an issue of both policy and posture. And it returns to the issue of what hard power is mostly about: the business of avoiding war, rather than having to fight it. So, in the SDSR debate, we will offer 3 key roles on which defence capability should be employed.

The first is a mixture of protection and deterrence. This is the physical protection of our islands, our people, our overseas territories, our skies, our home waters, our critical national infrastructure and our sources of energy. It extends to the defence of space and cyberspace. It extends, largely in alliance with others, to the deterrence of those revisionist countries who would threaten us and our allies. And it definitely extends to protection against terrorism both at home and abroad.

The second role is about actively contributing to stability and is a mixture of our ability to understand and shape the global security environment. This will generally be done in concert with other government departments and agencies. It involves a whole range of activities which include intelligence gathering, capacity building and conflict prevention. The mechanisms employed to do this are regional strategies and defence engagement.

And the third role, and the one which pre-occupies so much of the NSC’s time, is the effective response to crisis. This, I sense, is one of the most difficult to get right, because, first of all, it takes imagination to understand what might go wrong. And through such understanding have organisational and capability responses to act when they do go wrong.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that, in the world in which we live, crisis response is insufficient. Rather, the full-spectrum response, to which our Prime Minister refers, needs to include the persistent, pro-active, strategic management of all the instruments and levers of national power. And this approach needs to be applied as much to revisionist states as it does to extremist terrorism. We do not live in an era of periodic campaigning, but in one of persistent and thoughtfully managed engagement.

How does air power fit into all this?

Well I do not want to dwell too much on the history of the Royal Air Force since 1989. Such a history would, at one level, reflect the story of a systematic disinvestment in hard power and chart a reduction from 30 to 7 squadrons of fast jets. And today it would reflect a picture in which the Royal Air Force, in terms of Fast Jet numbers, is challenged to meet the 3 defence roles which I have outlined.

The need to protect the skies over the United Kingdom and the Falkland Islands, to work with allies to deter Russian intimidation in the Baltics, to be our forward based crisis response in the Gulf, and to be our most significant national contribution to degrading Da’esh in Iraq. All this whilst managing the fast-jet transitions from Tornado and Typhoon, to Typhoon and JSF, have put us at the very limits of Fast Jet availability and capacity.

But this situation is ameliorated in several important ways: the advanced technical quality and precision of our complex weapons; the complementary capabilities of submarine launched cruise missiles; the unmanned armed Reapers which act as additional strike squadrons; and the attack helicopters that now provide some of the intimate close air support to land forces. Nevertheless those who observe that the further national employment of Fast Jets to meet the proliferating problem of Da’esh is a zerosum game have got it about right. So our extension in service of additional Tornado and an unwavering commitment to JSF build-up is, absolutely, the right thing to be doing in order to preserve combat jet mass. The future size and mix of the Fast Jet force must be one of several capability decisions considered in the SDSR.

But, to me, the availability of Fast Jet capacity is not the air domain’s only or most critical issue. And it is far easier to build coalitions of air power than it is to build un-constrained coalitions of ground forces.

Most critical is the contribution that air power can make is to enabling the joint force, providing strategic projection for special forces, and, most vitally of all, delivering a more persistent surveillance and intelligence gathering capability and doing so in more places at the same time including in the maritime domain.

I cannot stress enough the need for a greater qualitative and quantative investment in intelligence, surveillance, understanding and those capabilities that permit the precision application of hard power. I expect us to invest more in refreshing our current inventory of Reaper, Sentinel, Shadow, Air Seeker and Sentry.

I say this, not just because of the evil threat of Da’esh, but because the environment in which joint forces operate has, in so many ways, become more constrained. Some of that constraint is legal, some is societal and parliamentary, some is the need to operate in denied space, some is the need to avoid feeding the narrative of your enemy.

No other environmental capability has the ubiquity, speed and responsiveness of air power. Most in this room know that.

I opened my remarks with reference to the innovative heritage of the Royal Air Force and air power. And I want to conclude by returning to that theme. But first to return to the money.

To me the most vitally important things that emerged from last week’s announcement are, first that the spending power of the defence budget will rise in real terms during this parliament.

And second, that every efficiency that defence makes in how it runs its business will now be available for reinvestment in defence. You should not underestimate the change in culture that this fact alone brings about. The dynamic of incentivising efficiency and innovation in order to re-invest in betterment. We have not enjoyed such a circumstance for 25 years.

So, our options going forward are no longer about the management of decline, but about how best to invest in the security, the authority and the prosperity of our country. There is a lot here for both air professionals and the defence industrial base to think about. You need to position yourselves to be partners in efficiency and innovation. Assets not liabilities in a defence partnership.

The exploitation of the air dimension will be absolutely fundamental in our long term ability to exploit the opportunity we now have. The SDSR must balance the need urgently to meet current threats, with the requirement to make a considered investment in defence’s ability to help secure the safety and prosperity of the nation into the future.

After all, the ultimate objective of any ‘National security strategy’, whatever the context, must be the safety and prosperity of the nation and its people. They are the 2 prime purposes of government. Many thanks for your attention. And, again, best wishes for a most enjoyable and fulfilling conference.