The Select Committee report is not helped by the fact that the defence and security elite, from whom much of the evidence was drawn, specialises in euphemism and understatement. So does the committee system itself. And everything is wrapped in defence language - it’s “capabilities and effects” dear boy, not units and weapons. Plus, it takes great care not to offend former generals, defence secretaries and senior civil servants.
Once decoded however, it’s pretty devastating. It says:
1. The Johnson government was wrong to initiate an Indo-Pacific Tilt in the run-up to the Ukraine war, because it injected strategic ambiguity into the UK’s foreign policy priorities. It boosted the Navy at the expense of other services when - as is now obvious - the burden of deterring Vladimir Putin in Eastern Europe will be borne by a land-centric integrated force. Worse, “there appears to be no real commitment to revisit the conclusions drawn by the Integrated Review or the Defence Command Papers”:
“…the impact of both the Afghan withdrawal and the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine are being seemingly dismissed as insignificant and there appears to be no intention to re-visit the conclusions of the documents”.
2. Conservative governments over the past 12 years took a calculated risk, which Johnson accepted and doubled down on, by leaving a gap between the scrapping of old capabilities (tanks, armoured vehicles, anti-ship missiles etc) and the arrival of new replacements in the 2030s. This “capability gap” has become an unacceptable risk, made worse by the refusal of civil servants, ministers and senior officers to recognise the danger. One explained:
“Ministers’ appetite for risk in the middle of the decade allowed us to run some of those existing capabilities down sooner rather than later”.
3. The army is not big enough, and too reliant on reserves - both as a result of spending cuts agreed by the Cameron/May governments, which Johnson refused to reverse. The new Chief of the General Staff hinted at this when he told the RUSI Land Warfare Conference that
“it would be perverse if the CGS was advocating reducing the size of the Army as a land war rages in Europe and Putin’s territorial ambitions extend into the rest of the decade, and beyond Ukraine.”
4. There needs to be a significant increase in defence spending. However the current government insists the current four-year settlement (which hiked equipment spending by £16bn between now and 2025) is sufficient. The Select Committee writes:
“It is difficult not to feel a sense of déjà vu as we see British military ambitions which are not entirely matched by resources. Open conflict has returned to Europe and it is disappointing to see that the Government is not preparing for the impact of inflation and insufficient industrial capacity on the production of defence equipment as it looks to meet the new challenges.”
Their solution is to demand a new chapter to both the IR and the DCP, taking into account the lessons of Afghanistan and Ukraine, an analysis of the way the threat has changed and an announcement to review certain decisions about equipment, force structures and personnel numbers.
The problems, however, go deeper than this. Much of the UK defence technology pipeline is now configured to arrive in the late 2020s - because planners rightly understood we are in the middle of a new revolution in military affairs, whose end-state is not predictable.
What they commissioned in response to this was, for the army: artillery that fires much further and more precisely; a new generation of recce vehicles (AJAX) and infantry vehicles (Boxer), alongside an upgrade of 148 out of 212 Challenger tanks. For the navy a new batch of frigates and support ships. For the RAF, an increase of F-35 fighters from 47 to 72, plus £2bn on the Future Air Combat Systems - likely to be a mixture of manned and drone aircraft heavily reliant on AI. The whole battlespace would be held together with a £1.5bn Digital Backbone, in theory allowing aircraft with complex sensor equipment to deliver information to troops or ships in real time.
The challenges are as follows:
AJAX is late, over budget and very likely to be cancelled
in a tsunami of recriminations and legal actions. Given 589 vehicles have been ordered, 26 received, none operational and the whole thing has cost over £5bn
this is a major-league fiasco. It leaves the whole concept of the Deep Recce Strike Brigade, which was supposed to be the way the army would face-down Russian forces in Europe, reliant on old-school tanks and artillery.
Boxer is set for deliveries to begin in 2023
, but the UK is buying variants that carry infantry to the battlefield, and has not so far ordered variants with turreted guns or anti-tank missiles. Though it looks like the manufacturer, Rheinmetall, was able to ramp up production to add 100 extra vehicles to the 523 already ordered, if AJAX gets cancelled, then a turreted version of the Boxer is one of only two potential replacements, and there is a growing queue for Boxers from all client countries.
The Challenger III upgrade has begun
, but the earliest date at which units are expected to use the new tanks (in whatever combination) is 2027, “before becoming fully operational three years later”.
As for the F-35 programme, the extension from 47 to 74 aircraft is being done to match the projected lifecycle of the aircraft carriers they will be based on - ie spaced out for reasons of economics, technological advance and wear and tear: it is not a plan to instantly upgrade the RAF, which will remain reliant on the Eurofighter Typhoon. Meanwhile the Future Air Combat System - also known as Team Tempest - remains a futuristic dream, still at the design stage.
What the Defence Select Committee has done, albeit in gentlemanly language, is to raise the possibility that this is a recipe for disaster if Putin were to attack Europe in the mid-decade. I will put it even more bluntly here.
If the Army futures directorate decides, in six months time, that it needs a mix of hi-tech infantry fighting vehicles, with scaled-up anti-tank weapons, and a new structure using ultra-hi tech recce vehicles with long-range artillery, none of these things will be available in required numbers until the late 2020s.
The army will be left, for at least half a decade, rehearsing new tactics and integrated information warfare with kit from the previous century.
There will be no step-change in the procurement of F-35s. As for the Digital Backbone, as the Select Committee points out, the record of the UK government in delivering any digital integration project is dire.
Have we been here before? Guilty Men reminds us that we have.
By the time rearmament started in earnest, in 1936, the British army - after a long period of resistance - was committed in theory to the concepts of mechanised warfare propagated by inter-war military thinkers (Liddell Hart and Fuller).
It commissioned three kinds of tank - recce, “cruiser” (medium) and heavy infantry support - each with a definite role, but no overall doctrine of mechanised warfare into which they could slot. The recce variants, being easy to make, rolled off the production lines on schedule. But only 147 of the more complex heavy and medium tanks were made before the war began. The Imperial War Museum’s account
of the Dunkirk campaign notes their fate:
“The cruisers and light tanks lacked the armour to withstand German anti-tank guns. The tougher Matildas were more effective, and caused brief alarm to the Germans during the Anglo-French counterattack at Arras. But such actions only delayed the inevitable and all British tanks in France were either destroyed or abandoned in the retreat.”
Guilty Men quotes Churchill, observing the lack of urgency and strategic thinking during the run-up to the war. He told the commons that the army was being mechanised:
“in the sense that its horses are being taken away from it”.
Today, if you cut through the bullshit (and the understandable reticence to arm the public), we could say - channeling Churchill - that the UK armed forces are being digitised in the sense that their analogue-era platforms are being taken away.
This would be fine if there were no clear and present threat emanating from Putin’s Russia, and no imminent geopolitical catastrophe, which is what a second Trump term in 2024 would bring, most likely with a crisis of American democracy and the paralysis of NATO.
But Guilty Men is not just about failures of procurement: it is about a society drifting into the era of total war - about which its political elite had made dire predictions - while running a peacetime economy and peacetime forms of decisionmaking. Food was not stockpiled; nor was animal feed; ministers issued stern warnings against convering civilian industry to industrial use in case it affected the tax take.
Between September 1939 and May 1940 Germany had trained half a million men in semi-skilled arms manufacture and recruited two million women to the workforce. At the same time, the authors observed laconically, Britain still had a million people unemployed.
And lying behind all the drift and routinism, was the refusal to spend on a scale needed to match the adversary. In the end, said the authors of Guilty Men, “the soldiers of Britain had insufficient tanks and airplanes to protect them for the simple reason that insufficient money had been spent to buy them”.
There’s a way forward, and if Liz Truss wins the Tory leadership battle, with Wallace as her defence secretary, it will need some tough decision making - with explicit backing from Labour even as the party demands a total overhaul of procurement, and accountability for the fiascos.
If you’re going to scrap the AJAX programme, reverse the mothballing of a third of Challenger tanks, and reverse cuts to army numbers, the best time to do it is immediately you’ve just beaten the austerian ex-Chancellor who, reportedly, stood in the way of a spending hike. Likewise if you’re going to up the order of AWACS planes from three to five and speed up the delivery of long-range rocket artillery.
(Incidentally, if AJAX can be saved I am in favour of saving it: it’s designed as a fighting vehicle with a turret and a 40mm cannon - but if it doesn’t work, national security demands some kind of decision soon, because the alternative - the Swedish CV-90 - now has a growing queue of potential customers.)
Doing all of this only gets you to a first base from which Army planners can experiment with confidence with new doctrines and force structures. But it’s the minimum needed.
On top of that we’re going to need a serious increase in numbers of reserves, a serious speed up of F-35 deliveries and the reversal of army cuts. I doubt that brings you in much under 3% of GDP, even before you start factoring in the creation of a Ukraine style territorial army.
NOT ZERO SUM
I’ve argued repeatedly that this is not a zero-sum game. Doubling defence spending, as Germany has pledged to do, could in part pay for itself in increased growth. But the Treasury is opposed in principle to the idea there is a defence multiplier effect of government spending - so the debate is posed starkly in terms of percentages.
One final takeaway from Guilty Men, especially relevant to now, is how much of the complacency arose simply from the routines of politics: the determination of Baldwin and Chamberlain to employ place men to run key ministries; the determination of the Tory chief whip to stop awkward questions in Parliament from the Churchill wing; the general clubbiness; the repeated assertions that war would not happen - including Chamberlain’s classic claim, one month before Dunkirk, that Hitler had “missed the bus” for a lightning war in Europe.
Sunak exemplifies this attitude today; so does much of the press - which allowed Johnson to pose around in camouflage without asking him why he had refused to cut army numbers or hike defence spending even 150 days into the Ukraine war. And to be honest, many Labour, SNP and other opposition MPs just don’t want to think about defence, nor consider how they would pay for a substantial hike in defence spending.
One thing should focus people’s minds. The final paragraph of Guilty Men is printed in capital letters. It lauds Churchill and the new coalition government, including Labour’s Bevin and Morrison. And it ends:
ONE FINAL AND ABSOLUTE GUARANTEE IS STILL IMPERATIVELY DEMANDED BY A PEOPLE DETERMINED TO RESIST AND CONQUER: NAMELY THAT THE MEN WHO ARE NOW REPAIRING THE BREACHES IN OUR WALLS SHOULD NOT CARRY ALONG WITH THEM THOSE WHO LET THE WALLS FALL INTO RUIN.
It was sentiments like this - in a best-selling pamphlet that flayed the establishment - that led George Orwell to describe the period between Dunkirk and the end of the Blitz as a “revolutionary situation”.
I would post that, minus the all-caps, on the walls of every MP’s office. Until they can guarantee us that Putin will not attack a NATO ally, nor plunge Europe into a chaos of energy shortages and social unrest, and that Trump is a political dead duck and American democracy is stabilised, nobody in Whitehall or Westminster should bank on letting the walls fall into ruin.