Will the Emperor’s Clothes Fit?

So, Grant Shapps is the latest politician to be appointed as Defence Secretary in the UK, replacing Ben Wallace – the latter viewed widely as having had a hugely successful incumbency embracing strategic shocks including the evacuation from Afghanistan as well as the conflict in Ukraine. Mr Shapps first words on appointment pointed to the importance of not entertaining any cuts to the defence budget, but I wonder whether the new Emperor’s clothes are to be cut more widely than simply resource accounting, important though this may be. The Defence Select Committee recently condemned as unfit for purpose the UK acquisition process and there remain significant programme issues for the delivery of systems such as Ajax and the disposal of obsolescent maritime assets, for example.

There are also thorny questions around capacity and competence. The recent refresh of the Command Paper commits the UK to a continuing global defence posture with a sharp regional focus on security in Europe (recapitalisation of conventional European warfighting capabilities, anyone?) whilst contributing to security in the Asia-Pacific region through arrangement such as AUKUS. Question One for the new Defence Secretary is do we have the band-width to focus on both commitments without running the risk of diluting one in favour of the other? Question Two, inevitably, is are we confident of possessing the requisite acquisition competency to generate capabilities to enable both ambitions? This is especially important as we are seeking defence capabilities through research and development relationships and collaborations with peer governments and between different international technology and defence businesses. The potential for missteps, duplications and suboptimal force projection is clear and obvious, requiring the new Defence Secretary to have a well-tuned strategic eye for the management of the portfolio he has inherited. Most fair-minded people would agree that Mr Shapps is a proven political communicator. Whether he is an effective strategic manager is another matter altogether.

John Louth

Professor John Louth is senior strategic adviser to Redstone Risk. He serves on a number of UK defence boards as either a non-executive director or strategic adviser and sits on the panel of advisers to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. His latest book on UK exports was published this year by Routledge. He is a collaborating professor with the University of South Australia in Adelaide.