Eliot Wilson

Is Whitehall ready for war?

(Photo: Getty)

James Heappey, who will soon step down as Conservative MP for Wells after nearly a decade, may have won more column inches in the last fortnight than the rest of his career combined. In March, he resigned as minister for the armed forces, a post he had held since 2020, and now that he is liberated from government, he has a few things he needs to get off his chest.

We have chronically underspent on defence for far too long

Heappey, who served in the British Army for eight years, rising to the rank of major and serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, has penned a heartfelt plea for the Daily Telegraph, in which he warns that the United Kingdom is unprepared for war as a ‘whole nation endeavour’. Carefully (but too generously) excepting his old department, he argues that too many parts of Whitehall are simply hoping that a major confrontation, implicitly with Russia, in the immediate future will not happen. Moreover, ministers and civil servants alike are unwilling to face the sort of measures needed to prepare for such a crisis.

‘To be frank, in the UK we’re a very long way behind,’ he admits. His comparison is with the detailed and comprehensive planning of the Cold War era, which was set out in the Government War Book. This three-part manual, maintained by the Cabinet Office, dealt exhaustively with what an administration would have to do before and during a so-called ‘Precautionary Stage’ and then during actual wartime. Working on the assumption of the government publishing an Emergency Powers (Defence) Bill, the War Book considered in detail how the nation’s resources would be marshalled and directed towards surviving and winning a full-scale conflict.

It is almost certainly true that Whitehall is underprepared. After all, when the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee concluded last month that the Ministry of Defence’s Equipment Plan contained a £17 billion shortfall between expected capabilities and resources, the department’s response was virtually to pretend the problem was not there. Instead, an MoD spokesman noted, ‘We are delivering the capabilities our forces need – significantly increasing spending on defence equipment’. The distinction between ‘more funding’ and ‘enough funding’ was seemingly lost on our top brass.

But some things do make the reader pause. It is good that Heappey is arguing for more defence spending and better preparedness, but on his last full day as a minister, on 25 March, he told the House of Commons that ‘the Government have increased the defence budget to more than £50 billion a year for the first time’. He boasted that ‘all three services are getting back into the business of being ready for warfighting’. That was less than three weeks ago.

Heappey’s sudden conversion to Cassandra-like brutal honesty is also uncomfortably nostalgic in its recollection of Cold War preparedness. The kind of conflict for which the UK was steeling itself in the 1970s and 1980s is different in almost every likely respect from a confrontation in the near future. The Government Resilience Framework, initiated when current leader of the House Penny Mordaunt was a Cabinet Office minister in 2021, does indeed talk about resilience as a ‘whole of society endeavour’. But furrowed brows over sequestering land for growing food, or commandeering consumer electronics for weapons, feel like an exercise in retrofitting today’s technological preoccupations on to a Britain-can-make-it stoicism Heappey remembers from his childhood in the 1980s.

Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, of course, and Heappey’s warnings should be heard and absorbed. I have no doubt that parts of the civil service do need a thorough shake to force them to confront potential challenges in military and civilian resilience terms. But to be thinking about a virtual nationalisation of industry directed towards ‘the war effort’, or introducing some form of conscription, is a waste of time unless we address the most pressing problem of defence spending.

Armed forces are expensive. But the House of Commons Defence Committee expressed the challenge simply and brutally two months ago.

‘The Ministry of Defence must be fully funded to engage in operations whilst also developing warfighting readiness; or the Government must reduce the operational burden on the Armed Forces.’

This is the choice which cannot be fudged or finessed. The government may aspire to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent, or even 3 per cent, of GDP, but that is irrelevant until the money is actually collected and spent. We have chronically underspent on defence for far too long. The best response to the fears that James Heappey and others have rightly expressed is to have the military capabilities to forestall and prevent the conflict we are all so frightened of facing. As Tom Cruise’s sports agent Jerry Maguire eventually bellows: show me the money.

Written by
Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson was a clerk in the House of Commons 2005-16, including on the Defence Committee. He is a member of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

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