8 July 2011

Healey on Defence – and Carriers

Former Labour politician Denis Healey is nearly 94 and remains a lively observer of British politics, to judge from John Rentoul’s account of a talk at the Mile End Group in January. Healey is regarded as having one of the best intellects among post-WW2 politicians, and his autobiography, The Time of My Life, published in 1989 and still in print, remains worth reading.

Healey became Secretary of State for Defence nearly 50 years ago, but the chapter covering his time at MoD (1964-70) still provides intriguing perspectives on the present. One marked contrast is with the recent comment of Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles regarding Afghanistan: ‘Politicians with little or no military experience were being pushed by a confident and enthusiastic military lobby into doing things against their better judgment.’ However, Healey had served in North Africa and Italy in WW2:
… my service in the wartime army had given me insights into military realities which cannot be acquired by any other means. The same was true not only of my service advisers, but of many of my civil servants too. Ours was the last generation at the Ministry of Defence to have shared the knowledge which can only come from experience in war.
But he makes a familiar complaint about the situation when he arrived:
… the preceding Conservative governments had left me a defence programme which it would have been financially impossible to carry out at the best of times. Moreover, our forces were overstretched and underequipped.
The underlying causes seem to be perpetual:
Ever since the war, defence had been under exceptional economic pressure since technology increased the cost of new equipment much faster than the increase in the nation's wealth. In the fifties and sixties the cost of naval frigates doubled, the cost of much army equipment quadrupled, and the cost of military aircraft increased tenfold. Costs are rising even faster nowadays, with the introduction of electronics into every area of warfare. Indeed the extrapolation of current trends could mean that within a century the number of modern weapons which a country like Britain could afford would have fallen to single figures - a prospect which NATO refers to as ‘structural disarmament'.
The Service Chiefs and the Chief of Defence Staff were a problem for politicians then as now:
The one issue on which Mountbatten and I were always at odds was his determination to get rid of the separate service Chiefs of Staff and establish single central organisations to carry out the administrative functions of the three services.

I suspected, too, that behind Mountbatten's obsession with integrating the services was the desire to establish central control of defence policy and operations under himself as Chief of Defence Staff. In my opinion, it was the Secretary of State's job to control defence policy, as an elected member of the British Cabinet, and I was determined to carry it out.
... But there were prima donnas in the services no less than in the acting profession. And the competition for money required the senior officers of all three services to develop all the skills of the politician and the trade unionist. I sometimes felt that I had learned nothing about politics until I met the Chiefs of Staff. Each felt his prime duty was to protect the interests and traditions of his own service.
Until recently, it seemed as though Healey would be the last politician obliged to cancel a British aircraft carrier programme, but perhaps not:
By far my most difficult equipment decision was to cancel CVA-01, the new strike carrier planned by the navy. A country like the United States, which wants to project its naval power world-wide and can afford to maintain a force of fifteen carriers, as the US Navy then did, may find them a valuable investment. But quite apart from the cost' the Royal Navy was too short of manpower to envisage manning more than three carriers in the seventies.
I commissioned innumerable studies to find out whether it was possible to perform the carrier's function with existing RAF aircraft. The answer was that, in most places which concerned us, we could support land operations more cheaply and effectively with land-based aircraft.
… no one suggested the only relevant situation which has actually arisen, namely the landing and supply of British forces in the Falklands against opposition from Argentina. Fortunately, on that occasion [1982] the navy still had the small through-deck cruiser, HMS Invincible, with Harriers aboard, both of which I had ordered fourteen years earlier.
In fact, HMS Invincible was not ordered until 1973, and the Sea Harrier FRS1s embarked on Invincible for the Falklands campaign were not ordered until 1975. The RAF Harrier GR3s embarked on HMS Hermes were better-engined versions of the GRS1 which had been ordered in 1967. The photograph is of the final Harrier GR9 flight from HMS Ark Royal (Invincible’s sister ship) in November 2010. 

Two of Healey’s remarks are of particular interest in retrospect:
When I left office, for the first time in its history, Britain was spending more on education than on defence.
This was to change again– just before the end of the Cold War defence expenditure was once more larger than education. By 2010, however, spending on education had reached £B88, about twice that on defence.

Healey ends his MoD chapter:
I imagine historians will best remember my six years at the Ministry of Defence for the liquidation of Britain's military role outside Europe, an anachronism which was essentially a legacy from our nineteenth-century empire.
Even the cleverest men can only guess what the future may bring – there are currently 9,500 members of HM Forces in Afghanistan, a presence which is currently expected to end in 2014.

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