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Readout: Virtual Meeting with Gen Sir Richard Barrons

We were delighted to welcome General Sir Richard Barrons, who spoke to the APPG on the basis of his experience as an operational commander, as Commander of Joint Forces and before that as Deputy Chief of Defence Staff for Military Strategy and Operations.

He was of the view that for too long UK defence policy makers have viewed the world with a ‘Post – war’ mindset. Following the end of the Cold War the UK (along with its allies) has hollowed out its defence capability. The recent Integrated Review exercise painted a picture of an increasingly complex and contested world.

He was of the view that the new defence paradigm, outlined by the Integrated Review, will need the UK to widen the framework of how it thinks about defence, to include more emphasis on societal resilience and a way to mobilise resources to deal with this new ‘pre-war’ threat environment, which is enduring. Among the sovereign capabilities that the UK should secure is access to space; for communications, Global Positioning technology – which is crucial to modern weapon systems or for observation. The UK must also ensure that it has adequate stocks of munitions.

He referred to the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) as an example of a capability which the UK could not design and build on its own. Also the case of Chinook helicopters which remained grounded for lack of the appropriate software from the manufacturer. The majority of platforms (ships and aircraft) now rely on IT which derives from technology developed in the civilian sector. He characterized the UK’s defence industry as being too small; certain sectors he saw as being on the scale of a cottage industry.

Above all the main requirement for sovereign capability is access to secure encrypted communications, enabled by cyber security and data. The servers must be based in the UK and underground. He cited the example of UK Special Forces who must be able to go anywhere in the world, either for a rescue mission, or to assist allies. This capability requires the ability to project forces at long range and good communications.

The recent example of the Suez Canal blockage caused by a single ship showed how brittle modern society is. An adversary might choose to direct their efforts at the backbone of a country – its critical national infrastructure, to produce chaos in a very short time. This would render the armed forces largely redundant.

All of which means that the UK needs a more agile approach to how Defence manages acquisition and definition of equipment requirements. Those things that we do not make at home must be stockpiled – which costs money. To be credible the UK’s defence capability must be resilient and able to manage the loss of equipment on campaigns. In particular, Gen Barrons drew attention to the work on the development of a long-range precision conventional missile, being developed by Russia. He was of the view that the UK had no defence against this threat.

Q & A

During the Q & A session, the following points emerged: In terms of ‘going it alone’ on another Falklands style operation, Gen Barrons suggested that the UK should re-think what the key consideration might be. Was it the re-occupation of the Falkland Islands, or was it a way of dissuading Argentina?

Concerning the funding of defence expenditure, Gen Barrons suggested that resources would be better used by investing now in the sort of autonomous capability referred to in the Integrated Review, to ensure that the UK’s Armed Forces had the capability to meet evolving threats. He believed that a figure of 3% of GDP spent on the defence budget would ensure that Defence did not suffer from stop – go funding problems.

Defence exports and co-operation with allies, as exemplified by the T 26 Frigate programme, mean that the UK is able to buy equipment at a reduced price. The pace of change in technology means that the MOD should devote more energy to spiral (evolving) development, rather than locking itself into big programmes which take years to develop.

Gen Barrons was of the view that politicians have a role to play in shaping the thinking of policy makers, to shift away from a ‘pre-war’ mentality, to a more urgent approach.

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