Q&A: Tobias Ellwood, chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee

Harry Lye 27 April 2020 (Last Updated July 29th, 2020 13:29)

Harry Lye sat down with Tobias Ellwood MP, former Defence Minister and now chair of the defence select committee, to get his thoughts on emerging threats and whether the UK has what it needs to defend itself.

Q&A: Tobias Ellwood, chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee
MP and Defence Select Comittee chair Tobias Ellwood.

What is the importance of the defence select committee, especially as we go into a new defence and security review?

I came into politics because I believe that Britain has an influential role to play on the international stage. We have an incredible history, connectivity across the world and I think a design to, and the ability to help shape the world as a force for good. What we’ve seen over the last three years is a distraction of Brexit. Now with this review coming up, this integrated review as it is called, there is an opportunity to press the reset button and to re-establish ourselves.

Not least because the world, as far as I see it, is more dangerous than at any time since the Cold War. Threats are diversifying, they are becoming more complex. Yet, we see many nations choosing to take a more isolationist, populist approach, rather than perhaps working together. The phrase ‘erosion of the international rules-based order’ is used a lot, but then you ask yourself, well are the rules a little bit out of date? They don’t include the digital sphere at all, and therefore who is willing to help revise them, upgrade them and empower them?

As space, cyberspace and the grey zone have become more prevalent, does the UK need to step up its investment in this areas?

It does and this is why the review is very timely, to help us take a proper stock check of all of our capabilities. We tend to perpetuate a myth that we are probably better than we actually are. I’d absolutely argue that we have one of the most professional forces in the world, but we do like to perhaps kid ourselves that we can still do everything.

I think we are managing the current threats just, but we’re at stretching point, we are at the breaking point, as we are seeing in the Straits of Hormuz, or indeed around the north of the Arctic, what’s happening with Russia and their submarine probing. And indeed just standing up and working with our allies, we have unfinished business in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Libya. Were we to play a more influential role with extending our soft and hard power capabilities, I’m sure we could have better outcomes in these areas.

Moving to more conventional domains, do you think the British Army needs to build a coherent land vehicle strategy?

It does. I mean, there’s many debates about conventional warfare and whether the chunky assets that the army desires are still required. But ultimately, we shouldn’t pretend that we can run around with a main battle tank that’s 20 years old and expect to win any peer on peer battles. We won’t. France has upgraded three or four times in that time period its own main battle tank, as has Russia with the T-14.

We have the AJAX which is coming out, but that’s more of an integrated fighting vehicle rather than a tank itself. Ultimately, if you are going to engage in a battle over terrain, then ownership and holding land is critical, and that’s where the battle tank does actually come into its play.

So presence is important, and I think we’ve moved away from a theoretical character of conflict from punishment when somebody, a nation state or block or a non-state actor, does something, that you retaliate and punish that action. There’s so little appetite for that now. To give an extreme: if China were to take over Taiwan, would we really plow in and start something much bigger by trying to unpick that when the alternative is denial?

So you prevent that from happening in the first place, and that is quite important to do and that requires greater presence, it means that China doesn’t want to start a war, I don’t think it’s their interest to do so. Therefore, you have assets which prevent them advancing their footprint, whether it be in cyber, whether it be in space, whether it be maritime or land, that’s the way forward.

In the past our defence reviews haven’t factored in foreign policy. Why is it so important that we now adjoin the two?

Foreign policy dictates where operationally you are going to, then assign your hard power. It also gives an indication of what your defence posture should actually be. Let’s say we go into this period, with greater determination to deny. How are you going to do that? Well, you then turn to the MOD and say, do you have the surface fleet to do that? No, we don’t, we need more ships. We need more ships with this kind of capability, because this is the kind of threat we are going to face. It is important that they actually work together.

Security policy is directly connected with your prosperity agenda. Post-Brexit we’re going to have to reach out to new markets, possibly in sensitive areas, if we need shipping lanes to be safe, we need access to those markets, we need to make sure that country isn’t going to get encroached by an authoritarian Chinese vision of trade, but also to allow us to have the influence that we want.

A lot has been said about increasing the pace of MoD procurement. Do you agree that there’s a case to bring developments into service that maybe aren’t exactly what are needed, but fill a need better than the current system?

I don’t think you can have a general policy on that, but it absolutely should be considered, because sometimes we spend an awful lot of money trying to keep bespoke, tailored British industry alive. When ultimately something off the shelf would have been cheaper to procure. I wouldn’t want to have a general policy on that but absolutely it needs to be considered. It needs to be a very live option.

I’ll give an example. There’s some crazy numbers on helicopter procurement. In the United States they have about 40 different kinds of helicopter platforms, and across Europe there’s almost 200. Essentially, there are about six different kinds of helicopters. You have search and rescue, you have maritime (like the Merlin), you have attack, you have general utility, you have recce and then you have transport (for example the Chinook).

And actually you could knock those down into three. You have an angry one, which is your Apache. You have your general utility, like the Blackhawk, and then you have your troop carrier general transport lifter, which could be your Merlin or your Chinook, or your V22 Osprey. Across Europe, we have almost 200 platforms. We’re keeping alive tiny little procurement programmes, not for the benefit of the user, but for the benefit of the builder and that I think needs to change.

I suppose this goes back to the F-35, in building a standard system and spreading the cost?

I think there is the NATO standard that you could go for, the simplest version of that is the 5.56 rounds. You know, we have 7.62 with the SLR, we moved to 5.56 because that means on the battlefield we can utilise any.

So it could be that we have a NATO standard helicopter. Now if any country wants to add onto that then that can be fine. Then you can have a NATO standard utility helicopter that people buy into. Then the same way as putting apps on your phone, you can strap on Hellfires or Brimstones or winches, or paint that prevents salt erosion.

That, I think, would be a clever way forward. That is something that you see someone, like Donald Trump talk about, who is right when he complains that UK and European NATO countries don’t work together closely enough or don’t spend the money wisely.