A quick comment on more reports in relation to defence and having already written one commentary piece this week following various press reports in regard of what some are calling a crisis in UK defence budget spending and an apparent £1 billion gap between funding and spending expectations, we are now informed by the press that Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter summoned the heads of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to a meeting this week to discuss what the Financial times this morning quotes an official saying , is “the equivalent of a £1 billion” shortfall in the budget for the next financial year.
The same official is quoted as suggesting that “there is a feeling amongst the [Service] Chiefs that [Dominic] Cummings”, the prime ministers chief advisor and who, as I mentioned on Monday, has been reported to be a fierce critic of waste in the Ministry of Defence and who is also thought to have been given charge of the 2020 SDSR review process by the PM, “is coming to get them”. I would not choose such words but there is no doubt that with unsubstantiated reports over the past few weeks of serious disagreements between the CDS and the Chief of the General Staff over funding and the head of steam now being created in relation to a funding gap for the next financial year 2020/21 that defence budget funding issues will be making further headlines through the next few weeks and months.
I am in no position yet to provide any confirmation of what Mr. Cummings’ intentions might or might not be in relation to defence procurement and I have no intention of speculating. However, I do accept that he has been a fierce critic of the way the carrier procurement was undertaken by the MOD although conversely, as I suggested on Monday, if he does choose to look deeper into the cost escalation of carrier he will be forced to note the consistency of changes in policy caused by politicians and military, serious delays caused by these changes and the impact that these had across the design and build of the ships and the substantial cost waste caused when some of those decisions where later reversed. Important too is how defence strategy in relation to the two aircraft carriers and rebuilding of Carrier Strike changed from the time that the concept of replacing Ark Royal and her two sister vessels was born back in 1997 and that led to a vast increase in size of the two ships.
It surely has to be true to say that over the past forty years defence has been littered with poor judgements taken by ministers and sometimes the military itself. Mr. Cummings should also note perhaps that every newcomer to defence procurement starts by assuming that it may be possible to do better than an incumbent who may well have been forced to preside over years of cost overruns and budget shortfalls. As one of my own correspondents suggested to me earlier this week, before he starts (and he has obtained all the necessary security clearances required) Mr. Cummings would do well to spend a month with the Army on exercises in the field, a month on a Royal Navy – perhaps in a frigate, destroyer or submarine at sea, and a month with the Royal Air Force split across some of the main operational and training bases so that he can properly understand how what he might wish to do would play out in the real world of defence outside of MOD Main Building.
I have no idea what if any experience Mr. Cummings might or might not have in relation to defence and you might say that it may be a good thing that he approaches the task that he is reported to be taking on without any baggage. Although the main power lies with Secretary of State for Defence and the Cabinet Office, Defence Procurement Ministers rarely come into the job with relevant experience. Gerald Howarth was an exception to that rule and as the former MP for Aldershot which includes Farnborough, he brought much useful experience of defence matters with him. Some, such as Philip Dunne picked up their briefs very quickly. This week the PM has appointed a former Army Officer, James Heappey, to the Minister of Defence Procurement replacing the very able Anne-Marie Trevelyan who has been rewarded with a more senior position as Armed Forces Minister. My guess is that CDS, General Sir Nick Carter would be very approving of such a move.
So, prepare yourselves for further damaging press reports in relation to the defence budget funding and the possibility of further cuts over the coming weeks but remember that not all will have foundation. While much of what is being reported in the press this past week is undoubtedly correct, we must be careful not to over exaggerate the current position or assume that the outcome will be quite definitely be another round of severe defence cuts in the SDSR 2020 review, a process which is already well underway inside the MOD. Delays in procurement are probably just as likely. Neither do I believe that anything that might be going on right now inside Cabinet Office or Westminster as a whole will, as some have suggested, jeopardise military deployments, operational readiness capability, training or other ongoing activities.
Julian Lewis, Chair of the Defence Select Committee in the last Parliament has consistently argued as I have that funding pressures would continue unless (and until) government committed to high levels of defence spending and that we both believe are necessary. “two percent of GDP is simply not sustainable” he has repeated again today in the FT article adding that “it won’t be possible to make ends meet until we restore defence to a higher-level of national priority”.
CHW (London – 19th December 2019)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785