While there is bound to be an increasing amount of discussion and debate in relation to future UK defence spending in a post COVID-19 environment and particular at a time that we all know that the government will be forced to batten down public spending hatches, it is in my view best to treat any seemingly knowledgeable article, however well-articulated, in relation to future defence spending and the possibility of impending cuts to the defence budget with great caution.
That is not to deny the probability of defence cuts being on the agenda of government – far from it! But whilst it is probably also true to say that press and media can and often do set the agenda of government thinking my recommendation is that before you even start to read any article that portends to already know what the government might be planning in relation to possible cuts you should first ensure that what you may be reading is at the very least credible.
After that ask yourself whether it might be evidence based or not and most likely you will find that the answer to that is that although the specific issues being written on may have emanated from a leaked source within the Treasury, MOD, No 10 itself or, as is quite often the case these days, from the Westminster lobby, remember that it could also have come from someone with an axe to grind acting on his or her own behalf and who may be trying to shape specific political opinion.
Sometimes supposed leaks occur in relation to ongoing interservice rivalries and those that are perhaps attempting to score points over another of the three services in order to get the debate onto the public domain and maybe set the agenda. Often what purports to be a something based on a leak is nothing more than dangerous gossip or wishful thinking designed to ring alarm bells and create fear.
I note particular reference to the words such as the Royal Navy is ‘considering decommissioning’ to which my answer is that the while the Royal Navy along with the other two primary services can advise and display concern to the Chief of Defence Staff who in turn will either challenge that advice or fight the cause with senior ministers who in turn will attempt to take on the Treasury, while the Royal Navy for instance has no choice but to agree ministerial defence spending strategy decisions it does not make them.
While it is true that the three defence chiefs have, since SDSR 2010, had control and responsibility for their individual budgets and they can still fight as hard as they like to defend what they deem to be absolute need, the ultimate decision in relation to what specific defence programmes might be cut, expanded or pushed back and of future defence strategy will be is not there’s to make. Indeed, although I may be shouted down in flames for saying this, truth is that today they have very little power although it is equally true to say that they can still rattle the tree.
That defence will at some point towards the end of this year be in for another radical shake up and that just maybe, past promises made in relation to defence spending being ring-fenced are more than likely to be broken, is all but taken for granted.
However, I defy anyone outside of the Treasury, Ministry of Defence and the top echelons of the military who are based inside the MOD to have specific knowledge of where or on what defence operation, people or procurement programmes the axe may or may not fall.
Not untypically, the Sunday Times led the way in this regard providing dangerous speculation over the weekend suggesting that the Royal Navy is now considering the decommissioning of HMS Vanguard, the first of class Royal Navy Trident submarine which is now in Devonport Dockyard undergoing what had originally been designed to be a four-year refit and unscheduled refuelling of the oldest of four Trident submarines in service.
While the HMS Vanguard refuelling programme has not been without some very complicated issues that have led to significant delay – this caused primarily due to the age of the vessel and problems that had not been envisaged – I would contend that without HMS Vanguard being eventually returned to Royal Navy service that, after 52 years of operation, the UK commitment to CASD (Continuous At Sea Deterrent) would need to be broken. That is something that I personally believe will not be allowed to happen.
If I recall, this was the same newspaper that little over a year ago suggested that Treasury finance chefs were considering scrapping the Royal Navy’s second aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, comments that then Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williams branded as ridiculous.
Of course, leaks and testing of the water in order to see reaction are normal Treasury and MoD processes but the supposedly leaked notion that the Cabinet Secretary might have arbitrarily decided to cut the size of the army without prior discussion and agreement of the Secretary of State for Defence is surely nonsense in the extreme.
That is not to suggest that the army may well pay a very heavy burden when the Defence and Foreign Policy Review eventually arrives but it is to suggest that with so many checks and balances in the system and that are designed specifically to ensure that however we proceed in matters defence there are no blatant holes capability and capacity, I agree that the suggestion of a Cabinet Secretary acting arbitrarily is nonsense.
CHW (London 1st June 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785