22 Feb 22. Please don’t hold me to it but I would guess that not many years have passed over the past almost three decades when the National Audit Office has not found reason to lambast or warn the MOD on how it spends its money, how it manages its spending and why it almost always appears to be over budget.
True, sometimes the NAO has been able to highlight progress made at the MOD but of all the words that seem to appear in the annual NAO report conclusions it is probably ‘over optimism about programme costs’ that has been the most regular criticism that the NAO has made.
With the independent NAO report being a very important part of the transparency of how government spends or sometimes wastes taxpayer money, the MOD is obliged to respond in due course. Publication of the NAO report will inevitably lead to both House of Commons Public Accounts Committee and Defence Select Committee opening formal inquiries. For now, as ever on the day of publication, all the MOD was prepared to say was that “it had produced a fully funded and affordable equipment plan outlining £238bn of defence spending over the next ten years”
Of course, running the MOD Defence budget is no easy task particularly when it is a budget on a shoestring. The NAO said in its report yesterday that despite a [presupposed] £16.5bn increase in the defence budget to be spread over four years which was announced in November 2020 four months prior to the IR (Integrated Review of Defence, Security and Foreign Policy) being published, “there was still a real risk the departments ambition outstrips the resources available to it”.
The problem is hardly easy particularly within a Department of Government that is forced to prioritise based on changing issues and threats. Again, don’t hold me to it, but I would venture to guess that the word ‘Ukraine’ was probably only used in little more than in the context of passing relevance. More importantly is realisation that however good we may think we are at forecasting defence requirements , ready for change and planning for the future, as evidenced in the’ Integrated Review’ and ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’ White Papers and they are out of date or at the very least unfit for purpose and ageing very badly.
Again, it is relatively easy for a MOD committee, Permanent Undersecretary, Chief of Defence Staff and Service Chiefs to decide and more than likely agree ways of reducing costs and saving cash. These days, few are prepared to stick their necks out challenging government to better prepare UK defence needs. Few ever resign as a matter of principle in battles with the Treasury or Cabinet Office.
As has so often been the case in the past, despite acknowledging and doing something about shortage of internal skills, the most common way of pretending to bring the budget back to balance is to cancel, delay, cut planned numbers of equipment that you originally intended to acquire, close another couple of RAF bases here and there, cut Army numbers by 10,000 or so, scrap three or four fleets of highly specialist air power assets be these transport, ISTAR or military fast jets in order to help balance the books and allow for the additional planned ambitions in Space or wherever.
What we never get is the radical reorganisation organisation of the MOD infrastructure that is so urgently needed. Goodness, how I would love to take on that job, bring in trained, fully skilled and qualified people – real leaders rather than consultants – ensure proper reporting structures and overseeing and that everything is properly funded from the start. Dream on Wheeldon!
Yes, let’s cut another two Frigates and the Navy no longer needs minesweepers does it? Sadly, to all intents and purposes, that is how decision making within the MOD appears to be done. What is supposed to be the basis of well thought through and debated strategic thinking gets whittled down to an ‘internal auction’ of lots. That by the way was exactly how the final decision on which of either Harrier GR9 or Tornado GR4 that would be scrapped in SDSR 2010 was made.
Permanent Under Secretaries and their staff come and go and they regularly appear before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee and/or Defence Select Committees. Reports are written, recommendations made before most everything gets put back on the shelf.
As on previous occasion when a Defence Budget has been increased on the one hand at the PM’s insistence only to find that the Treasury dumps various pieces removed from other department budgets onto defence, running defence isn’t easy. And there is far too much talk and hype about saving money’ as opposed to strategic thinking combined occasionally with tactical thinking and planning.
Not only is the MOD short of highly qualified people it needs, so is the whole of defence and that is a part of the reason behind failure. The promotion system within all three military service elements was hardly fit for purpose before the emphasis of some of the military chiefs began the difficult gender and equality push, one that had no time for the values of loyalty amongst our servicemen and scant regard for merit.
I recall when Philip Hammond was Secretary of State for Defence his alluding to Britain only ever being likely to deploy to a single conflict area in future. To that I would suggest that looking at the parlous state of the Army in respect of both manpower and equipment capability, looking at the Royal Navy which is doing a quite brilliant job against the odds with a fraction of the surface ship capability that it had twenty years earlier and a Royal Air Force some of whose senior hierarchy appear more interesting about acquiescing to every conceivable suggested cut in capability possibly, although I genuinely hope not, in order to satisfy their own future career prospects.
Yes, the MOD is imperfect but then, defence itself is an imperfect science. Balancing the books in defence is a near impossible task until after the event – meaning pushing back important near term and long-term procurement even further back another example of that coming to my notice this morning with the plan to build UK ballistic missile radar being pushed back to 2029. Despite calls from me and others for honesty and integrity in defence it seems that we are no further forward. Accepting that we can scrap crucial capability and take gaps until and if replacement arrives is a mugs game just as it should also be recognised by those who profligate such actions as being extremely dangerous and very high risk.
The NAO warned that flagship programmes such as the Tempest next-generation combat aircraft, the development of which is crucial to the industrial and international government partners and the UK is leading government is currently underfunded and that this would need to be addressed within the 10-year budget plan. Tempest IS the future of combined manned and or/unmanned combat air power and there can be no turning back. This is real military technology development at its best and nothing must be allowed to jeopardise its future.
It mentions Puma helicopter too highlighting the need for urgent funding to replace this 1974 built capability. And not surprisingly, it mentions the disaster that is the so-called Ajax Military Fighting Vehicle flagging not only that the MOD has set aside £1.9bn to cover costs associated with the failed Army programme but also that it will publish its audit on Ajax next month.
So, there we are – another year and another NAO report on Equipment. It doesn’t make good reading and even though I remain an eternal optimist, I doubt that next year’s report will either!
CHW (London – 22nd February 2022)