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Two UK Related Defence Pieces Written By Senior and Respected Tri-Services/Civilian Group By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.






For your interest, with their permission and with no additional comment from me, I am republishing two recent views written by a highly respected group of individuals that consist of Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, Antony Hichens and Major General Jonathan Shaw. These have already been published by RUSI on-line:


Dominic Cummings is planning a full review of defence procurement. This is welcome if, unlike recent reviews, it is thorough and does not shirk politically embarrassing issues. Over 90% of defence programmes are brought in on time and budget, many by excellent agile SMEs, so he will need to focus on large high-risk programmes.

Almost all major public sector procurement is bedevilled by cost escalation: Hinkley Point (from £16 to over £20Bn), Crossrail (up 1½ times to £18Bn), HS2 (from £34 to £88Bn).  Cost overruns, serious delay, poor delivery and lack of political consistency is not confined to MOD. A thorough review could yield benefits right across government.

The principal procurement failings include over specification, over optimistic initial cost forecasting (which our bidding process encourages), poor contracting, political and ideological interference, inappropriate use of Public Private Partnerships, delay and change in specification, inadequate examination of through-life costs, lack of adequate programme control, and political reprogramming caused by budget cuts.  All these lead to avoidable cost increases. 

In a recent letter to the Times David Gould, a much respected senior civil servant, contrasted his experience in defence procurement in UK with his new employer in Australia: “Striving to execute UK strategic programmes without knowing how much money would be available in any year (sometimes monthly) [compared] with Australia where I was given clear and simple objectives by a Government willing consistently to fund them.”

The starting point for defence acquisition must be a clear view of national strategy – what the government wishes to be able to do, at what scale and against what kind of threat.  This determines force structure and equipment to be purchased. A successful acquisition review is inextricably tied to a comprehensive review of Strategic Defence and Security.

Defence acquisition has some particular features.  Potential enemies may introduce new technology and capabilities.  Friendly or hostile policy may change. We have to respond to this which can render existing or planned procurement irrelevant. Equipment which cannot survive unexpected attack, or inflict serious harm on an enemy, may be of no value at all. Capability reductions, financially driven, often possible in civil programmes, can bring unacceptable operational risk.  And in today’s cyber jungle, procuring adaptability is a must. 

Moreover, trained personnel, sufficient support and adequate stocks are required which take into account rapid expenditure or loss in action. Failure to invest properly can render procurement token rather than effective. Typically, a sophisticated platform costs 3-4 times its initial acquisition cost across its life.

In general, fast procurement is cheapest and most efficient. Ordering the full run at start of a programme provides the lowest unit cost; stop/start bedevils efficient roll out, and reprofiling or reducing planned numbers in response to short term budget crises inevitably leads to increased cost and creates expensive contract issues. Defence sector companies are far more commercially savvy and fleet of foot than government.

Mr. Cummings must also consider our native defence industrial capacity. It is one thing to buy cheaper abroad, but reliable supply in war or crisis, loss of intellectual property and retention of a skilled labour force are also vital longer-term factors. Recent takeover of UK companies has raised important issues which a clear defence industrial strategy might solve.

Nevertheless, there remains plenty of room for improvement. Despite earnest studies by eminent figures the problems remain unsolved. Mr. Cummings rightly stresses accountability, and logic suggests that every significant programme should have a minister’s and an official’s name on it; the practice of government seeking scapegoats outside government for government errors must cease. But underpinning all this is the Gould doctrine, the ‘giving of clear and simple objectives by a Government willing consistently to fund them.’ The SDSR and procurement reviews must be joined at the hip. Then a real benchmark for future policy will have been established. 


It is ironic that government’s stated top priority – defence and security of the land – should receive more attention after the election than during it. Lord Robertson’s recent article in the Scottish Review shows how urgent this is. Entitled “Seven Steps to a Better World”, it neatly spears the complacency that has led us to assume a peace dividend when we are in fact in a warlike conflict. Hence Dominic Cummings’ announced intent to conduct the most profound review of defence and foreign policy since 1945 is to be welcomed.

Moreover, the electoral expectation of ten years in power means that the mistakes made in any review will come back to haunt the Johnson government. Given Mr. Cummings’ desire for accountability in government, it is therefore very much in his, as well as the government’s, interests to get this right. What follows are five suggestions as to how this review should be conducted, important precisely because they have not been followed in recent reviews.

A serious review of how to counter the threats to UK needs a clearly identified person in charge. At present the National Security Adviser Mark Sedwell is double hatted as both NSA and Chief Secretary to the Cabinet. Mr. Cummings intends to re-shape Whitehall so this is likely to prove unworkable as well as inappropriate for a serious review; it involves a conflict of interest. The NSA needs to be staffed and empowered to create governmental plans and enforce them across government.

Since the end of the Cold War, the threats this country has faced have increasingly been security and defence ones. The 2010 Security and Defence Review was the first to recognise this; the 2020 review should have a similar scope, not least as this administration aspires to a ‘Global Britain’ agenda which must have a governmental rather than departmental focus.

This is better done correctly than rapidly. The word is that ‘much work has already been done’ on the next review but this will be the normal cost re-profiling of inherited or planned projects. In this post-austerity Britain, inherited resource constraints need to be challenged. More profoundly, a new government with a new mandate and ambitious global policy objectives needs to take time to make achieving these post-Brexit objectives a reality and allocate the resources required to close the gap between external realities and government policy ambitions.

Only if these three (ambitions, realities and resources) are coherent will Mr. Cummings produce a strategic plan; otherwise it will be an illusion for which he will be held accountable.

Crucially, the review needs to recognise that the language of ‘threats’ is a delusion; it implies contingency. Yet the reality is that we are in conflict now and have been for some years. Both Chinese and Russian published doctrines indicate how they intend to undermine the West. The rising evidence of hybrid warfare (Skripal attacks, electoral interference, cyber-crime, ‘little green men’ now re-appearing in Libya as deniable Russian agents etc) indicate we are in a contested campaign now whether we like it or not and need to respond accordingly.

Both China and Russia have a command and control set up to match their ongoing campaign; UK does not. We have a highly effective crisis management organisation which is mobilised in COBR in reaction to a crisis, but no national ops room proactively to run a campaign such as we now face. A ‘COBR in permanent session’ would be a quick win for a new government looking to show early effect.

The other key role of this body would be to direct the delivery of the Review’s plan. Writing a plan is relatively easy; delivering it, when the variables keep changing, is the hardest part. Fluid campaign management across government over time would be a worthy challenge for a new government wishing to make its mark on history.

Mr. Cummings’ wider ambitions for FCO, DfID and international trade fit well into this model of more centralised governmental campaign planning and execution. The howls of anguish are already being heard across Whitehall. These howls should encourage Cummings to press on with renewed energy. A properly funded, coherent comprehensive defence and security plan would replace the Robertson review of 1998 as the benchmark for future reviews.

CHW (London – 24th February 2020)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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