Another day, another of what looks to have been a deliberate leak to ‘The Times’ by sources either in the MOD or at No 10, ‘confirming’ that Boris Johnson had apparently won his battle with the Treasury to secure a four-year funding settlement for defence.
Quoting defence insiders in her article in today’s Times, Lucy Fisher writes that this could mean an extra £14.5 billion for defence over the next four years and that, according to RUSI’s Malcolm Chalmers, would translate to a real-terms increase in defence expenditure of between 5% and 10%. That sounds about right to me although I am of course assuming that the annual inflation led increase put in place by David Cameron back in 2015 and planned to run for at least five years until 2021 disappears.
Adding in the automatic annual inflation-based rise, the UK defence budget for 2020/21 is assumed to be £41.5bn. Naturally, assuming what the article suggest is correct (there has been no denial by No 10, Treasury or MOD) I am pleased that we have what ion the face of it would appear to be a long term settlement for defence.
Having likely by now ‘agreed’ single year departmental spending budgets covering 2021/2 for all the other government departments next week will see the Government publish the Comprehensive Spending Review covering departmental budgets for the next year. With billions of pounds earmarked to cover health and the wider economic impacts of C-19, the Treasury is being as tight fisted as it possibly can.
The quid pro quo that has potentially enabled the Government to agree a three or maybe even four-year deal for defence is that Britain will likely at the very least take a one-year holiday from foreign aid payments. The writing for this has been on the wall for the past two years and the merging of DfID with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office earlier this year to form what is now known as the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office has, I am reliably told, led to serious demoralisation amongst former DfID staff (around 3,400 at the time of the merger) and fears over jobs.
Whilst it is true that in his quiet announcement of plans to merge the two government departments that Boris Johnson promised to maintain the UK commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid (DfID’s annual budget had until then been close to £15 billion) we may easily be led to believe that this is what is now to be used to fund increased defence.
Whilst I do not oppose a temporary cut in foreign aid payments, I am somewhat uneasy at the prospect of Britain, the sixth or seventh largest economy in the world, possibly walking away from overseas aid commitment on a longer than one-year basis. Whilst I realise that there is also an argument that says charity begins at home and also that rather too much of what we thought we might have been funding has gone into the wrong hands, we do as a relatively prosperous nation have a duty to use some of our inherent wealth to assist less well-off nations in a responsible manner.
Back to defence and none of what may have occurred in respect of agreeing a three or maybe even four-year budget for defence on the Downing Street side of Whitehall will change what defence headquarters can do on the other side of the street. Neither does the removal of one particular advisor change anything in my view either.
What was going to be cut, will still be cut, what might in respect of Foreign Policy ambitions have been deemed by many as absolutely what we need will have been removed on the basis of affordability and cost, all of which translates to however it might appear to have been dressed up what we get in the ‘Integrated Review’ when this is finally published (allowing for the Army to rethink some of its more ambitious proposals, my view on publication would now be during the second week of December) will be a very much watered down version of what we might have hoped.
None of this means that spending from the defence budget on AI, Cyber and the increased role in developing space based assets protection and ensuring we hope that our would-be adversaries will find it increasingly more difficult to destroy crucial satellite communication, battlefield operation, navigation and positioning assets that we depend on and as, General Sir Patrick Sanders rather amusingly reminded at the Air and Space Power Association Conference yesterday, because we have lost skills like manual map reading and navigating by stars, will not see large scale increases.
But with the defence budget over recent years once again being out of quilter with amounts actually spent by the MOD, although agreement over the increase in budgeted defence spending over the next few years is very welcome, I doubt that it will make any difference to planned cuts in respect of what may be regarded by some as mature air power assets and surface ship capability.
I cannot know of course what will or will not be contained in the final version of the Integrated Review and I hope that my more negative stance on this may be proved wrong. But sadly, from what I hear within my own round of contacts, it appears that I am not going to be that surprised – albeit that I rather doubt that the IR when it comes will be completely devoid of one or two elements of surprise!
CHW (London – 18th November 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785