“Boris Johnson’s government was last week accused by the House of Commons Defence Select Committee of leaving Britain unprepared for crises such as the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the Ukraine war and of being “arrogant and unwilling to learn the lessons”. In what the Financial Times termed a scathing report on military strategy, the House of Commons defence select committee warned that Britain’s armed forces have a capability gap and that the war in Ukraine had exposed a mistake in cutting the army’s heavy armour. The Committee rightly urged the government to reconsider its integrated defence review to learn the lessons of Afghanistan and Ukraine, but it also acknowledged that both events were “being seemingly dismissed as insignificant”.
In its report on the March 2020 ‘Integrated Review, Defence in a Competitive Age and on the following Defence and Security Industrial Strategy the Committee put its own rather apt title “Act now to prepare our nation’s defences”
Increased number of challenges
The Committee finds that the Ministry of Defence (MOD) faces a number of challenges following decisions made in the Integrated Review:
- The likelihood of a capability gap, as equipment is retired before its replacement is introduced
- A reduction in the British Army’s heavy armour and mass at a time when tank and artillery are widely prevalent in Ukraine
- A reliance on not yet tested, let alone proven, technology, to counteract that reduction in equipment and numbers.
UK Defence must publish a review of timelines and decisions within defence strategy
The report finds that, despite the increasing number of security challenges, the impact of both the Afghan withdrawal and the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine are being seemingly dismissed as insignificant and there appears to be no intention to re-visit the conclusions of the documents. UK Defence appears as arrogant and unwilling to learn lessons.
The Committee also finds that events of the last year, in particular events in Afghanistan and Ukraine, have demonstrated that the Government is unprepared for international crises. Capability gaps “no longer palatable” and procurement “track record abysmal”
The report finds that the capability gaps which the Defence Command Paper saw as acceptable are now no longer palatable.
The report concludes that the timeline of changes outlined in the Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper must be reviewed as capability gaps leave UK Armed Forces vulnerable. Proposed cuts to personnel numbers are particularly concerning and “perverse”.
Additionally, the report finds that the MOD’s “track record in large and complex programmes is abysmal”. The Committee recommends that the Government identify those programmes which are critical enablers and ensure there is additional scrutiny of them, in addition to working with international partners on the technologically advanced equipment that the UK Armed Forces require.
Budget “real terms fall” will “erode the Armed Forces”
The Committee’s welcomes the uplift to the MOD’s budget in 2020 and the four-year budget commitment. However, inflationary pressures and an increase in the scale of threat means that it is no longer enough.
The Committee is concerned that a real-terms fall in sustainment funding (RDEL) up to 2024-25 will erode the Armed Forces’ ability to maintain and train on military equipment.
The report recommends a further, long-term increase to the budget but the MOD must ensure that money is not wasted.
Backfilling and overstretch
The Committee is concerned by the tendency to use the UK Armed Forces, while also proposing cuts to troop numbers, as a ‘backfill’, employed to carry out civilian tasks by Departments which are seemingly unable to respond to crises themselves.
The Committee calls on the MOD to publish annual figures for the assistance provided to other Government Departments and to public authorities, including the number of personnel deployed, the length of deployment, the task they were deployed for, the cost of the task and the renumeration received by the Department.
The Chair of the House of Commons Defence Committee, Tobias Ellwood MP, said:
“In these uncertain times, our capabilities and readiness must be ironclad. With open war raging in Europe, widespread economic instability and the catastrophic Afghanistan withdrawal underscoring the Government’s lack of preparedness for international crises, we must be clear-eyed about the challenges ahead.
“Since the publication of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy was published in March 2021 and the later subsequent Defence Command Paper and Defence and Security Industrial Strategy, our security and the threats we face have altered dramatically. When facts change on the ground, strategy must change with them.
“Worsening security means that once-tolerable capability gaps leave us seriously vulnerable. Timescales are tight and the Ministry of Defence’s track record of procurement is abysmal. Closing these capability gaps should be a priority for the Ministry of Defence, otherwise we place both personnel and the public at risk.
“Technological innovation has been placed at the heart of procurement. Yet technology is no panacea, and the Committee has serious doubts that an increased reliance on untested – and untried – technology can compensate for dwindling troop numbers and outmoded equipment.
“It is clear that now is not the time for personnel cuts or budget shortfalls in our Armed Forces. Promises to increase our defence budget to 3% of GDP are welcome, but inflationary pressures turn promises into hastening of a real terms decline.
“Public trust is easy to lose and hard to earn back. The Government’s disastrous handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan exposed its lack of preparation for, and inability to respond to, international crises. Working with Parliament and increasing transparency will help rebuild the trust lost over the last year and our report calls for annual updates on the implementation of the Defence Command Paper and the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy.
“We cannot afford for our Services to become poorer and weaker. We need to spend more, and spend it wisely. We must act now to prepare and consolidate our nation’s defences – anything less would be a denial of reality we face.”
This is another good report from the House of Commons Defence Select Committee but the reality I fear is that it will be one of many that the government all but ignores.
In its summary the report states that “The MOD tells us that the Integrated Review anticipated the potential for conflict in Ukraine”. What absolute rubbish! The report highlights the reverse stating that the reality is that capabilities are being cut in the short-term but not replaced in the long-term. The HCDC report highlights that “the MOD now believes that mass is no longer of importance” and concludes that the MOD view is flawed because the conflict in Ukraine which may go on for many years yet undermines such a conclusion.
The report notes that the MOD is intent on adapting capabilities based on novel technologies but (as evidenced by the debacle around Ajax) is seemingly unable to procure and deploy the equipment which underpin the concept.
While welcoming the analysis and intent behind the integrated review and its associated Defence Command Papers, it is concerned about how effectively they are being implemented. Furthermore, it states that it is clear that even if decisions are being proceeded with – in spite of lessons from the appalling Afghanistan withdrawal process (and which a separate review from the Foreign Office Select Committee lambasted UK policy and strategy implemented to effect this withdrawal) and those yet to be learned from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine – that the timetable of decisions made in the various government white papers ought now to be subject to review.
Given that the Russian invasion of Ukraine confirms if nothing else that open conflict has returned to Europe the Committee along with most others of sound mind and who place defence as the absolute priority of government it is with great regret that I write of a Conservative administration that has left Britain so weak and ill prepared when our would be enemies – Russia and China amongst other dangerous nation states and who fully realise that we along with other NATO allies have insufficient means and little intention of prioritising defence are rising to the challenges that they have set in the knowledge that unless the West becomes more radical, they will ultimately achieve their considered expansions.
For the UK which little more than a year ago promised so much in respect of raising the defence budget to now back away on promises because it failed to build in the impact of inflation, has failed to order or indeed, has chosen to scrap capabilities such as C130J Hercules medium lift aircraft that we so desperately need to retain, has played little more than lip service to ISTAR capability allowing Sentry E3-D and Sentinel ‘eye in the sky’ to be removed from the capability portfolio and cut the number of E7 Wedgetail aircraft that will eventually replace the former from 5 aircraft to just 3 beggars belief.
Quite rightly the Government has provided Ukraine with the following equipment and support:
- The multiple launch rocket system (M270 weapon system) and associated munitions (M31A1)
- More than 5,000 NLAW anti-tank missiles
- More than 200 Javelin anti-tank missiles
- 120 armoured vehicles
- 1,360 anti-structure munitions
- 5 Air Defence systems, including Starstreak missiles
- 4.5 tonnes of plastic explosives
- Stormer vehicles fitted with launchers for anti-air missiles.
- New anti-ship missile systems
- More than 400,000 rounds of small-arms munitions
- More than 200,000 pieces of non-lethal aid including helmets, body armour, rangefinders and medical equipment
- Electronic warfare equipment
- Counter battery radar systems
- GPS jamming equipment
- Thousands of night vision devices
- Dozens of heavy lift UAV systems to provide logistical support to isolated forces
- Over 20 M109 155mm artillery guns, purchased on the open market and refurbished
Furthermore, the UK has increased its deployments to support NATO defensive security and the MOD has provided Army personnel to the Home Office in order to assist with its visa processing.
These are all fine acts and Secretary of State for Defence Bene Wallace is to be commended for his swift action. But what have we done in relation to ensuring that we have sufficient capability and munitions here at home? Very little as far as I am aware.
To Be Continued….
CHW (London – 2nd August 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785