With many of the Tory manifesto commitments likely to have been dropped leaving the process of extracting ourselves from the European Union together with issues of security and improving ways of combating the terrorist threat likely to dominate the upcoming Queens Speech, one is bound to wonder what this will mean for the wider arena of defence.
While it is true that defence and security are inextricably linked and fall predominantly within the same budget when the Government talks about improving ways to combat terrorism this will tend to be based on improving our intelligence capabilities and also that of policing. The former falls on both Home Office and Defence budgets whilst the latter falls almost completely on the Home Office budget.
Whilst I can envisage no actual cutting back of wider defence capability and little if any change to existing budgeting commitments for defence I suspect that continuation of decline in the underlying priority of defence will continue. Supporting such an argument is that at some point the Government is going to have to admit that a serious defence budget deficit caused by a combination of the falling value of the pound sterling and defence inflation will need to be resolved.
Talking to a variety of those engaged in defence at the brilliant RAF Cosford Airshow yesterday I found the mood to be a mix of resigned indignation and concern about what the recent election result means for defence combined with fears of where this hugely important aspect of government now fits in respect of national priority and political agenda. While there was quite definitely an understanding that efforts to better combat terrorism should of course be a number one priority, I fear that I am unable to provide reassurance in respect of genuine and understandable concerns expressed in respect that defence could well find itself pushed even further down the political agenda.
Had the election result not turned out the way that it has I had anticipated that Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon would likely have been further promoted. However, quite sensibly it appears that the Prime Minister has decided that status quo in regard of key cabinet posts was better than taking unnecessary risk that might expose her to further criticism.
Thus it will be Sir Michael who will continue to be responsible for UK defence per-se. As yet, there have been no confirmations of other ministerial changes further down the ranks although I rather suspect that there will be later today or on Tuesday.
What is certain is that wider focus for the MOD will be bringing the defence budget deficit under control. As I have previously suggested, a mini defence review perhaps written as an additional chapter to SDSR 2015 appears likely provided that collectively after the various cuts in recent years the MOD still has sufficient expertise available to conduct one. None of this is to anticipate that given there has been no change at the top of the Ministry of Defence – i.e. Sir Michael Fallon remains as Secretary of State for Defence – that contract awards delayed due to the calling of a General Election might be further delayed.
In a well-written and informed article by the respected defence journalist Andrew Chuter published in Defense News late last Friday in which the author quotes several not substantially differing opinions including my own, I note that former Minister of Defence Procurement under David Cameron, Sir Peter Luff, is quoted by Chuter as suggesting that the “defence program [as it currently stands] is unaffordable at present” and that “I don’t see them [MOD] getting any more cash than they have already been promised to solve the problems so that there will [clearly] be tough choices to be made, irrespective of whether there is a minority government or not. The priority is to get the budget back into balance again”.
Sadly this accords with my own view despite the clear need for us to adapt to a changing level of threat. Chuter quotes my own remarks in regard of defence now [likely] to be a lower priority than policing and security and a belief that “there will be no additional cash made available for procurement, personnel or the defence sector as a whole adding that UK defence looks to me to be in a bad place. Will it get worse? The answer I fear is yes and defence will need to fight hard for what it needs” adding a view that Theresa May might be intuitive in respect of security requirements, but I fear that she does not get [the wider aspect] of defence”.
Sir Peter Luff is also quoted in the article suggesting that he would be surprised if the MOD published the delayed Government response to Sir Peter Parker’s ‘national shipbuilding strategy’ review paper or indeed, the long awaited defence industrial strategy review, the latter until at least after whatever mini review of defence and security had taken place. I completely agree with the view that he has expressed but would add perhaps that the events may have overtaken the national shipbuilding strategy review in that some of what was recommended by Parker, increased outsourcing by the prime contractor, is already occurring. As to the rest, I remain uncertain as to feasibility just as I do to affordability and risk.
In the same article Professor Michael Clarke, a former long-time head of the Royal United services Institute suggested that “defence planners will have to look again at requirements, commitments and costs to make promises [made] in the SDSR 2015 review stick because they are already drifting off-course”. It has, he suggested’ become “axiomatic that the new government will have to conduct a quiet review very quickly as defence increasingly falls back into all the old habits of drift and evasion that leave the armed forces much hollower than they appear”.
While I can partly agree with the last statement we must in fairness recognise that the SDSR 2015 review could not have envisaged let alone have attempted to take into that the referendum vote would go the opposite way to collective thinking and wisdom at that time. Neither could they have imagined the extent that a Brexit vote would damage the value of pound sterling against the US dollar and for which purpose the recent NAO and Public Accounts Committee reports on equipment plans exposed a total dollar spend requirement of $28.8 billion through the existing ten-year equipment plan. The result is that the MOD finds itself uncovered for much of the dollar spend requirement.
So, the bottom line is that as Alex Ashbourne-Walmsley was quoted in the same article as saying, “the MOD shouldn’t expect any new money from the government to fix problems caused, in part, by the failure to [adequately] fund additional equipment [capability] of the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015”.
Clearly defence is in a very unsatisfactory position not least because of the increased degree of uncertainty that has arisen since the election. There are no short cuts and sadly, no matter what the reasoning, neither MOD, Treasury or Cabinet Office are about to listen.
For all that, I do not envisage that unlike the result of SDSR 2010 there will be pressure to cut overall spending on defence. But having clearly failed to identify the £11.5 billion of cuts required out of SDSR 2015 in order to help fund the planned equipment procurement programme and that would have to be achieved without cuts to uniformed members of the UK military there can be little doubt that every weapon the MOD can find to obfuscate and delay procurement programmes no matter that defence inflation will automatically lead to the cost of equipment delayed rising, will be used. So too will planned equipment numbers although I am now reassured that in respect of recent order confirmations of Maritime Patrol Aircraft and Apache helicopters being short on planned numbers announced in SDSR 2015 is due only to agreed timing in respect of which particular ‘LOT’ these aircraft will have been allocated for export by the US.
As for the wider issue of internal security following three separate terrorist related actions to have occurred in London and Manchester, the government can be expected to increase spending on police and intelligence services and to take any relevant action that it considers necessary. Clearly, along with the increased evidence of need to spend more on cyber related security, we can expect to see strengthening not only of policing but of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 over and above what the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 envisaged.
We elect governments to first and foremost to protect us. Those of us who dedicate our professional lives to fighting for defence and for ensuring that the UK retains and if necessary, grows defence and security capability, will clearly have their work cut out fighting to ensure that no short cuts are taken by government in the process of national security and defence of the realm.
Importantly, while we must accept that the immediate priority must be based on increasing security against potential terrorist action and defeating it whether here at home or internationally, we must ensure that this is done in addition to ensuring the defence capability that we need in respect of equipment and manpower capability and that we have sufficient capacity in the system in order to play the full role that we need to do within NATO and in protecting our islands and those of our dependent territories is properly maintained.
Russia may have appeared quiet in recent weeks but it remains a large scale threat to the peace and stability of all NATO members. I will write separately on the ridiculous notion of some of those within the European Commission who would wish to divorce themselves from NATO and move to policies of collective European defence. Here and now the priority is to ensure that we get it right and while accepting that affordability must have a continuing and long term place, that we ensure that despite what some in government might think, defence is better prioritised rather than being allowed to be pushed down the heap.
(Request: given MOD systems changes and updates that are currently underway, may I request that those with MOD email addresses let me know when a change to their email address occurs so that I can add (.gov) into your email address – thank you).
CHW (London – 12th June 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785