hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 2 February 2018

Is the Defence of Britain now a Luxury?

“At present, the affordability gap ranges from a minimum of £4.9bn to £20.8bn if financial risks materialize and ambitious savings are not achieved”.

Mr Amas Morse, Head of the British National Audit Office

Alphen, Netherlands. 2 February.  What would be the ‘affordability gap’ if deterrence fails? Talk about recognising only as much threat as Britain can afford. A new report by London’s National Audit Office entitled The Equipment Plan 2016-2026 raises two fundamental questions: is the defence of Britain now a luxury, and can any British government forecasts any longer be relied upon?  Indeed, if one needs any further evidence that British government Brexit figures are more dodgy politics than sound forecasting one only has to see how Britain’s failing defence budget was creatively ‘made’ to meet the NATO 2% GDP defence investment guidelines.

The facts of the report make for sobering reading. The defence budget faces a possible £21bn ‘black hole’ over ten years. The Ministry of Defence did not include the cost of a planned fleet of 5 Type 31e frigates in its Equipment Plan (also published this week) and has no money to keep the fast-ageing Type 23 frigates at sea. The cost of the four Dreadnought-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) currently under construction has already risen some £576m above projections. There is also a £3.2bn gap in the funding of the support for future equipment and planned £8.1bn ‘efficiency savings’ have yet to be realized (strange how the number of defence civil servants remains stubbornly high).

There has also been a failure to include £9.6bn of forecast costs in addition to the missing money for the Type 31e frigates. It also now seems very likely that the planned seventh Astute-class nuclear attack submarine (SSN) HMS Ajax (HMS Axed?) will not now be built.  This at a time when the Russians have commissioned 15 very capable Akula-class SSN, 2 super-capable Yasen-class SSN and 5 new Borei-class SSBN. Worse, having poured billions of pounds into the development of the F-35B Lightning II strike aircraft, and constructed two enormous 70,000 ton aircraft carriers around them, not only does the Ministry of Defence have no idea of the cost of supporting the aircraft in service, last week the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Testing described the plane as not ‘operationally suitable’.

In 2015 the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) set out a baseline plan for the minimal defence of Britain and the meeting of its defence commitments to NATO and others.  In so doing it added some £24bn of additional commitments to be realised over the 2015-2026 period. Since then there has been nothing but back-sliding and obfuscation from what were already bare-minimum commitments to a sound and credible defence. 

In 2017 National Security Advisor Sir Mark Sedwill was commissioned to undertake a National Security Capability Review (NCSR). On the face of it, the NCSR methodologically sound.  He was charged with considering Britain’s security and defence challenges in the round and how best to apportion the roughly 7% of GDP London spends on both.  Warfare is changing and now bestrides the civilian and military spectrum from hybrid war to hyper war via cyber war (see my Future War NATO: From Hybrid War to Hyper War via Cyber War paper that I co-write in 2017 with General John R. Allen, General Philip Breedlove and Admiral George Zambellas ).  

However, the Sedwill Review is only masquerading as strategy. As the former National Security Advisor Lord Peter Ricketts warned last week it is a mistake to separate defence out from the review because for such a review to work it must adopt an holistic approach across security of which defence is a part, albeit an important part. Rather, by delaying the defence component of the review my suspicions have been confirmed: the NSCR is little more than yet another political ruse to enable this hapless, reality-appeasing London government to renege on yet another soundly-considered, and yet minimum defence spending commitment. Little Britain writ large.

To be fair, part of the problem has been caused by the fall in the value of the pound against both the dollar and the euro since the June 2016 Brexit referendum.  However, at root the problem is one of political culture and goes far beyond the sliding value of the pound.  It is what happen when an accountant is put in charge of defence strategy.  The world is not a spreadsheet, as Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond and his merry band of creative economists at the Treasury would like it. Nor is it a fairground attraction that one can hop on and off when financial convenience serves. It is a real place which is increasingly red in teeth and claw and which Britain’s wilful decline from defence seriousness makes far more so than need be.

Now, I have something of a reputation of a Cassandra because I will not buy into the blind ‘can-do’, ‘it will be alright on the night’, ‘we will muddle through’ approach traditional in senior echelons of the British armed forces.  As Dr Julian Lewis, the influential chairman of the House of Commons Defence Committee rightly points out, if Britain is to meet its minimum defence commitments the country must spend at least 2.5% GDP on defence.  That is not me being Cassandra, rather it is plain, bloody, Yorkshire common sense.  Strangely, the British Government agrees with me.  London regularly warns of growing threats…and then promptly cuts the resources available to deal adequately with them. 

Sadly, it is hard to see anything that this failing rudderless government gets right these days.  This leaves me the British citizen facing a dreadful choice between incompetents for whom ‘strategy’ extends no further than getting to next Friday, and a Marxist who believes Britain and its armed forces are responsible for most of the world’s ills.

Britain’s defence is not a luxury to be cut at a political whim to meet the damning dictates of serial short-termism. London had better understand that defence strategic truism before it is too late!  Again, what would be the ‘affordability gap’ if deterrence fails?

Julian Lindley-French

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