Today’s publication of the Defence Select Committee’s report into the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) marks the end of several months of evidence taking and much considered debate amongst the committee. We found that without significant investment in the spending period after 2014 the UK’s Armed Forces will not be able to do what is asked of them in the second half of this decade and meet the aspirations of the Future Force 2020 as set out in the SDSR.
Throughout the evidence sessions few of the witnesses, many drawn from the senior echelons of the armed forces, would directly admit that the current status of the Forces equates to “below critical mass” but the single service chiefs were prepared to contradict the Prime Minister’s view that the UK still has a full spectrum defence capability. I think it is highly doubtful whether co-operation with our allies alone will fill the gaps given the challenges of aligning political and operational needs. Personally, I feel very uncertain whether, in a post-Sarkozy age, French popular opinion would allow us to use their aircraft carrier to get to the Falklands in a hurry – even if both countries had signed up to a carefully worded agreement several years before.
It remains unclear as to how the SDSR’s seven military tasks and the Defence Planning Assumptions that underpin them can be aligned with decisions such as those on the Aircraft Carriers and Nimrod MRA . Quite clearly the need for savings over-rode the capability requirements of the Armed Forces. The justification, with some reason, was that our primary strategic security threat is the need to deliver the financial security of our country –without fixing the deficit we wouldn’t have a country worth saving. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the tough decisions made in the SDSR, if we are not to be cut short we need to see greater clarity on how the gap will be filled in the next spending period and how the capabilities recently lost will be regenerated.
What was clear to me was that the vision for “Future Force 2020”, the Government’s intended shape of the Armed Forces from 2020, remains a vision – not one accompanied by a resource-tagged description of a clear pathway to that goal. On the one hand there is an expectation that spare capacity may be found through the establishment of alliances and bilateral operations yet at the same time it is expected that a Future Force 2020 will be a wide-spectrum force able to maintain routines tasks with a critical mass and spare capacity. These two dimensions do not sit well together given the lack of certainty over the budget beyond 2014. Unless the ambition of a real term funding increase is fully realised, we will have failed our Armed Forces and we won’t have what is required to deliver what we say we will need.
However, it is also absolutely clear that these extra resources need to be combined with significant enhancements to the way the MoD functions. The department have got to secure 10 year budgeting across all of its budgets. This will stop the tendency to push decisions into the future and allow an accurate calculation of the actual future costs of completing existing projects. I believe this is the most important task facing the department. The MoD must also substantially improve the level of transparency and control it commands over its finance and budgetary practices.
Finally, when committing to undertake new operations the Government should state from the outset where that operation fits in the Defence Planning Assumptions and which of the military tasks it is meeting. This should not just be about the numbers of Armed Forces personnel required, but needs to include the capabilities that will be deployed and the consequences that this may have for other operations or wider defence-related matters, such as the defence budget and defence industry priorities. It seems unreasonable to enter into new enterprises without calculating the cost and true wider impact. We can’t run the MoD on the cheap if we want to maintain the influence of the UK in the world. Liam Fox is grasping the problem with alacrity but demonstrating in a convincing way that the reductions we have recently seen have been offset by identifiable improvements elsewhere will take time. Increased reliance on diplomacy and ‘soft power’ may form a viable supplementary component to our defence posture but it needs to be spelt out and costed properly if the long term aspirations of the SDSR are to be fully realised.