James Wild MP for North West Norfolk was Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Defence 2014-17
“Smallest Army since Napoleonic war. Save the Marines. Protect our surface fleet. Focus on cyber, not boots on the ground.”
Recent press reports underline that a security, defence and foreign policy review is underway, and special interests are making their case.
In 2015, I advised the Defence Secretary on the Strategic Defence and Security Review. This took place against the backdrop an increasingly aggressive Russia and the appalling shooting down of MH17; Daesh having been close to the gates of Baghdad before the UK as part of the Global Coalition acted against them, and increasing state-backed cyber attacks.
After the 2010 review where painful cuts were required, the 2015 review was an opportunity to reinvest. However, there was something of a bidding war between No 10 and No 11 – with regular incoming missives.
No 10’s priority was doubling our drone fleet and Special Forces equipment and the carriers. The Treasury wanted more F35 jets earlier than planned and the deployment of the Queen Elizabeth accelerated. For the MOD, our priorities were restoring the Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability to respond to increased Russian submarine activity; a step change in offensive cyber capability, and investing in innovation and space.
The ambition was right and everyone pretty much got what they wanted. But to fund these enhancements, the MOD was required to agree to ever greater efficiency targets. These were stretching – and in some cases little more than a wedge against a budget line – but performance to deliver them has been disappointing. That has only added to pressure on the budget today.
The current review presents an opportunity to address the challenges in defence and to provide a coherent Global Britain strategy.
It will consider our multilateral partnerships including the proposed new D-10 group of 10 leading democracies (the G-7, plus India, South Korea, and Australia) and how to reinvigorate NATO. Such alliances will be increasingly important in the face of China’s breaking of international norms and hostile actions.
The work will define how to use the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to promote British interests and values. It can better align military training to take place where it supports our strategic objectives, has a deterrent effect, and is more cost effective.
Given my previous role, it is no surprise that I believe this is not a time to consider cutting the defence budget. The global pandemic we are experiencing could well lead to further instability and increased security and defence risks.
However, we need to be better at making choices. The usual bleeding stumps leaks have begun. These are in my experience partial, misleading, self-serving and will only stop if those responsible are held accountable.
Having said that, it is well documented that the defence budget is stretched. The National Audit Office has repeatedly warned that the MOD equipment and support budget – £180 billion over the next 10 years – is unaffordable. The Mr Micawber approach of hoping that something will turn up, reliance on efficiencies, or the infamous budget “fade” undermines the credibility of the budget.
In the past, decisions have been ducked by delays or deferrals that simply add pressure. Much as we may want to, the UK cannot do everything – the Permanent Secretary has rightly talked about the need to scrap some sacred cows.
It is encouraging that this review will involve a new, younger generation of chiefs. They bring fresh thinking on where the UK can add value, on the size and shape of our forces, and a greater focus on automation, robotics and Artificial Intelligence.
There needs to be a review of the delegated model and the levers to hold front-line commands properly to account for their budgets. In the private sector, constantly over-spending your allocated budget would not be dealt with by a bailout from the finance department but by being shown the door.
The review needs to usher in a new approach to procurement. The MOD has been trying to get procurement right since Samuel Pepys’ time as clerk to the Navy Board.
In March, the National Audit Office found that only five of 32 major projects were probable or highly likely to be delivered on schedule. After joining the MOD, I was constantly told about endless contracts where the taxpayer carried the risk for overruns.
The reforms put in place during that time helped improve results with a move to sharing cost savings or overruns. But we need an agile model where MOD is close to companies that are innovating and designing systems that it can procure at the right time. The old approach of ordering a capability that takes 13 years from business case to full operating capability – such as the Watchkeeper surveillance system – should become a thing of the past.
One element of the budget this review must address head on is the nuclear enterprise. The Public Accounts Committee, which I am a member of, concluded the current funding regime does not work due to uniquely long project timescales and given the impact on the overall defence budget.
Annual budgeting rounds with the Treasury drive additional cost in a long-term programme and the need for in year savings even saw a contractor receiving increased fees when deferred work led to increase costs. There is a strong case for ring-fencing the budget.
An objective of this review must be to create a joint force with a multi-domain model that brings services and agencies together. This will enable what was called “full spectrum effects” and deployed highly effectively in defeating Daesh, and was subsequently rebranded as an apparently new “fusion” doctrine.
It should tackle duplication including: support services such as HR, legal, and admin; the multiple types of helicopters, overlapping ISR capabilities, and other equipment driven by a siloed service approach.
These defence reforms are required to better support the people who serve to keep us safe – everyone in our Armed Forces.
Inevitably speculation is focusing on the size of the regular army. This is the wrong approach – the question for the review is what should the shape and balance be for the challenges we are likely to face?
How can we work better with partners making the most of our respective capabilities? How can we increase the diversity of our Armed Forces with more female and ethnic minority recruits?
Ultimately you can cut your coat to your cloth, or have more cloth. The danger is to avoid making choices and go for an emperor’s new clothes approach.