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  • Writer's pictureJames Maclaren

Government Uplifts the Defence Budget. But Does it Realise What the World Looks Like?

It’s likely the UK Defence Secretary is fuming. Last month the UK was chided in the media for the state of its armed forces by serving officers of its closest ally, the United States; claims that the troubled, long-delayed and extortionately expensive Ajax AFV project had ‘turned a corner’, appear to amount to little more than new seat cushions and ear defenders, while a recent report has shown that despite spending less on defence than it’s UK neighbour, France creates more capability. In fairness to Ben Wallace, he has stuck to his brief and without doubt his heart and intent is in the right place. So, it will be interesting how he defends the government’s announcement that Defence will receive an extra £5B over the next two years when it is widely acknowledged he asked for twice that amount.

The military is in a parlous state, particularly the army which made the mistake of believing Afghanistan would continue for decades and hasn’t been able to decide whether it’s there for medium weight expeditionary operations or to be a framework force structure in a heavy metal engagement in Europe. The Navy and the Air Force are better, but while they have exquisite capability both operate in too small numbers and are missing key enabling capabilities not least of which are the state of their munition’s stockpiles and logistic support.

So, the £5 Billion should go some way to putting some of this right, shouldn’t it? Well, it seems not. £1.9 Billion will head in the direction of replenishing munitions stocks which have been nearly exhausted through gifting to Ukraine. The decision to support Ukraine in its struggle against its massive neighbour’s illegal aggression is laudable, but ultimately it’s a political one. To lump this funding into the defence budget and call it an ‘increase’ is at best a slight of hand, but more honestly it is disingenuous. The remainder will go towards a significant improvement and capability increase in the nuclear maintenance and shipyard facilities for nuclear submarines. That should be welcome right? But then we learn that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is in California agreeing a three way deal on the next step of the AUKUS pact. The Australians, having spurned the UK idea of building Astute submarines as part of its future SSN fleet will be purchasing their hulls and reactors from the U.S. The UK desperate to be part of the deal would like a slice of the servicing and maintenance that the Australian subs will need. The problem is that the UK’s submarine maintenance capacity is barely adequate to the needs of the RN’s operationally stretched nuclear fleet. So, is the uplift in nuclear maintenance facilities really a benefit to the RN or simply another example of the PM using Defence as an instrument of geo-diplomacy and economic benefit masquerading as increased expenditure for the defence of the Realm.

To the cynic it seems so.

Shortly the Government will produce its revised Integrated Review (IR). The last one contained many words on the worlds geopolitical concerns. Most of it was over-intellectualised conflict theory or a glimpse of the blindingly obvious. Staggeringly, despite Russian actions in annexing Crimea in 2014, the IR continued with the notion of asymmetric persistence, inter-agency cyber responses and decided to largely ignore the potential for kinetic conventional operations at scale in Europe. As a result, they have had to revisit all of their assumptions again. It is to be hoped they are this time including the possible assumptions not just the ones they have decided they are comfortable with.

An Integrated Review should not be responding to threats, it should be setting the conditions for success by creating and position capability to meet threats wherever they come from.

So, the Government, as with so much of its policies, has attempted the smoke and mirrors approach. It will claim it has responded to Russian aggression and the rise of China with increased defence expenditure while using the increase to square other non-direct strategic ambitions.

However, lets be clear this situation is not only of the Government’s making and the services must take their share of responsibility for decades of waste and botched procurement. The Equipment Plan is a mess and contains a staggering list of case studies of how not to bring equipment into service. Over-ambitious specifications, poor approach to risk management, inadequate financial; contingency and unprofessional management have all contributed to a situation where ship and aircraft numbers are cut to allow programme affordability and in-service equipment performs poorly resulting in, increased maintenance, modification and adapted doctrine and procedures to operate. As an example, can anyone in the MOD explain why the RAF E7 Wedgetail, a vital airborne capability of which the RAF can afford only three having made the original assessment that a fleet of five was necessary, and all rebuilt using second hand Airbus airframes costs over twice as much as the USAF version (£620m v $227m) and a third more than the RAAF version ($380m). Even allowing for economies of scale that must stick in the throat of finance chiefs somewhere. I could go on, but everyone gets the idea.

The Government must start to exist in the real world not the one they want. Our NATO partners are more pragmatic with many increasing their defence expenditure significantly to meet the strategic and operational environment, Poland has committed to reaching 3% of GDP. As a nation that aspires to global reach and power projection to accompany it wider strategic interests, that is the level of expenditure that the emerging global security situation demands.

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