It is a truth universally acknowledged, that if you have news to reveal in Parliament that you'd rather not get much attention then do so on the last day of the session (with apologies to Jane Austen, who is according to shock news this week apparently one of Britains greatest living authors…). That was proven again this week when the Government mentioned on 20 July that there was to be a review of national security capabilities (LINK HERE).
This announcement seems to have been left until the last day of the Parliamentary Session to be released, with relatively little in depth information as to what the Review will actually cover. The text implies soothing corporate buzzwords such as ‘joined up effective and efficient as possible’. Fighting the urge to shout BINGO at the host of buzzwords in the statement, it is worth considering what it could imply.
Under current plans the UK undertakes a 5-yearly review of the strategic situation, which was done in 2010 and 2015. On both occasions the results provided both a National Security Strategy (NSS), which laid out the range of the threats and challenges facing the UK, and also a SDSR, which set out the Defence contribution to meeting them, and the forces required to do so. In turn this generates a 10 year look ahead of force structure (the so-called ‘Future Force 2020 / 2025) which maps out what capabilities need to be purchased and what level of forces will be available to contribute to operations.
The next SDSR was not due until 2020, and ordinarily the review would have had an annual report into progress (noting that many of its commitments would be implemented over this period) and tracking delivery against aspiration. The annual reports are worth reading if you want to take stock on how Defence and wider HMG feel that they are doing on delivering the SDSR.
The announcement of a deeper review though implies significant change – this is the third ‘strategic’ review in roughly 6 years of one form or another. The language ‘capabilities’ implies that the review is focused on the implements used to deliver the strategy - but whether this is limited to equipment, or if manpower is deemed as a capability is not clear.
This perhaps is the question here – what does a review of the investment into UK national security capability actually mean? The SDSR did a comprehensive review of UK security commitments, ensured funding was available both for current equipment and the future equipment plan and got it onto a reasonable basis for the future. To launch a review into what should have been a five year commitment to procurement after less than two years implies that something has gone badly wrong.
It is not unreasonable to assume that the collapse in the pounds value against both the Dollar and the Euro as a result of the Brexit referendum has gone a long way to causing a new challenge in finances. Simply put, the pound has lost roughly 20% of its value against the dollar, which means that all equipment to be purchased from the US is now 20% more expensive. Even with low level fluctuations to be expected as the norm for budgeting purposes, this is an enormous drop that is unlikely to be easily affordable.
Given that no budget increase seems to be on the cards for the MOD from any political party, the only way out of this is to review the plans and see what can be done to cut the now enormous extra bulge in the procurement budget. The problem with this is that if you cut equipment, you are not just cutting a long term plan – you are also effectively making a statement about what operations you expect the armed forces to be able to carry out. Everything is purchased for a reason, to be able to provide a capability to contribute to a specific range of missions. Items are not bought because they look good or sound cool – they are aquired to do a job. But this requires them to be bought in specific numbers to allow certain levels of contribution.
For instance, you may want to buy X fighter jets to allow for enough to do multiple peacetime tasks, or provide a force for different types of combat operations. But if you reduce X (say 100) jets down to (say 80) jets, then you are reducing the ability of the military to deploy to deliver against some of these scenarios.
Similarly the military is recruited and manned to provide people in sufficient numbers to deliver these capabilities. If you reduce them, then you theoretically reduce the manning and training liability – a loss of 20 jets may mean one less squadron of aircraft, which in turn reduces the number of pilots, engineers and ground crew needed to support it, along with less infrastructure, fewer bases and reduced fuel and support costs. A small change to the equipment plan can send ripples through the whole defence budget, causing substantial longer term changes right across every part of defence.
Therefore when you say a review is going on of investment in national security capability, then that actually implies that an SDSR in all but name is going on – because the impact on reductions in procurement have to be taken into account in the way that Defence generates and supports forces to meet its required outputs. There are many issues that need to be considered, such as the type of equipment being purchased, the levels of manpower required for it (and whether the forces current relative manpower ceilings are right or if they need to be changed) and the infrastructure and estate required to support it.
It is notable that unlike the last two defence reviews, which were heavily trailed and announced quickly, this seems to have been announced as late as possible in the Parliament – perhaps to attract minimal attention. It is also notable that unlike previous recent convention, where the name of a ship and its laying down or first steel are known at the same time (such as the announcement that Successor would be known as the ‘Dreadnought’ class), the steel cutting for Type 26 occurred earlier in the week, while its naming as the City class did not occur until a few days later – on the last day of the Parliamentary session. It was also interesting to spot that there was practically no press interest at all in the announcement of this defence review, and plenty on the ship name and its impact on Scotland.
Also of interest is the manner in which this review will deliver its outcomes to the public. The two previous defence reviews were announced in Parliament (if memory serves by the Prime Minister). The intention for this third defence review (for that is surely what it is) seems to be different – there is a small statement confirming that the 2nd annual report into the SDSR will cover its implementation and that of associated work. In other words a major defence review, the outcomes of which seem to be intent on reducing significantly the levels of defence procurement, and in turn the nations ability to meet its agreed security strategy will not be announced in Parliament, but as part of a wider report that is of fairly niche interest to most people. The impression here is that significant capability, structural and organisational changes may well be afoot for the whole of Defence, with long term ramifications for the size and shape of the armed forces, but that there seems to be no intent at present to announce its outcome in Parliament, contrary to previous recent defence reviews.
MOD will doubtless proudly trail the announcement of the publication of the 2nd report with the usual brand of superlatives that have come to characterise its press releases - such as ‘the report when published in A4 is equivalent to the length of one Lego London bus’ or ‘the report is of sufficient thickness that when handled by the superbly trained world class Royal Navy crew, it can be used as an effective means of batting away inbound supersonic cricket balls heading towards their ship’. But look beyond the superlatives and be sure to read very closely what the review says in the annual SDSR report when it comes out. It has the potential to be a very interesting read indeed…